A Higher-Tech Rebirth from Higher Ed's Ruins

The News Magazine of HCU

Whereas we do not agree with all of Mr. Gelernter’s conclusion in his remarks, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, he does provide food for thought that universities must be extremely creative, maintain rigorous academic standards, and embody technological savvy in the current dramatic changes in society. 

Gratefully, HBU is known for these distinctions by the example of our expanded online initiatives, which will cause us to reach new horizons. Simply put, HBU is moving forward under the providential God who has indisputably guided her for 50 years. Notable, and not mentioned in Gelernter’s article, is the essential of Christ-centered academia that truly makes HBU unique in fulfilling the void degreed students often miss in other academic institutions. Dr. Robert Sloan’s vision of a truly “comprehensive Christian education” is being fulfilled by HBU’s missional statement embraced, unapologetically, by every member of our faculty: “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

Colleges are failing, but what can replace them? Online courses, net-campuses and mentors.

By David Gelernter
Updated Jan. 22, 2017,
Article used by permission.
Appeared in the Jan. 23, 2017, print edition, Wall Street Journal.

U.S. colleges are failing—the fancy-pants institutions along with the rest. They nearly all have fundamental problems, and they have had them so long that these institutions seem destined to collapse as students demand value for their money and society demands colleges that work.

Today’s colleges give students no idea of the structure of knowledge: the topics they should learn, the books and skills they should master. Educators refuse them the guidance and stiff requirements they need and often want. Colleges refuse to provide the survey courses, especially in arts and humanities, that students need to build an educational foundation. Instead, too many teach politicized courses and assign slanted readings and random garbage.

Educators fail at their first duty, to produce adults who can read and write and speak and listen like adults. And they fail at their second duty, to help create American citizens who can explain this nation, and the West generally, to their children and themselves. College graduates must be capable of explaining how society arrived at this particular historical moment. What were the milestones? What were the major choices?

It has been clear since the 1980s that U.S. colleges are failing. They spend more every year to finance their growing administrations and pass the bill to students, while indulging their penchant for being sinister and ludicrous at the same time. Over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation, as the higher-education world inevitably flips over and sinks. Top schools will remain, because they sell a valuable commodity: not education but prestige.

Many colleges do well teaching technical topics like mathematics, engineering, science. In the first phase of the big sink, local colleges will likely make a pitch for smart students by strengthening their tech sides, throwing out their arts and humanities departments—and offering better online-education options instead. A group of smaller schools might hire some big-name scholars who are good onstage, and produce a shared suite of internet courses in arts and humanities.

Students will need digital guides or mentors who are experts in online education and the rapidly growing range of online offerings. They would hire such a guide for the duration of an online college education. Bachelor’s degrees will gradually be replaced by certified transcripts. A student presents his final transcript to some admired authority with whom he has chatted occasionally throughout his studies. By signing it the big shot says, in effect: You rate a degree in my book.

“Over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation.”

Think tanks and major newspapers also make natural certifiers. If I saw a candidate for a job or graduate school whose college education was vouched for by the American Enterprise Institute or the Manhattan Institute, I’d be impressed. Then there’s the big world of tech-intensive companies, research hospitals and drug companies. Museums, industrial research labs, publishers, major libraries and symphony orchestras might be interested in running small “certification” departments —in effect, granting degrees. A local church or synagogue might get into mentoring or degree certification. The old colleges themselves, with time on their hands, might do well in these new businesses.

Face-to-face teaching is incomparably best. To compensate for its built-in disadvantages, internet teaching must do something new. Freely available software templates ought to make it simple for students to get a quick overview of the whole course and to navigate through the course however they like.

Students should be able to stop at any point to ask a question, or to join a running conversation among students around the world who are taking the same course. Students ask questions in writing. A written answer comes back, and question and answer become part of the online “course commentary.” Thus the course grows better and deeper each time someone ventures through it. Popular courses will have someone on call, too, to answer phoned-in questions around the clock. Wherever they live, English-speaking teaching assistants contribute an hour or two when they have the time.

When the course is done, it folds up into a neat little square on your desktop or in a file system, as a reference forever. It becomes a “valuable digital object.” Such objects don’t exist now, but they will be the basis of lots of interesting things—such as sustainable digital publishing, and an actual market in digital art—once they have been standardized. Federal agencies that have led major tech projects in the past would do well here, too.

Investors will build net-campuses that supply living space, food, internet access, security and basic supervision. The rest will be up to the mentors, the certifiers and the students themselves. Students can move from a net-campus in Paris to Sydney, as the mood takes them, and their campuses might be part of their educations. Closed-down colleges might be revamped as internet campuses—with sports and labs thrown in. Even libraries!

This is only a bare outline of the educational future. The Trump administration could change the world of higher education using not much money but bold ideas and serious leadership.

Mr. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, is the author of Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Human Consciousness ( Norton, 2016).

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