Shirky predicts that the bulk of higher education is being disrupted the same way the music industry was disrupted by MP3 files.

Should we believe him?

Let us run a thought experiment. Instead of online lectures disrupting higher education, imagine that someone has invented a learning pill. That is, someone can extract the knowledge of experts and embed it in a pill: you take the pill, you are an expert. Your knowledge is perfect in every way right away. Essentially, you could acquire the knowledge of several advanced degrees in seconds by taking a single pill. Let us assume, to make the case even more compelling, that these pills cost nothing to produce and that they are without side-effect (except for the learning, of course).

What would happen?

  • Almost certainly, the pill would be made illegal. The excuse: the pill is surely dangerous and we need to protect the public. A black market would blossom and, eventually, governments would cave in. However, the pill would be highly regulated. There would be a lobby trying to make it scarce.
  • Educators would point out that the pill is just not the same as a quality education. Indeed, they would explain that knowledge is just one component of a good education. People would argue: do you really want to go see a doctor who learned from a pill?

The net result, I believe, is that even though a learning pill would disrupt society, it would do little to disrupt colleges. Degree requirements would not go away: it is unlikely that anyone who took a medecine pill would be allowed to practice medicine. A college degree would remain as a test of character: maybe even more so in the context of the learning pill. Kids would want to signal that they are dedicated enough to learn the good old way.

Politically, the public would take to the streets if a government tried to close down public colleges on account of the learning pill. And Keynesian economists would warn that a collapse of education as an industry would kill aggregate demand and send the economy in turmoil.

We are unlikely to invent a learning pill. However, the Internet is sometimes a close approximation. Do you want a lawyer or a doctor who learned from the Internet? Given a choice between a college graduate in computer science and someone who has a leading reputation on Stack Overflow, which corporation would pass on the college graduate?

Source: Via Seb Paquet.

15 Comments

  1. Well, the pill is already in use and traditional schools and programs have staked out the market with the govt regulating it. Schools like Univ of MD Univ College is all online, or American InterContinental Univ Online or Kaplan Univ offer robust offerings that are better than sitting in a classroom and as rigorous. The free programs have merit also. I was pretty illiterate on technology (and you may argue I still am), but I learned the basics of programming in Python and Java from reading books and watching the free video lectures and doing the practice work. It helped me as a manager with an MBA in mgt better understand machines and their roles in business and to discover we can easily build an app for just about anything we prioritize.

    Comment by raj dwivedi — 16/11/2012 @ 13:35

  2. After my experience with interviewing a fair amount of college graduates I would probably choose the person with high score on Stackoverflow.

    Comment by Daniel — 16/11/2012 @ 13:37

  3. I worked in hospitality HR, and now I’m involved in the hiring of software engineers at an enterprise software startup. In neither case do degrees really mean much anymore (if ever?). I don’t remember where 2 of our 4 engineers went to school, and it’d've made no difference if they didn’t. In hospitality, the HR director would note education, but experience was more important, and for the chef who actually hired them, character and ingenuity were all that mattered.

    Going to college is something worth noting, but opportunity cost wise, it’s less valuable than many other accomplishments (unless you go to an elite school, in which case it’s probably worth it).

    Comment by Max — 16/11/2012 @ 14:27

  4. I think your analogy is missing one key point of education: variability.

    If anyone attending a course (physical or online) would learn all the content in the same way, the debate would be extremely different.

    In my opinion the whole point of having humans in the loop, and “college evaluations” is to try to compensate the variability among individuals; such as all the graduates of a class X at place Y, either have homogeneous “guaranteed” quality or that the differences among them are clearly stated (“top of the class” versus “last to graduate”).

    In my opinion, a better analogy of the problem is: we have a learning pill. If you take it you may become an instant expert or have learned nothing. Would you trust a doctor that just took the pill, but had no exam or peers examination ?

    If we had the perfect pill that you describe I predict that we would have much more radical changes that the ones you speculate (schools would most certainly disappear, and replaced by a “not yet described new concept”, I would guess more like that interdisciplinary hacker-spaces).

    Comment by rodrigob — 16/11/2012 @ 15:30

  5. I think CS is a bad example to use: software development is one of the fields where self-driven learning makes a huge difference.

    I would much rather hire someone who takes computer vision courses on Coursera.com or who works through all the problems on a site like Project Euler or Rosalind.

    A degree guarantees a minimum knowledge level, but that minimum can be pretty minimal. I say that having spent the past summer conducting technical interviews for developer positions.

    Many of really solid line-of-business developers I know/work with have non-CS degrees. Survivor bias, I’m sure. The people who aren’t intelligent and motivated don’t go far, since they don’t have a credential to show off.

    … and doesn’t Shirky point out that people inside the dying institutions can’t conceive of a different world where that institution is no longer vital? :)

    Comment by David Janke — 16/11/2012 @ 17:08

  6. @Janke

    … and doesn’t Shirky point out that people inside the dying institutions can’t conceive of a different world where that institution is no longer vital?

    I think he means “in general” as he is in academia himself.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 16/11/2012 @ 19:05

  7. Great article!
    How is it that so many people are overreacting to the fad of online education?
    It’s meant to be merely an aid, not a replacement for college degrees.
    I feel people have really missed the fact that these online courses have helped people far across the globe… from the US all the way to Pakistan and Portugal, who have zero means to get a good education. Why are colleges are so threatened by this?

    Comment by Marie — 16/11/2012 @ 23:18

  8. Continue with the thought experiment, which candidate would an employer prefer – someone who took two pills or someone who studied in college (hence have half the knowledge of the other candidate)?

    Also, isn’t
    “People would argue: do you really want to go see a doctor who learned from a pill?”
    is the same claim as
    “Who would listen to an MP3 when they could buy a better-sounding CD at the record store?”

    People with less budget but still in need of music/treatment would start using mp3/pilled-doctor , and before you notice it, limiting yourself to only CD-from-store/unpilled-doctors would seem archaic

    Comment by Yoav — 17/11/2012 @ 3:10

  9. Really terrible logic in this post…
    BTW:
    Given a choice between a college graduate in Computer Science and someone who has a leading reputation on Stack Overflow, which corporation would pass on the college graduate?

    Pretty much any corporation with a brain… ofc a lot of ppl with super high rep on SO have CS degree but pick one that doenst have one and Ill bet he is much better programmer than some noob CS grad. I mean seriously I have CS degree Im not that good and Im still better than a bunch of noobs that have no passion/interest for programming.

    Comment by Ivan — 17/11/2012 @ 14:16

  10. The thought experiment is instructive but I think you’re drawing the wrong conclusions.

    If the pill were absolutely equivalent to a full education, I doubt anyone would hesitate to use a doctor who’d taken it (in fact he’d probably be cheaper too). The instinctive reaction that “of course I wouldn’t” comes from living in our world where such a pill is an impossibility.

    So the first conclusion to draw is that, despite having an imperfect pill (online education) your apocalyptic reactions (government bans, economists predicting doom, etc…) aren’t happening. That would indicate that, as alternative methods of education improve, they will gain more and more acceptance.

    The other conclusion comes from varying the experiment somewhat. Imagine a pill that confers instant, unlimited cash. Possession of cash would become too common to retain any value and wealth would be signaled by other means.

    A status of expert is similarly conferred by having more knowledge than is common. (Think of an expert from a thousand years ago.) Increasing access to knowledge is to be welcomed for its intrinsic value but experts, like the poor, will always be among us.

    Comment by JF — 17/11/2012 @ 19:03

  11. Whenever I talk to Americans (that includes Canadians), they are very agitated/excited/worried/something by online learning. This debates is all but absent in Europe. Why? Because most European countries have had “open universities” and similar form of distance education for centuries, free or almost-free. Their courses have basically the same features as the much-hyped Coursera etc. At least I can’t really see what’s so disruptive about the latter. These university systems have their fair share of takers, typically people who live in very remote areas or are physically handicapped, but are in no way threatening the traditional universities. I mean, if you can go study in a regular university, why would you choose not to? If you don’t like the lecture, you could just read the course textbook – that’s what I and many others often did.

    Of course, this assumes that you have a university system which is free or almost-free to the student, as most of Europe has.

    Comment by Julian Togelius — 18/11/2012 @ 9:13

  12. Education definitely does not equal higher education. I know people who gained very little from attending a top school. I also know a lot of self-educated programmers, who did not have a formal education in CS. Many autodidacts, however, had good background in math.

    I also suspect that the magic pill of Internet learning doesn’t work well for a majority of students. It is only good for people who could study themselves. The unlucky majority will have to proceed the other way: in the carrot and stick framework of traditional colleges/universities. BTW, the ability to study yourself usually is not innate either. You typically learn it at school (but often times before college).

    A good thing, however, is that a lot of talented people who can self-educate (especially from poorer countries) are now getting free (or low cost) access to educational materials (through Wikipedia, Coursera, online publications, etc). This is a huge deal that can, probably, be compared with invention of printed books.

    Comment by Itman — 18/11/2012 @ 20:43

  13. @Itman

    How can you possibly thrive in any industry if you cannot learn continuously on your own?

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 19/11/2012 @ 13:55

  14. @Julian

    The European online education, like the Open University, are not free. If you sum up the cost to the students and the cost to the State, they cost about the same overall.

    Here, we are talking about bringing the cost down to almost zero. Two instructors, 10,000 students. It is so cheap that you can offer it worldwide for free.

    Call me back when the Open University starts offering its courses for free. It can’t.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 19/11/2012 @ 14:09

  15. @Daniel,

    Most people don’t thrive.

    Comment by Itman — 19/11/2012 @ 14:21

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