05/21/2015 10:48 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016

When a 'Good Enough' Higher Education Isn't Good Enough


The future of education is upon us... and I'm scared.

OK, so I'm being slightly dramatic. But not much.

Higher education was supposed to be different. Going to college was traditionally viewed as a rite of passage. And while we can all acknowledge that much of that happened outside of class, the college classroom was supposed to offer the opportunity to expand one's view of the world, be introduced to ideas far outside one's understanding or comfort zone, realize that one's assumptions and perspective of the world were not the end-all and be-all.

Most of the time, of course, we in higher education failed at that. Two-hundred person lecture halls; a checklist mentality of getting through the general education requirements; completely forgetting what one studied last semester; courses that had no seeming relevance to who you were or wanted to do with your life. But the opportunity for that "aha moment" was always there, in the margins, if you stumbled into a certain professor's class, or got caught up in a heated debate, or read something that turned your world upside down.

Yet today we are on the verge of losing that. I am part of an MIT policy group investigating online learning. And for the most part, this is exciting stuff. There are immense opportunities that technology offers us to open access to college, lower costs, and enhance the teaching and learning process. In many ways technology has broken the "iron triangle" - of cost, access, and quality - where it used to be that you could only have two out of three.

But what keeps coming up again and again is that technology offers us the chance to provide a "good enough" education. I fully agree that our traditional stand-and-deliver model of education is a dinosaur and could be much better done through a medley of other options, such as MOOCs, just-in-time assessment, intelligent tutoring systems, and the modularization and gamification of the curriculum.

The problem is that this is being viewed as an either/or. Either we have the old and broken traditional education model or we have the new and shiny online education model which is...wait for it..."good enough." Yes, it is good enough if we simply compare it to the traditional model; the research is there to support this.

But at least in the traditional model there was always the chance to discover, explore, and experience the profound moment when education transformed you. When an idea blew you away. When an insight changed the direction of your life.

In the new model, such moments become far harder to come by. If not impossible. To experience such moments one has to be pushed out of one's comfort zone, challenged, forced to confront the stone-cold reality that education is not meant to teach you what you already know.

And while the new and shiny model of online learning is incredibly powerful for the transmission model of education, it stinks at the transformational model of education.

So why does it have to be an either/or?

I believe that a "good enough" education will never be good enough at providing the essence of a college education that helps us to push ourselves beyond our limits of the normal and taken-for-granted. But it doesn't have to. What is missing in almost all of our conversations about the future of higher education is how do we integrate these two models. How do we take the best of both educational models -- the power of digital learning technologies to deliver academic knowledge and the skill of professors to discuss and debate such academic knowledge -- and align them?

In one respect, I get it. It is hard because we have never had to worry about this issue before. Professors did everything, from lecture at students about the basics to guide them through complex and exciting discoveries.

But we are in a new age. And if we don't figure this out pretty fast, all that will be left will be a good enough education that is not good at all.