Open systems are open. For people used to dealing with institutions that go out of their way to hide their flaws, this makes these systems look terrible at first. But anyone who has watched a piece of open source software improve, or remembers the Britannica people throwing tantrums about Wikipedia, has seen how blistering public criticism makes open systems better. And once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrollment.
College mottos run the gamut from Bryn Mawr’s Veritatem Dilexi (I Delight In The Truth) to the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising’s Where Business Meets Fashion, but there’s a new one that now hangs over many of them: Quae Non Possunt Non Manent. Things That Can’t Last Don’t. The cost of attending college is rising above inflation every year, while the premium for doing so shrinks. This obviously can’t last, but no one on the inside has any clear idea about how to change the way our institutions work while leaving our benefits and privileges intact.
This is an important and, in a way, ironic point. That the more we rail against and criticize those that attempt to undermine the status quo, the more we provide a path to improvement. Especially now when the world is much more connected and transparent than it was a short time ago. And it also makes me think of Clay Christensen’s assessment of the news industry:
“I think we didn’t quite understand, and still don’t really understand, how quickly things fall off the cliff.”
I’m convinced we’re going to look back at what happens to education at all levels in the next 5-10 years and shake our heads.
My reality check? I’ve got a 15 and 13 year-old, and the cost vs. premium argument Shirky makes is compelling to me. I know there are amazing schools out there. And I’m not saying that there isn’t still a path that sees my kids going to college. But there is a part of me that wishes these new paths that are just taking root were more established, more clear.
A few weeks ago, my daughter’s friends were shocked that she wasn’t taking the PSATs as a sophomore. She came home one day a bit exasperated, and asked me “What should I tell them?”
I hesitated, and then said “Tell them we’re just keeping our options open."
"What does THAT mean?’ she asked.
Still working on that answer…