Education – it is something we take for granted. It is currently under debate (when is it not?), this time over the future of higher education. The internet has revolutionized education on campuses by allowing students to Google information and use online resources for the majority of their research. Now technology is threatening to revolutionize education off campus by allowing people from all across the globe to engage in online education through websites like Coursera and NovoEd. Courses are offered by partner institutions such as Stanford, Yale, Brown, Princeton, Northwestern – the list of respected institutions goes on.
So is this the end of higher education as we know it? I doubt it. And I am not the only one who believes higher education is just as strong as ever – a number of leaders of institutions across the country have spoken on the importance of physical colleges and universities. Back in January Janet Morgan Riggs, the president of Gettysburg College (my alma mater), wrote one of her many position pieces for the Huffington Post on just this topic. So, why all the debate?
As is often the problem, learning is not the center of the discussion. Education this, education that – what good is an education if the student doesn’t learn anything!? Most students can tell you that some students graduating from prestigious schools learn very little about their discipline. Memorizing information and regurgitating facts can give students passing grades but they cannot ensure learning. Students who really absorb information differentiate themselves in and out of the classroom by asking why when others ask how, questioning when others are accepting, and applying when others are repeating. This difference will save higher education.
New technology helps us obtain information, filling our desire to understand how things work. I was thinking about this the other day – if I had spent $100 on my Economics 101 textbook and gathered my determination, I would have obtained as much information on how economics work as I did paying over $5,000 for Economics 101 course (the going rate of a 4-credit course at my alma mater)! And that’s just old technology – free online courses offer higher level classes that go deeper and focus on specific topics such as finance, game theory, and statistical analysis.
Still, all these resources will only teach me how economics work. If I really want to learn why, I need more. I need to be immersed. I need, as they say, to have my skin in the game. Service learning projects, studying abroad, volunteering – these activities (many of which would have been impossible for me without enrolling in an institution and some possible only at attending Gettysburg College) opened my eyes to how economics work in the real world. I learned not only why things happen, but why I should question the profit maximization, free market liberalism of standard economic texts. I understand now how free markets are supposed to lead to efficient (if not equitable) outcomes and why they are useless (it is just a concept as unrealistic in economics as democracy is in government).
Higher education as we know it is not disappearing anytime soon. I sincerely hope it undergoes serious changes in both public policy and private education styles. The new opportunities presented by technology can be harnessed by traditional educational outlets to provide new, innovative ways of challenging students to reach new levels of inquiry. And in the end we must remember to always pursue learning, not education. Ask why, not just how.