11/30/2012 06:54 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Disrupt This


What's the point of going to class? Honestly, you can just read the textbook chapter, copy your friend's notes, or, if you have a tech-savvy professor, watch the lecture she recorded and posted on the class website.

In fact, the whole idea of sitting in a seat and listening to a professor ramble on is just a little, well, outdated. You could instead watch a similar lecture at iTunes University or at MIT's Open CourseWare initiative or from the Khan Academy. You could take a free online course from Harvard and even get college credit. Heck, a foundation will pay you $100,000 not to go to college.

Sure, you can have some great conversations and make some great friends in college. You are independent and get to decide what to do with your life. But is that worth spending more than $50,000 at a local public university or a $140,000 at a private college for four years on tuition, room and board?

This is what is known as the "value proposition" of higher education and it is under assault as new technologies seemingly "disrupt" traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions. The recent development of MOOCs ("massive online open courses") has shown us that it may finally be possible to provide free access to world-class professors and courses to anyone, anywhere in the world.

So why go?

I want to suggest that the college classroom is one of the few places in our society where we are forced to carefully and thoughtfully confront the complexity of our world and stretch our assumptions of the possible. Where we are shown that issues have a history, political costs and social implications. That there are irrefutable facts, yet irreconcilable perspectives. Where our seemingly obvious answers become, with just a little bit of prodding and discussion and debate, really fascinating questions. And you can't just change the channel, click the link, or claim that you, "sorry," hit a dead zone and dropped the call.

Sure, students skip class and space out. But my job as a college professor is to figure out how to make you want to come to class and then hold your attention when you're there. It is to make ideas matter and learning come alive.

This is hard stuff, and I cannot claim that we in higher education have figured out how to do this well. MOOCs and other technologies may indeed do a better job of teaching some things to some students. Maybe even lots of things to lots of students. Yet in the end it makes no sense to talk about disrupting higher education if higher education can't disrupt you. For if your education is not ultimately about transformation, then, no, don't go to class.