It's not too early to look down the road.
Tim Sullivan and I were chatting about the options the other day and I came away with this rough sketch of a radical scenario: the university continues as a center of knowledge production, but ceases to matter as a center of knowledge distribution.
Let's assume the following.
1) that there is easy access to information and knowledge, thanks to internet access.
2) that educational resources online will get better. (See, for instance, the open course ware at MIT.)
3) that people are getting better at assimilating data and mastering knowledge by their own effort.
4) that as people continue to move from a passive to an active model of engagement, they may prefer to learn through self instruction.
What's doesn't shift in this scenario is accreditation. We will continue to need a university, or someone, to certify students have completed their degree requirements, and perhaps how they did.
Then the question becomes:
5) what's the best way to do accreditation?
The English universities are a useful indicator. Traditionally, they forgave the separation knowledge acquisition from examination. The universities allowed the student an extraordinary latitude. If a student could pass her exams, it didn't matter if she had spent all her time in the college bar. She was good to go.
We could use a model of this kind. We would leave it to students to prepare their own programs of education, to gather on line with whomever they found interesting and useful. They could indeed spend several years in the bar of their choice. What awaits them is a small committee of smart people with credible credentials who travel their locality, assessing intellectual ability, power and skill in argument, the ability to inquire, to marshall the data, to build the case, to respond to rebuttle, and to otherwise make their way from less knowledge, understanding and wisdom to more knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
Students in self instruction will have to decide whether they are ready to sit their exams. They will visit the accreditation website occasionally and examine the oral exams and written ones. They ask themselves, "Could I handle questions of that order?" And if they think they can, they book an appointment, pay their fee, and wait for the examiners to swing back through town.
A world of several degrees may be replaced by a world of many levels. We can expect the degree world to look like a ziggurat. Students will work their way upwards, eventually find their natural location in the sweet spot between the prized and the passable. Perhaps we can do this in the manner of a Judo studio. It will be a matter of belts.
Who should staff these committees? How about journalists, people who know a thing or two about inquiry, building arguments, and acquiring knowledge.
For a glimpse of some of the educational resources on line, go to the Online Degrees Hub here.
Thanks to Tim Sullivan, editor at Basic Books, for the conversation from which this blog post comes. He is not to be held responsible for anything written here.
The magnificent image, if you see one, was taken this summer in Turkey by Paul Melton. Good, or what?