A Future With Only 10 Universities (Minding the Future, #OpenVA)

Here are the notes from the brief 10-minute talk I gave yesterday at the University of Mary Washington at a "conference before the conference" (Namely: OpenVA). I was part of an afternoon-long event called "Minding the Future," that brought together a number of educators and technologists. (Namely: Kin Lane, Gardner Campbell, David Wiley, Alan Levine, and myself). We each spoke for 10 minutes about our thoughts on the future of higher education, then took 20 minutes of questions. And at the end of the evening, we sat on a panel, taking questions from Jeff McClurken and the audience. Video and slides are also embedded below.

A Future With Only 10 Universities

Here's one vision for the future -- not mine, I want to make clear from the start. I'm quoting from AI researcher, Stanford professor, online education startup founder, and Googler Sebastian Thrun in a Wired Magazine interview: Thrun "imagines that in 10 years, job applicants will tout their Udacity degrees. In 50 years, he says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them."

How would we, how could we end up at that future? A fun mental exercise: try to imagine what these 10 institutions would be, shall we? Here's my pick:

1. Oxford
2. Cambridge
3. Harvard 
4. MIT 
5. Stanford 
6. Princeton 
7. The University of Pearson (acquires Coursera, 2016)
8. The University of Google (acquires Udacity, 2014) 
9. The University of Walmart (acquires University of Phoenix, 2017)
10. BYU

So how do we get from the estimated 17000 higher education institutions around the world to 10? To these 10? (Related question: How do we get to a world where classwork at Udacity is 1) degreed, 2) accepted, and 3) touted?) 

We would have to end college sports as those 10 universities could hardly sustain Bowl Games or March Madness. And perhaps, with a lawsuit by student athletes against the NCAA pending, we will see college sports as we know them end. Or perhaps rather than ending college sports, many institutions will just rebrand and relaunch as sports teams. My alma mater the University of Oregon could become the Phil Knight Ducks. 

We would have to axe taxpayer support for US public universities. My "Last 10 Universities Standing" list contains just 1 public institution -- Cambridge -- but since it's in England, American politicians can just go ahead and defund schools here. 

We'd have to clarify the two outcomes we expect from universities: prestige (for the 1%) and worker training (for the rest of us). 

If the purpose of higher ed is job training, we'll need to push people into majors that employers want. None of you philosophy major upstarts or you hypercritical English majors or good riddance, history majors. It's all marketing, business administration, programming, and drone repair from here on out. 

Coursework will be dictated by employers -- the place where the Universities of Walmart and Google will excel. This will be how, as Thrun puts it "job applicants from Udacity tout their degrees" -- not because of the prestige market, but because of job training prep.

Some things won't change -- if you're one of the few who attend the brick-and-mortar version of Harvard or Stanford or MIT, then the purpose of higher education is connecting you to a network of venture capitalists and future Treasury Secretaries.

To get to only 10 universities left in the world, we'd have to dismantle the current arrangement of research universities, shifting who'll absorb the burden of Johns Hopkins University's cryptography and health care work, for starters, and who'll handle the economics research that the University of Chicago churns out, who's in charge of UC Berkeley's Lawrence Livermore Lab.  But much of the research could be outsourced to corporations or undertaken by private individuals and think tanks.

(Incidentally, if your research is in the humanities, there's always Kickstarter). 

We'd have to rethink graduate programs -- cultivating a few superstar professors for MOOCs -- but Harvard, MIT, and Stanford will surely able to provide us with enough. We'd have to rethink "expertise" -- but with the rise of big data, who needs expertise. We'll just need algorithms to give us answers.

We'd have to agree that higher education is, as the Thrun quotation suggestions, all about content delivery.  Thanks to the Internet, that content will be able to be delivered worldwide, and even with only 10 universities, we won't need to worry about the growing global demand for education. Anyone with the right browser will be able to take courses from the University of Google -- you can download Chrome for free, you know.

People will be able to learn anything they want to on the Internet -- you hear that already. They'll be able to have educational content delivered to them -- with some exceptions, of course: walled gardens; licensing; copyright. Ah, copyright. The University of Pearson (and its subsidiary Coursera) will have total control over its faculty intellectual property. The University of Google and the University of Walmart have total control over their students' data -- but hey, they'll be able to make some awesome recommendations about which restaurants or barbecue grills or health insurance plans students might want to try or buy based on their clicks.

To get to 10 universities, higher education as we know it today will have to be "unbundled." Someone other than universities will have to provide the services that extend beyond "content delivery." Private companies will run football. Private companies will run tutoring. Private companies will run research. Private companies will run assessment. Private companies will run student housing, student daycare, student mental health services. Private companies will help guide students through their career paths. Thanks to big data, the University of Walmart and the University of Google will be particularly adept at this.

"In 50 years, Sebastian Thrun says, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education…"

I think he's utterly wrong.

None of this is inevitable -- not MOOCs, not funding cuts, not the death of the giant brick-and-mortar research university or the death of the small liberal arts college, no matter how gleefully the libertarians in Silicon Valley rub their hands as they craft their hyperbolic narratives about the end of the university and the promise of education technology -- all their stories about innovation and doom and profit.

Thinking back to all the things I've (wrongly) forecast, what could stand in the way of this dystopian future for education? 

Resistance. Community. Open networks. Open content. Sharing. A place -- on- or offline -- that isn't dictated by market forces. Local expertise. Local support. Leveraging technology to connect local learners and local expertise to the rest of the world. Care about students. Human connections. Wonder. Intellectual serendipity. But mostly resistance. A stronger and louder vision of what a more just and progressive and accessible future of higher education and technology should look like. It's actually pretty easy to forecast the nightmare scenario of a higher education apocalypse. It's easy to see signs of it in the headlines. The greater challenge, I'd argue, is to have a bolder and louder vision of higher ed's future.

(My talk starts at around the 1:33:00 mark.)