Education’s Existential War: Web 2.0 Takes Aim

Last week was kind of rough. As an educator, I had to struggle with some fairly dark realities as budget cuts raged and sliced my profession to pieces. Although the fervor has calmed slightly, as evidence of political fear mongering arises amid the worst talk of cut backs, I am forced to sit back and really think about what is occurring in the world of higher learning.

The prognosis is really, REALLY bad, and not for the reasons you may think. I have written quite a bit here about web 2.0’s ability to destabilize and reform entrenched markets. The more I look at education the more I begin to fear those same market forces are at play. The web could, and I would argue is, cracking the foundations of education’s market.

As information becomes easier to access, instructors and teachers will begin to lose credibility with the net generation student. MIT itself has made an odd push into this territory, publishing lectures to Itunes for all to see. Take a look at their about page and try not to drool.

http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/about/about/index.htm

That’s a hell of a lot of material to simply put out there for free. To be fair, this material does not exactly give merit or prestige to those who view it, but the key product of education is being redefined rather quickly, and I am not sure educators really understand what kind of game they are getting into.

Think for a second about what’s happening to print media. This dissemination of information through lectures on the web is very similar to the way bloggers edit and gather news to republish to their blogs. The result? A generation of readers who refuse to pay for content they can locate for free.

I am not criticizing MIT for this initiative. I actually think its a very good move for the good of society; however, instructors and teachers need to keep a close eye on the development of this freedom and how it affects their employ-ability.

This biggest threat to America’s education system may not be the ravaging budget cuts, but the ever growing presence of online universities like Phoenix and Devry. We chide and deride these institutions from our ivory towers, but from a market perspective, they are actually functioning quite well. What’s worse? They are growing, both in influence and reputability. I can attest that a University of Phoenix employ makes absolutely nothing, and that is terrible considering my own very low salary within a cushioned large university.

If I am right, the future of higher education will look very odd. One, larger university will not survive the fast, direct, and laughably low prices offered by the smaller online and community colleges. This will be magnified if the economy remains sluggish. As this effect begins to take hold, the funding for education will wither even more as enrollment drops to unsustainable levels. Two, the emphasis on education for employment may lessen as well, as personal accomplishment, not the institution awarding the degree, becomes the new gate way to hiring.

The salaries of teachers and professors depends upon our elevated status and understanding of information alien to the general population. In a wired world, that status and understanding is becoming more the norm, and not a basis for elevated employment. My kids question me constantly, and the scary thing is, they are fact checking machines ready to pounce upon my every mistake. That problem will only get worse.

One last point, one of my students is currenly working on a project exploring the inevitable decline and obsolescence of American Universities. He is the primary reason I am writing this blog, because deep down in my heart, I know not to second guess these kids.

They are smarter than you think. The siege upon our industry may not really be about the budget wars or the financial crisis. We could be on the cusp of a world that no longer needs us.

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3 Responses to “Education’s Existential War: Web 2.0 Takes Aim”

  1. Let’s hope that world never exists, David… kudos on yet another well-conveyed piece —

  2. I get where you’re coming from, believe me I do, as no one wants to enter a profession at the (arguable) beginning of it’s downfall.

    However, one very unpopular point around this debate hasn’t been included into this discussion: that cheap and easy credit financed much of the growth – perhaps overgrowth – of the educational system as it exists today.

    I say this because the cost of a college education outpaced median family income by 3x and the cost of living index by 4x since the 1980s.

    (see graphic here) http://toughmoneylove.com/2008/12/08/the-college-student-debt-machine-a-national-disgrace/

    I understand the extreme sensitivity to the issue here, and my intention isn’t to be confrontational (it’s a well written post), but if economics is the engine that drives education, that would suggest that higher education has had 2 or 3 credit driven expansion, and it can’t simply can’t sustain itself any longer now that cheap and easy credit is no longer free flowing.

    Therefore, it’s only natural that the Web 2.0 educational companies are going to gain ground via a disintermediation play. I always say the Internet is the greatest *bleep bleep* middle man killer we’ve seen thus far in human history, and I don’t think it will kill off higher education by in large, but it will probably have a dramatic effect on smaller universities that don’t have a name brand or specific appeal to select students.

  3. Lots of good points that I didn’t think about. Congrats on your blog’s success Please keep writing and doing what your doing. Continue to produce, and the world will always find a need for you.

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