Higher Education: Time to Disrupt the Digital Disruptors

“Galloway, who also founded his own virtual classroom start-up, predicts hundreds, if not thousands, of brick-and-mortar universities will go out of business and those that remain will have student bodies composed primarily of the children of the one percent.”

The Coming Disruption, NY Magazine

What, given the coronavirus and currently empty college campuses, will become of higher education?

For the time being, colleges and universities have adopted various forms of online learning as students have been sent home to wait out the virus in the relative safety of family homes. As a college teacher myself, I can report that my students are generally not pleased with this high-tech experiment in educational social distancing. If college ain’t a campus, if education forsakes the classroom, students will, by and large, not be happy and will feel cheated, especially given the high costs of American higher education. Parents, who are often responsible for paying much of college costs, will not be happy either, especially since many of them attended actual schools in actual places and have fond actual memories of their experiences there. Not surprisingly, these parents want a similar college experience for their children.

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But some academics, like NYU Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway (see above quote), may not be all that sad about vanishing classrooms and view the traditional college/university campus as mostly a thing of the obsolete past. As we learn, Galloway has founded his own “virtual classroom start-up.” Oh. Well, then. Here’s a bit more from the same New York Magazine interview with Prof Galloway. This from the introduction concerning Galloway’s vision of the future:

. . .more people than ever will have access to a solid education, albeit one that is delivered mostly over the internet. The partnerships he envisions will make life easier for hundreds of millions of people while sapping humanity of a face-to face system of learning that has evolved over centuries. Of course, it will also make a handful of people very, very rich. It may not be long before Galloway’s predictions are put to the test.

How will this “solid education” via the internet (mercifully lowercase these days) be brought about? Professor Galloway explains:

Ultimately, universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand. I think that partnership will look something like MIT and Google partnering. Microsoft and Berkeley. Big-tech companies are about to enter education and health care in a big way, not because they want to but because they have to.

Thus, in the near future, the vocations of teaching and doctoring/nursing will be overseen by the desires of technology corporations and academic/medical administrators, the latter group apparently accepting obediently and uncritically the need of big-tech companies to keep growing and profiting while cutting academic costs by cutting back on faculty and staff. It is much easier to defend increasing class sizes and decreasing faculty when the “teaching” can be done not in a room or lecture hall but via computer from a professor’s home. One recorded lecture can be shared among hundreds, if not thousands, of students who have access to it 24 hours a day, year after year. If the “content” is produced by MIT and Google, say, this can be sold to many smaller/less prestigious colleges that could “stream” it for a fraction of the cost of paying a real-life professor to teach full-time in a classroom. Such “virtual classroom” material may be of excellent, unsurpassed digital quality but it cannot in any responsible way be considered a vital and satisfying institutional education.

The computerization of American schools at all levels has been going on for some time, but until this moment the notion that a computer could replace a school as a place or focal point of education has not been a dominant idea, though many colleges now offer a variety of online courses. Even the advent of the portable smartphone, which the young carry with them everywhere, has not been able to eradicate the physical classroom. The young may want to bring their phones to class as a means of distraction, but they are not clamoring for education via smartphone alone. The wired web has not (thank God) become a totally enclosed, all-inclusive universe. And we should not let it so become.

The verb “matriculate” refers to acceptance and movement within the body of a college or university; it is education (from the verb “educe,” to draw out) enabled by place and presence in that place and among the people of that place. A school is a place separated from ordinary life and ordinary places for the purpose of partaking in an extraordinary universe of thoughtful exploration. A university, as we call it, must be a physical universe, an isolated space where the life of the mind takes precedence over the life of economic necessity.

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Unfortunately, we in the United States have allowed our system of higher education to be infiltrated by the demands of economic priority to a remarkable degree. The image of “the ivory tower” has become quaint and false; today our biggest and “best” universities work under the sway of corporate towers in distant cities. Whether public or private, the collegiate “paper chase” has been replaced by the chase for money. And the digital revolution has not spared higher education which has too often embraced its products and values.

So what is to be done? Well, colleges and universities do not have to surrender to digital demand and corporate control. Though the coronavirus has forced emergency distancing and online forms of instruction, academia does not have to regard online education as anything other than a temporary and imperfect and inferior form of instruction. In short, we can disrupt the disruptors by refusing to sacrifice what the long tradition of education has taught us: we are best “influenced” by real people met in real places. And there is and will never be a substitute for a classroom, for teachers and students gathered closely together. The “coming disruption” need not come, not at least without a fight by those of us who care about being involved in the passing on of a genuine education in real classrooms.

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