Turning traditional education upside down

Despite the changes we see in society and technology, the way we educate ourselves at the college level has basically remained the same for the last 600 years.

I predict that this will change.

We live in a world that cares about results. When your boss asks “how was your day?” what he really wants to know is “how much did you sell,” not “who did you talk to and where did you get your leads.” Despite our drive to results, traditional education remains the one industry where we continue to stubbornly care more about the process than the outcome. Employers are still asking the question “where did you go to school,” instead of “can you do financial accounting for a mid-sized business?”

This collegiate myopia is a relic of the past. To understand what I mean, lets look back 100 years. Back then, universities were gatekeepers to the templars of knowledge we call professors. Unless you could get into the same room as a professor, you could not learn what they know. Useful technical information was passed from person to person. Under those circumstances, it was appropriate to ask “where did you go to school, because the “where” had such a perfect correlation with the “what you know”, or the result we really cared about.

But times have changed. Starting with public libraries and escalating with the information revolution, we have created thousands of sources for free, high-quality, specialized, professional, technical knowledge. The availability of this information is changing lives. The internet is turning traditional education upside-down.

This puts the current school system into a funny state of transition. I recently took a class where I learned how to program in C++. The funny thing was, the professor never taught us a thing about C++. He just sent us to cplusplus.com to take their tutorials. Instead, the teacher lectured a little about programming theory, a little about math, and a lot about “why programming is awesome.” Something isn’t right here.

With cost of tuition rising, federal grands on the verge of vanishing, better alternatives to traditional education, and a capitalist economy that optimizes the world to allow us to do more with less time, money, and energy, I have to wonder how much longer we will tolerate these expensive and antiquated methods for determining who is qualified. Who wants 20 years of college loans for a gold sticker on their résumé?

Not me. Online education programs allow for the same knowledge to be distributed at a fraction of the cost. Where the number of learners were once limited by the size of the lecture hall, a recorded lecture can now be distributed to the world for basically free. Because of the independent nature of online classes, one teacher (or graduate student) can support a class size of thousands. Online programs also cut overhead costs for janitorial services, campus resources, building maintenance, and providing study space. This is a win-win situation.

I’m not saying that traditional University programs are doomed. We live in a world of imperfect information. The fact is that when looking at a résumé, an employer has very little time and not enough information about a candidate. That degree from Stanford may say a lot more about the person than just “what they know.”

What I am saying is that because of the way things are changing, traditional education has some tough questions to answer. The costs have to be either justified or reduced. If not, we’ll find a better way.