Dazzling Knowledge

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Jack Hough argues that the four-year college degree isn't worth the trouble anymore, and that colleges don't do a good job of teaching anymore.

A more inclusive four-year degree isn't the answer; the degree itself often obstructs learning. Consider the laid-off sales clerk who wishes to pursue a college education in hopes of finding a better job. If he wants to go to a name-brand school he must study for and take an admissions test and apply. He must also file a financial-aid application as long and complex as a tax return. He then must wait and cross his fingers. If accepted by the school, he must wait again for the right part of the academic calendar to come around and hope that the classes he wants aren't full. Suppose all goes well. He'll be sitting in front of a teacher a good 18 months after first deciding to learn. What folly.

As I write this, Google is putting every book ever written online. Apple is offering video college lectures for free download through its iTunes software. Skype allows free videoconferencing anywhere in the world. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many other schools have made course materials available for free on their Web sites. Tutors cost as little as $15 an hour. Today's student who decides to learn at 1 a.m. should be doing it by 1:30. A process that makes him wait 18 months is not an education system. It's a barrier to education.

He argues that degrees should be replaced with certified transcripts that basically summarize the subjects in which one has demonstrated proficiency by passing something like the AP test.

I can only guess what this knowledge transcript would look like -- something like a résumé or credit report, perhaps. I picture a scrawny tree drawn on a page, with the branches representing the fields of learning and the student tasked with extending them. Perhaps vocational certificates would be listed, too. Maybe, once the tree reached a prescribed fatness, we'd call the student a bachelor of arts. But employers could select whatever tree shapes suited them, and college would no longer be a degree-or-nothing affair. Learning would be available everywhere and at a moment's notice, and would be rewarded right away.

This knowledge transcript would care nothing about where a student had learned, how much he spent or how long he took. It wouldn't care whether he was 12 or 60 when he proved he knew algebra or how many times he failed before succeeding, or whether he knew important people. Employers would have better proof of what students knew. Policymakers, too. Students wouldn't pile on debt. They wouldn't be misled by a college degree into believing they knew more than they did. They'd become true stewards of their own lifelong education.

Universities, I'm guessing, would look much the same. Students would always want to go on long learning sabbaticals at places with top teachers and well-appointed classrooms, and to be around like-minded people for collaboration, sports, fellowship and, not nearly least, mating. But schools would have to truly compete on price and teaching excellence. They'd no longer be able to charge students high prices just because of their ability to confer on them high pay. They'd teach as many students as would learn, since doing so would strengthen their brands, not dilute them.


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