On Clay Shirky’s “college from scratch”

A few days ago, Clay Shirky initiated a conversation on Twitter with the question: If you were going to create a college from scratch, what would you do? The conversation was extended on this wiki page. Though playful in ways, there is a real issue here. Many have suggested that higher education could go the way of journalism. 

My first thought was "what kind of scratch are we talking about?" If we are talking about the "scratch" of 2010 US, then we are talking about a lot of scratch! Higher education is big business, bigger all the time. Universities do a lot things besides hold classes and give credits. Wherever there's a college outside of a major city, I'm willing to bet it's the region's #1 employer, or close to it. Everyone always wants to point fingers at professors (as they do many professions) but professors are just a fraction of the money universities spend in local economies, especially when you add in the money students spend off-campus. I spent 8 years at SUNY Cortland, the biggest employer in Cortland country, the poorest county in NYS. What do you think would happen there without the campus?

On a larger, national scale, though we like to complain, US higher education remains the best in the world. People come from around the world (when they can get through the visa process!) to study here, and then often the best and the brightest stay here. There are plenty of industries and other areas of our culture where we are lacking (K-12 education for example). I'm not sure why we'd want to pick on one industry that actually competes well in the global marketplace.

Our major problem is that, culturally, we have come to view higher ed
as primarily an investment in individual human capital (i.e.. go to
college, make more money). I have no problem at all with the idea that

higher education should support students in their pursuit of meaningful
careers. But most students shift majors and then go on to shift
careers, so college as job-training is short-sighted and a poor
investment. 

Of course it isn't a poor investment from the corporate viewpoint,
where you might hope each hire is a great hire but you know that won't
be the case. From that perspective it makes sense to say: Stay at home.
Work your HS grad job for 6 yrs full-time while taking online
classes. Get "trained" for a particular career. Once you're trained,
you can get hired. If you don't like it, then go back to college to get
"trained" for something else.

That also makes sense for "for-profit" universities. That's
why they "work with employers" as the DeVry commercial says. As far as
I can tell, this is the for-profit notion of "life-long" education:
perpetual training.

If we can shift our perception of higher ed as job training, then perhaps we can shift campus culture as well. We should be able to look at schooling practices from semesters to lectures to essay assignments and recognize how they developed within a particular set of material and technological contexts that no longer exist as such. That doesn't mean that everything should go online, but that we should incorporate networked learning/doing with face-to-face learning/doing. Which is best when and for what? 

And to be clear, that isn't simply a technology issue. It's more importantly about reconnecting with a sense of higher education that we've lost as we've moved away from thinking higher education as social/public good (i.e., the way we think of K-12 education). I just think technology could be part of the means toward that end.

Of course you can't go back, either. If we are going to continue in the direction of students funding their own education (as opposed to public funding), how will we convince them to invest in public rather than individual good? If we are going to get more public funding…. well if you figure that one out, let me know.

And so I end up where I began, with scratch. It all comes down to what you can get money to do. So I'm afraid I just can't get up for the fantasy of building a college from scratch.