04/24/2011 09:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2011

Higher Education's Technology Problem

Technology offers the tempting promise that it can make education more efficient and cheaper. Be careful what you wish for. Despite rapid advances in technology, somehow college just keeps getting more expensive. At what point do families cry stop and refuse to buy anymore?

Maybe somewhat soon, according to a recent piece at TechCrunch. As Jon Bischke and Semil Shah write:

Today... the credentialing provided by universities is becoming decoupled from the knowledge and skills acquired by students. The cost of obtaining learning materials is falling, with OpenCourseWare resources from MIT and iTunes U leading the charge. Classes can be taken online on sites like Udemy and eduFire, either for free or a fraction of the cost to learn similar material at a university, and sites like Veri, which recently launched at TechStars NYC Demo Day, aims to organize and spread one's accumulated knowledge. [...] At least when it comes to materials (i.e. textbooks), start-ups are playing a disruptive role.

Well that's interesting, but disruption here is relative. So much talk of technology is about only one part of college: the skills training part.

But there's a big difference between the training provided by higher education -- which technology might entirely separate from institutions -- and the actual experience of college, which has nothing to do with technology.

For most of American history jobs training had nothing to do with college. Most people didn't go to college at all, and got all the training they needed through primary school, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. Perhaps technology can return us to that place again. If it gets cheaper for students that's a wonderful thing. But let's not pretend that's going to eliminate the university as we know it or really increase access to higher education.

Real post-secondary has always been hugely impractical (all of those philosophy majors; sure the things they learn might eventually help with some sort of job, but it's a pretty indirect route). That's sort of the point.

Real, physical, colleges have to exist and prosper because rich people like them and want to send their children there. Technology might allow people everywhere to access Princeton lectures online but it won't allow them to access Princeton. So technology here isn't really disruptive, it's just incidental.

More technology might make jobs training more efficient, but its true potential for disruption has to do with the way it might finally separate jobs training from college.

That's not the worst thing in the world, but it will return college to the elite minority of American children. Technology might bring "education" to more of the American public, but it will keep the prestigious credentials away from the people. Indeed, it will make those inefficient credentials even more difficult to access.

That transition might be okay, but let's keep that in mind.

Cross-posted at the Washington Monthly.

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