On Education: “I don’t drink beer.”

I really enjoyed this University Ventures newsletter, which provided a fresh perspective to the conversation over the rise of online education. It analogizes beer drinkers to future post-secondary students, breaking them up into “Buds” and “Sams”. The former, according to this analogy, drink beer to get drunk. The cheaper the better, so long as it gets the job done. The latter drink beer because they love the taste of beer. They drink artisanal microbrews primarily for the taste, with the implicit assumption that there’s a pot of drunk at the end of the rainbow. Today‚Äôs industry punditry act like the Sams are the most important group, although the Buds are 95% of beer drinkers, and the Sams only 5%.

Similarly, there is a class of online students who are there *just* to get the degree, because that degree will get them the job. They distinguish between different programs based on interest, but mostly based on employability. They go to University of Phoenix, Capella University, Drexel University, and others like it. They number in the millions worldwide. There is, meanwhile, a class of students who are studying online from tenured professors from Princeton, Stanford, and MIT in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and algorithm design, for free. As the newsletter quotes

The day before Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun opened up his fall semester course on artificial intelligence to the world and ended up with 160,000 online students, approximately 3 million other students were pursuing degrees online - attempting to change their lives without ever setting foot on campus.

This analogy effectively demonstrates that higher education has two purposes: one, to quote John Dewey, to “[learn] how to learn, how to realize one’s full potential, and how to live - not only as an employee, but as a contributing member of society, as a citizen”; and two, to get a damn job. The latter is the dominant driver, by far. As Harvard Business Review recently reported, the skills earned during a Bachelor’s degree today last only five years: too few years to remain competitive, too few years to pay back the average student loan. Vocational training, as a responsibility of an educator, looms large in our modern society, which is leaning heavily towards the freelance economy.

Let us return to the beer-drinker analogy. Some people don’t like drinking beer at all: it takes too many to get drunk, and they don’t have the appetite for it. And others just don’t like the taste. Of these people, many prefer rum, vodka, or whiskey. It does the job more quickly, after all. One implicit, and incorrect, assumption in the beer-drinker analogy is that the four-year university, and the Bachelor’s Degree, is the only way to learn and to be employable. Vocational schools have proven that there are other institutional paths. But as another class of “online learners” are demonstrating, there are paths that aren’t institutional at all: they are part-and-parcel, based on a specific skill (or topic) that any learner might find instrumental.

Skillshare and General Assembly allow one to take high-impact courses on an individual basis, based strictly on need, from experts in the field. LearnUp and Tutorspree care about closing skills gaps for learners of every age. Udacity and Coursera are part of this movement as much as they are part of the institutional movement: imagine their education as a series of high-impact ‘shots’. These web resources offer a buffet of classes which can be optimized for taste, but are innovative because they are optimized to close the skills gap first. They are much cheaper than four-year programs, and in some instances free.

There are two great implications of this set of innovations. For the advocates of “education as learning”, there is a fear that an unbundled buffet, meeting the demands of the job market, will challenge the primacy of the humanities, the arts, and the sciences. William Deresciewicz wants us to remember that an elite education is a way to to make minds, not careers. But the market wants engineers, not philosophers. Will there still be a space for liberal arts? What will we lose, as a society, if not? And for the advocates of “education as job-training”, there is still the critique that employers care about a Bachelor’s degree because it’s a government-backed, deeply accredited stamp of approval. If an online learner takes “Web development in Ruby” from an upstart tech company, will an employer still want to see their GPA and transcript? What does an accreditation system for the buffet style of post-secondary education look like?

Elite universities like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley are wise to offer online education, free and through their degree programs. The digital natives are most comfortable in front of a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. But universities, elite or not, must also prepare for a future where learners are lifelong, where they are taking classes as and where they want and need, and where they are doing so both for the taste, and for the buzz.