Is the university next? (disintermediating higher education)

Paul Melton took this photo No one is talking about it, but what's happening to journalism may some day happen to higher education.

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?

22 thoughts on “Is the university next? (disintermediating higher education)

  1. Ray

    There is much to be said here about the comparative merits of in class learning and self-paced digital learning.

    But before that I would suggest that you need a another questions before your question 5.

    I think the next question would be:

    Why would people abandon the current system of accreditation? And what would it take for this to happen?

    1. One is of course that college becomes too expensive.
    2. Employers stop caring because students aren’t learning much in college anyway.

  2. Steve Gentile

    certainly giving me reason to pause, think, and re-think. i see no reason why we cannot accept this as a real, valid, and worthy education. i believe that collectively our perception of an online education is much in the way culture valued “bling” and didn’t allow the medium its’ place in the picture of it all. i kinda like that this has caused my own shift in consciousness about it.
    Thank you Grant, thank you Tim. And yes, the pix by Paul from Turkey is fabulous – good choice.

  3. peter

    Grant –

    A long-standing model already exists for the structure you are proposing: Throughout the British Commonwealth, regular public examinations are conducted in musical performance, music theory, public speaking and dramatic performance. In Britain, the main examinations body is the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (the ABRSM), a consortium of the country’s main music colleges, created as far back as 1889:

    In Australia, a similarly long-running consortium runs the Australian Music Examination Board (AMEB), which dates from around the same time:

    In both cases, students can enter at any level they like, as frequently or as infrequently as they wish, and they can jump levels. If you master, say, the clarinet in 6 months of intense effort, you can sit the highest grade exam you feel comfortable with and take it from there. If you pass, you can immediately take any higher-level exam. If you fail, you can take the same level or a lower level or sometimes a higher level, and you can do this as quickly or as slowly as you like. Whether you pass or not, you can take your next exam 30 years later. At any stage, you are only judged on your performance (or knowledge) on the day you do the exam. You are not assessed on HOW you learnt, or who taught you, or what classes you attended or did not attend, over what period, or how long you took to learn. The exams are usually held 3 or 4 times per year, and the examiners are professional musicians, expert performers themsleves in the instruments they are assessing, and trained and paid for the role, traveling to remote centres to hold the exams. The British ABRSM, for example, sends examiners to Africa, Asia, and China.

    As an anthropological aside: The creation of these certification bodies was part of a widespread effort by the Victorians to standardize everything – from the sizes of screw threads in manufacturing to the rules of tennis to public examinations to assess personal ability in playing the piano, this was a major trope in Victorian society. I don’t know the reasons for this.

  4. Christopher Edwards

    Very interesting topic. And especially Peter’s comments above, I’m reading Richard Sennett’s _The Craftsman_ right now. And he does an admirable job of combining philosophy, history, anthropology, sociology, and narrative to discuss the role of the worker and craft as it’s changed over time, and influenced objects, tools, and community. Absolutely fascinating. And written in a very non-academic way that treats the audience as intelligent. So while I definitely see this trend of self learning moving forward — it is important to ask where do standards come in? And where can community exist to promote or to raise standards (as well as train and support newbies). You can say that college as it has become in the U.S. does not do this. (And I would probably agree, in many cases.) But can self learning, and open community provide something that colleges don’t in this regard? And will that be the tipping point?

    As for standardization in Victorian era Peter, it was the promise of the Machine! They great British rush to embrace the wonders of mechanization. It was enlightenment through exactness. Or something along those lines. (While also, embracing a sort of Calvinistic and Darwinian sense of performance — and evan salvation — of the fittest.)

  5. Joe Wasserman

    There are some similar moves in public education in some areas to move from points-based assessments to proficiency-based assessments and education—still in classrooms, but at the student’s pace. The system could do with alternative models: alternative to what we have now, and alternative to the one you have outlined. Among the reasons for alternatives are different learning styles and the reproduction of class through differential access to modes of education or the habitus and social connections necessary to reap their rewards.

  6. Domen

    There is at least one discrepancy in the journalism-education analogy. Reading a newspaper is largely an individual activity, getting an education is (at least partly also a group activity and a social activity. While I fully appreciate the net’s potential for “non-managed” or “noninstitutional” coordination of groups and social interaction, the complexities involved in learning beyond the individual process of knowledge attainment, make the presented scenario less plausible.

  7. Jim

    I do remember my (wise) father telling me that half of what I will learn at university will have nothing to do with education, and he wasn’t even sure which half was more important. For me this turned out to be true.

    Could this social skills development also be disintermediated through a more robust social media, or some other process? The cost of university is probably already too high for the social learning and knowledge distribution received.

  8. srp

    This discussion reminds me of the distance-learning-over-the-Internet boom of the late 1990s. Experience to date shows that this can play a role but is no panacea. Many of the aggressive B-school programs to set up “global MBAs” and the like have not turned out to be very successful. As veterans of the old correspondence courses tried to warn us, it costs MORE per pupil to teach a remote class than a traditional one.

    Or could we just follow Grant and eliminate all curricula and group learning and just offer exams? I suspect the power struggles over who controls the exam and the criteria would be epic; competing standards might be a good thing.

    The separation of teaching from accredited evaluation would certainly be a relief to most teachers, as we could avoid the unpleasantness of grading and take on a coaching role free of the dynamics of grade-grubbing. An interesting question then is whether in such a system there would be a thriving market in more-or-less traditional instruction (as opposed to glorified study guides). Would people pay to get coached? And would any system of standards actually satisfy employers and other external constituencies that it was adequate? Most people don’t treat the GED as truly comparable to a high-school degree even though it’s supposed to be.

  9. Daria Steigman

    Hi Grant,

    I love posts that make me think, and this one is terrific.

    While more and more learning opportunities are moving online, I still think there’s a primary role for universities in teaching people how to learn.

    As a University of Chicago alumna, I’m a big proponent of small classes, critical thought, and a broad-based classical education. I realize that the cost of doing this is rapidly becoming prohibitive — but we need to figure out how to replicate that knowledge transfer so that we’re equipping young people with key thinking skills that they can then apply.


  10. Taylor Davidson

    Grant: cultural, agreed. And yes, we’ve seen accreditors come and go over time, different valuations of the type and level of content and context of education. with different absolute and relative valuations of high school, A-Levels, associates / technical schools, bachelors, masters, PhD, “street education”, etc.

    I’m very curious how this cultural change could happen: perhaps better data about our lives, our actions and the short- and long-term impacts will allow us to reframe our cultural heuristics and stereotypes behind education? More structured data about the inputs (education) and the outputs (success, happiness, etc.) at the individual and societal levels, perhaps, will allow us to create better stories, better heuristics, and reframe how our culture perceives and values accreditation.


  11. Grant McCracken

    Daria, thanks, a UC salute to you, and yes, those little UC seminars
    accomplish something miraculous, they endow us with intelligence. They
    accomplish this in part because they sort so well, getting the right
    students with the right professors. I think the new social media should be
    able to sort much better than UC does. And that means we no longer have to
    get all the way of the south side of the city to access this education. to
    democratize a UC education! what a thing that would be! Thanks again,

  12. Grant McCracken

    Taylor, excellent questions all. It does feel like the conventional academy
    world has very robust gravitational powers for the moment. When will this
    change? Before we get to a tipping point, we need that point of departure
    that sides the development in motion. Thanks, Grant

  13. Dean Dad

    This may or may not work at the elite level, but assumption 3 is manifestly false for the majority. If it held any water at all, we wouldn’t need remedial math or English at the college level. At my community college, the majority of our students require at least one remedial course, and my cc is typical.

    Let’s not make the classic mistake of generalizing from the top.

  14. Larry Cebula

    You have probably seen this article: College for $99 a Month

    Of course colleges are going to get hit, and hard. Not by free knowledge (the public library could teach you everything in my courses for free) but with free college credits. And not whole degrees, but core subjects, at least at first. What happens to the economic model of the state universities when students elect to pick up all their 100 level credits online from someone else and only take the upper-level stuff on campus? Those 100 level lecture halls are the cash cows, the upper level courses are expensive to run. We’ll be screwed–and soon.

  15. Kevin Gamble

    Where my comment isn’t central to the main topic of the post this did catch my attention, ” the university continues as a center of knowledge production, but ceases to matter as a center of knowledge distribution.”

    I absolutely believe that the university’s role in knowledge production is ripe for disintermediation as well. It’s just a few steps behind accreditation in the process, but all of these trends are accelerating.

  16. poetabook

    As a journalist who has migrated to higher ed, this question hits home with particular intensity. I just posed a similar question re the role of higher ed as a competing, and less efficient, system to the internet as repository, distributor of knowledge. My college-age son is quite content to download and devour Shakespeare, quantum theory and Jack Kerouac in his own user-directed path to knowledge. The “degree as commodity” seems to hold little value to him.

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