“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Higher Ed: It’s never just been about educating people


Today Bill Gates at the new Techonomy conference (which looks like an amazing event/organization) suggested that In Five Years The Best Education Will Come From The Web. It is a great read via @techcrunch who have been covering this conference really well. But reading this and listening to the Gov. of Minnesota on the Daily Show (video available) who are suggesting that higher education can happen best off campus, I’m dismayed and befuddled. I’m more confused when I see this from Bill Gates who has been such a strong advocate for education, but then I realize he has mostly concentrated in k-12 and he himself is a college drop out. I’m sensitive to higher education, less so because I now find my career tied to the higher education wagon as a professor of design, but because I have cherished my own college experience some 20 years after the fact as one of the most defining and life altering experiences of my life.

But my life story is irrelevant here. What is more important is what institutionalized Higher Education really means. And it is not about the simple passing of knowledge. There are two overlapping paths that are crucial within institutional higher education that I’m afraid will be lost if we continue this tack of reducing public support for higher education. I also want to say that I don’t think this is an either or type thing. I believe that the power of the open internet is a powerful supplement to what I teach and rely on its videos and abundance of publicly available written material every day in my classrooms. So what is so important in the Academy that we have to maintain?

Growing up
Seriously. in the US, especially, where
vast majority of of college students go long distances away from their primary support systems (families) to live on their own for the first time, college is where we get to figure out growing up. We are “supported” through economic help and social systems. We get to explore the politic, the social, the economic, the sexual, the religious and ultimately the human condition before having to fall out this growingly limited safety net to face the realities of a growingly unforgiving world.

As I write this, I realize that this is a luxury of the middle & upper classes, but one that I have also seen make a huge difference to working class individuals who have been able to make it work for themselves usually in the most heroic ways.

Depth & Focus
Having been a teacher, I have seen with my own eyes the difference it makes to work in groups with peers (not necessarily even on the same project). The support and camaraderie and co-teaching that goes on through the classroom in real time face to face is incredibly powerful. The institution is also a crucible for engaging contradiction. This is why it has tenure protection. So that the teacher’s opinion is not the basis in any way or pretense of other reasons created as an excuse for reprimand, censorship or termination. The university setting is our last monastery of contemporary thought. The protection from the “real world” that is here enables focused and deeper learning than the outside.

Not just passing on knowledge but creating it
In the end the most important thing about the academy is not just the passing of knowledge, but the creation of knowledge. The classroom is used as a testing ground for new ideas, and new idea creators. Those who take on the challenge move up the academic ranks and become our doctors of knowledge as much as becoming our teachers. Their mastery of knowledge areas is required for them to move beyond what they know and create a world beyond. The institution of higher learning is their protecter lair of study. Almost every major nobel laureate has come from higher learning. Yes, the budgets for these studies are often supported greatly by corporate financial support, but many are beyond the interest of corporations, or in contradiction to the corporate agenda. The reality is that we need to make sure that the academy remains in part (preferably) in whole separated from the corporate world. Even the government agenda has had negative impact on the results of the academy. These concerns are especially true of the pure academy that has no direct impact on the corporate balance sheet. Pure science, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts (including design) do not always work towards either direct career development or corporate capital growth, but still have pushed humanity as far as any other non vocational or commercial endeavor.

In the end, technology alone is not enough to change the 100’s of years that the academy as we know it has been in place as an invaluable contributor to the higher calling of humanity. I shiver when those focused on the economy as the soul means of improving humanity talk about either corporatizing or removing the institution of higher learning. Money already has way to tight a hold on higher ed than it should. I pray that Bill Gate’s prediction is dead wrong.

I do agree with some of his points about text books and other issues mentioned in the article linked to above. In the end, this is not a black & white issue. The reality is that technology offers tons of opportunities for improving education, career development and even how the brick & mortar institutions of the academy should operate. Where I disagree is that an education solely developed on the Web is as valuable in the long term for humanity (or the educated).

Yup, this last 1 might get me trouble. And I don’t have tenure, or work for a tenure protected institution, so my contradiction of their policies and institutional beliefs means that mine put me in a tenuous if not frightening position.

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