The End of College? Not So Fast (CHE)

In his new book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, Kevin Carey lays out a dystopian future for American higher education as we know it. Colleges and universities will cease to exist, with the exception of perhaps “15 to 50” of them, and will be replaced by the “University of Everywhere,” which will provide “abundant and free” educational resources that for centuries have been locked up in the monopoly enjoyed by universities. The reasons for this revolution? Carey ascribes his predictions largely to the availability of massive open online courses and the coming revolution in badging, or microcredentials.

In Carey’s educational future, students will no longer need to spend tens of thousands of dollars per year for four (or often, six) years on a bachelor’s degree. Any courses they could take at an accredited institution will be available for free on the Internet, and third-party certification organizations will crop up that will attest to the learning achieved in each of these courses. These certification badges, in Carey’s model, will verify free or at very low cost the equivalent education and training that students today receive in a bachelor’s-degree program. Voila! The end of college.

While this future sounds plausible at first glance, Carey’s book requires the reader to make a leap of faith. A key assumption is that learning via a MOOC is equivalent to a traditional bachelor’s-degree program. Woven throughout the book is a description of Carey’s experience as a student in the MITx MOOC “Introduction to Biology: the Secret of Life.” As Carey describes it, “As an undergraduate political science and graduate public policy major who studied education policy for a living, I wanted something completely outside of my expertise, so that the experience was as close to that of a newly enrolled student as possible.”

And this is where his argument for the learning effectiveness of MOOCs begins to disintegrate. He claims that because he had no background in biology, his experience is equivalent to that of a young person interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree, the type of student who in Carey’s future will, instead of attending a traditional college, sit through MOOCs and accumulate badges instead of credit hours. But Carey, who is director of the education-policy program at New America and a contributing writer to The Chronicle, is not that young person; he is in his mid-40s with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and roughly 20 years working in the education-policy arena. To think that someone almost three decades younger, with only a high-school diploma (or perhaps even less education) could motivate himself to complete a large number of MOOCs is naïve, and is not borne out by the evidence.

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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