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April 25, 2011 11:00 AM Higher Education’s Technology Problem

By Daniel Luzer

Technology offers the suggestion that it can make education more efficient and cheaper than it is now. And yet somehow higher education just keeps getting more expensive. At what point do families cry stop and refuse to buy anymore?

Maybe somewhat soon, according to a recent piece at Tech Crunch. As Jon Bischke and Semil Shah write:

Today… the credentialing provided by universities is becoming decoupled from the knowledge and skills acquired by students. The cost of obtaining learning materials is falling, with OpenCourseWare resources from MIT and iTunes U leading the charge. Classes can be taken online on sites like Udemy and eduFire, either for free or a fraction of the cost to learn similar material at a university, and sites like Veri, which recently launched at TechStars NYC Demo Day, aims to organize and spread one’s accumulated knowledge.
At least when it comes to materials (i.e. textbooks), start-ups are playing a disruptive role: Companies like Chegg and Bookrenter have changed the paradigm from owning to renting a textbook, and companies such as Inkling, Kno, and Flatworld are betting students will prefer to use digital and/or unbundled course materials.

Well that’s interesting, but it’s important to understand that disruption here is relative. So much talk of technology in education addresses only one part of higher education: the vocational “skills training” part.

But there’s actually a big difference between the training provided by higher education, which technology might entirely separate from institutions, and the actual experience of college, which has nothing to do with technology.

For most of American history jobs training had nothing to do with college. Most people didn’t go to college at all, and got all the training they needed through primary school, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. Perhaps technology can return us to that place again. If it gets cheaper for students that’s a wonderful thing. But let’s not pretend that’s going to eliminate the university as we know it.

Real education, higher learning, has always been hugely impractical (all of those philosophy majors, sure the things they learn might eventually help with some sort of job, but it’s a pretty indirect route). That’s sort of the point.

Real, physical, colleges have to exist and prosper because rich people like them and want to send their children there. Technology might allow people everywhere to access Princeton lectures online but it won’t actually allow them to access Princeton. So technology here isn’t really disruptive, it’s just incidental.

More technology might make jobs training cheaper and more efficient but its true potential for disruption has to do with the way it might finally separate jobs training from actual college.

That’s not the worst thing in the world but it will return college to the elite minority of American children. Technology might bring “education” to more of the American public, but it will keep the prestigious credentials away from the people. Indeed, it will make those prestigious, inefficient credentials even more difficult to access.

Let’s keep this in mind.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer