Thoughts on Kevin Carey’s book – The End of College

Back in 2016, I posted this to my old blog. Now I’m slowly getting around to moving my old blog post to my new blog on WordPress.

Kevin Carey’s latest book — The End of College: creating the future of learning and the University of Everywhere — is an interesting and informative read.

Although his employer, the New America Foundation, is thought to be a centrist think tank, Carey is definitely biased in favor of disrupting and unbundling the traditional hybrid university model.

In particular, he’s very supportive of the two major MOOC platforms:

  1. edX, a non-profit with major funding from two schools with big endowments – MIT and Harvard
  2. Coursera, a for-profit started by Stanford AI Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng

Carry believes that initiatives such as edX and Coursera will eventually evolve into a University of Everywhere which will, in turn, lead to the disruption and unbundling of the traditional university.

If one didn’t know otherwise, one might get the impression from reading this book that distance education was invented by a few AI professors at Stanford in 2011. There is almost no mention of major distance education programs that have gone before. However, toward the end of the book (p. 231) Carey does make brief mention of the British Open University, a national, public, distance education university that has been going strong since 1969.

But, for some unspecified reason, Carey’s hopes and expectations for a University of Everywhere all point to private sector initiatives such as edX and Coursera.

Many academics on the left share have a similar myopic view of distance education. They also seem to think that if a University of Everywhere does become a reality in the US, it will be a private sector undertaking, one intended to disrupt and dismantle the traditional, brick-and-mortar hybrid university. Like Carey, they, also seem to forget that the British Open University was started by a Labor government in the UK.

Many of those on the left in the US either work for an existing college or university, or they have many friends who do. So, their tendency is to want to preserve (and perhaps gradually reform) these existing institutions.

So, my academic friends on the left are not supportive of a University of Everywhere since they fear it might disrupt the status quo. Sometimes they claim that they oppose the idea because they think it would be a for-profit enterprise.

But, if asked if they would support a government sponsored University of Everywhere, they oppose that, too. This even when they know about all the good work the British Open University has done, and how it has been able to hold down the cost of education in the UK.

Since 2005, I’ve been suggesting that the US should either:

  1. buy out the British Open University and put their course content in the public domain, or
  2. establish a US Open University patterned after the British OU, but with the funding and a mandate to put their course material in the public domain. 

Unfortunately, on this issue I’m a voice in the wilderness.

Both the left and the right oppose the idea, but for different reasons. Those on the right would like to see a for-profit University of Everywhere. Those on the left want to preserve (or gradually reform) the existing hybrid university system.


The End of College? Not So Fast
By Donald E. Heller
Chronicle of Higher Education
March 30, 2015

The End of College? (or Maybe Just the End of Kevin Carey’s Career)
by John Seery
Professor of Politics at Pomona College
Huffington Post

A Response to Kevin Carey
by Matt Reed
Inside Higher Education
March 15, 2015

This article includes a good review of Carey’s main points.

  1. Higher education serves multiple purposes, each of which conflicts with the others. The big three are job training, scholarly research, and liberal arts education.
  2. Historically, the emergence of the research university that also teaches undergraduates was a contingent, but relatively successful, way to paper over the conflicts among the goals.
  3. The vast postwar expansion of public higher education was a largely unthought-through case of “institutional isomorphism,” in which new and lower-tier entrants aped the structures of elites, whether they made sense or not. The awkwardness of fit didn’t matter when demographic tailwinds were strong, but they’re apparent now.
  4. Teaching gets short shrift in what Carey calls the “hybrid university” model. Professors are not hired or evaluated for teaching ability, and idiosyncratic grading and the elective system have defeated attempts at curricular coherence or assessment.
  5. Most undergraduates don’t actually learn very much, and the incumbent providers would rather not focus on that, for obvious reasons.
  6. Colleges systematically ignore the findings of psychology and cognitive science on how people learn. Academic freedom and the elective system benefit incumbents, and they will use both to defeat serious efforts to change how teaching is done. The existing mode of educational production is artisanal, and artisans will fight to protect their autonomy, even at the expense of productivity.
  7. Until recently, there were no practical alternatives to traditional higher education. But the internet has changed that.
  8. A bevy of internet startups are using the insights of cognitive science to teach more effectively at scale, and at much lower cost.
  9. As those internet startups mature, they will develop a more robust system of recognizing student achievement — “badges” or whatever else — which will quickly gain traction.
  10. As higher education loses its monopoly on certification, most non-elite institutions will die. That will be unfortunate for the people who work there, but a net gain for society as a whole.

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