The Future of Education

Review of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey

In a world where the transport, media and financial services industries are being transformed by digital innovation, one sector appears to have (so far) been resilient in the face of change: third level education. It is now a $4.6 trillion-strong business in which students have increasingly become consumers. Indeed, the college ‘experience’ has become a rite of passage rather than a period of cognitive and professional advancement. Spending on college resources (like state of the art buildings, gyms etc.) may be up in the USA, but actual learning is down. What does the digital future potentially hold for education?

In order to find some answers to this question I recently read The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey (published in 2015), which provided some useful insights into what the digital future might hold for the education sector.

What’s it all about?

The aim of Carey’s book is simple: prove to the reader that the education sector will soon be completely transformed by digital innovation. First of all, he looks at the endemic problems facing higher education today and how these have evolved over several hundred years. As well as this, he examines the nature of third-level learning itself and investigates the current innovations that might help to make it better, giving us a look at the history of the internet and the mentality of start-up culture along the way. Finally, he concludes the book with a brief look at what the future potentially holds for education, something he believes a person should continue to enjoy throughout their lives rather than in a confined three or four year period. This can take place in a (somewhat utopian) virtual organization he calls ‘The University of Everywhere’.

Harvard University

So, what are the current problems in US higher education?

  • Rigour: Dept. of Education research has found that competency in numeracy, literacy and critical thinking is extremely mediocre (and in some cases very basic) among large numbers of college graduates. Less than 40% of students enrolling for the first time at a four year college actually graduate in four years.
  • Cost: US universities are among the most expensive in the world (outdone only by the UK); newly graduated kids have an average college debt of $30,000. In other words, students are now paying more to learn less, and that’s if they finish college at all. Universities have become more like corporations than learning institutions and presidents resemble empire builders (Carey sites NYU and George Washington University as the worst offenders here). The more a university charges for admission, the higher its perceived prestige and ultimate appeal. Status has become about exclusivity rather than innovation.
  • Student-Teacher Relations: Although a PhD is a requirement for becoming a university professor, very few PhD programmes include courses in pedagogical theory. In fact, current teaching models have changed little since the Middle Ages: professors talk, and sometimes listen, while students (often in their hundreds) take notes. There is minimal hands-on learning and no consideration given to the fact that people learn things differently. Instead, everyone is expected to understand in the same way, at the same time.
  • Gate-keepers: Universities have been incredibly resistant to technological change. This was possible for them (unlike the newspaper or music industry) because of their power over social mobility: many jobs require a degree and such accreditation systems are controlled by the colleges themselves (i.e they say who can and can’t award degrees). On top of this, government funding is only awarded to accredited colleges. So, hybrid universities have a complete monopoly on the industry, allowing them to keep competitors at bay.

What has technology done to change things?

 In the past twenty years, several companies have attempted to take education online – The Minerva Project is an example – but the design has almost always followed the Hybrid University model. In the past five years Silicon Valley – a place famous for college dropouts and disrupting social habits – has spawned a group of entrepreneurs that are not afraid to challenge this monopoly. The seeds of change were planted by a couple of forward thinkers in Palo Alto and Stanford in 2011. Following the success of Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig decided to make one of their graduate courses, ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’, available online for anyone to join. Within two weeks 58,000 students had registered. Because it was open and free it was described as a “massive open online course” (MOOC) and a new third-level education resource was born. Seeing the limitless potential, others soon followed suit:

  • Thrun went on to launch his own machine learning platform called Udacity.
  • Coursera, a for-profit company that aims to be a one stop shop for online university courses. In contrast to Udacity, it is a platform for universities to use, rather than an original content provider. Billionaire Michael Saylor has a similar ‘eco-system’ in org.
  • The profusion of news articles about these start-ups led to wave of panic amongst traditional hybrid universities. In spite of themselves, they realised it was imperative to their survival to lead the changes, rather than follow them. In 2012, MIT and Harvard joined forces on the non-profit platform EdX and have since been included other institutions from around the world (the University of Edinburgh seems to be the only British participant).

What could be ahead?


Carey calls his vision of learning in the future The University of Everywhere (which could be ten years from now, or fifty). It is not a tangible place but an open idea – a low-cost, widespread realm of continued education filled with virtual interactive classrooms. Ultimately, Carey believes The University of Everywhere should be like a great library: a beautiful, peaceful place where knowledge spreads and grows, supported by local communities and open to everyone.

Here are his ideas of what it might look like:

  • MOOCs would be organized into sequences to approximate the scope of learning currently associated with college majors.
  • Advances in virtual reality will allow for greater interaction among students. This is also already beginning to happen with ‘wormholes’.
  • Rather than having thousands of generic courses (like business, biology etc.) in hundreds of different places, programmes could be standardised into one or two versions across the country (or world) and therefore be much more cost effect.
  • Students would still need to pay for some things – assessment of disciplines like fine art, music etc. and careers services – but the cost would still be nothing near what it is now.
  • People would have a personal-credential identity online, which would change and evolve over time with each new learning experience. This system would also allow employers to search the web and discover the candidate with the exact skills they need.
  • The ‘rite-of-passage’ collegial experience would no longer be defined by college parties or fraternities. Closer scrutiny would mean less opportunity for floating along the river of mediatory. Technology will make education better, not easier.

 Do I buy it?

I’m not so sure that the path to ‘The University of Everywhere’ is as clear cut as Carey makes out. It is amazing to have courses for free but who will pay for the academics that research, write and teach them? Digital education will have to be monetised in some way. How will this happen?

The death of critical thought? The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David, 1793

Most of Carey’s examples relate to subjects that allow a computer to easily deduce whether an answer is right or wrong (science, maths). But what about creative thought?  How can a computer provide a Utopian personalised education if it can’t tell whether a literary essay is good or not? (for more see Oscar Schwartz’s TED talk ‘Can computers write poetry’). I fear Humanities – a discipline based around critical enquiry and ideas – may be a loser in the University of Everywhere.

More broadly, and perhaps HAL has cast a long shadow in my psyche here, I feel uneasy about such a ubiquitous reliance on the computer for social interaction. Meeting and talking to other people virtually will never replace what that feels like in real life. Yes, many people coast through college, but it is also a time when people make silly mistakes they learn from. No, parties do not advance cognitive ability, but maybe they make more interesting people. Social experiences help us to know who we are.

Oh hey HAL

A world in which everyone learns alone at their computer might make humanity very smart, but maybe also less creative and a bit boring.

In spite of all this there is no doubt in my mind that the current system has to change.

The advantages of a digital education clearly outweigh the concerns; a world in which all people are provided with an equal standard of education can only be a good one.

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