Friday, March 20, 2015

The End of College by Kevin Carey - Book Review




In The End of College: Creating theFuture of Learning and the University of Everywhere (Riverhead Books, 2015, 288 pages, $27.95/11.99), Kevin Carey presents a view of the modern American hybrid university as dysfunctional and ineffective on the basis of learning, cost, and inappropriateness for the contemporary high tech world in which learning and learners are widely dispersed while educational opportunity is closely held, elitist, and unfocused. His argument is persuasive and his examples of a cheap, learning-based, highly computerized, and virtually free emerging alternative is both inspiring and more than a little unsettling. While the examples of new alternatives for learning and research are clear and real, he is considerably less effective at presenting alternatives for many of the goals of college life, including development of relationship skills, learning to live in a more diverse interpersonal world, and the essentially social nature of youth. His narrative also falls short in supporting his claim of a virtually free education, because the enterprise he describes is hugely expensive, yet he doesn't explain effectively a structure for providing financial support for the development of courses and learning experiences. Nevertheless, this is an important book presenting a seemingly utopian view of a future where opportunity is based on what people have learned and how they perform rather than how well they have taken tests and what they can afford.

Carey makes a strong case for the obsolescence of the contemporary multi-layered university, which he characterizes as the “hybrid university.” He presents a solid history of teaching and learning, going back to the days of Socrates sitting in the Forum of Athens throwing questions at his small group of students. He spends a good deal of time on how, as the dark ages were coming to an end, learning communities developed in Bologna, Paris, and in England, first at Oxford and later at Cambridge, where students came together in groups (called colleges) which organized together to form universities. In America, the first college was founded at Harvard in 1636, largely as a place to train ministers, who spread the gospel and essential learning first throughout the colonies and then across the nation. Harvard was, and remains, the model for the elite American college. However, as America emerged as a nation and spread across its vast continent, three conflicting goals emerged: education for liberal arts, education for vocational ends, and research brought together in what Carey describes as the hybrid university.

Because the hybrid university distributes its rewards based on the research it produces, the goal of teaching undergraduates has become less and less important, although they are necessary for the money they bring in, and to stand as the base of a pyramid with august scholars, teaching few, if any, courses, at the top. This structure is complicated by the difficulty, impossibility, of finding accurate ways to measure learning, set standards, agree to core learning experiences, or define an educated person. The system becomes based on the accumulation of (usually) 120 credit hours distributed among three hour, fifteen week courses and lasting, ideally, four years. Awarding of degrees is, thus, based on time spent rather than material learned. The brand name of the institution becomes increasingly important for being hired in high paying positions, allowing Harvard, Yale, Stanford and their like to emerge as the schools of choice for primarily those who can afford it and gain admission. Thus admission becomes increasingly expensive and families become willing to assume crushing levels of debt. While American colleges and universities have been democratized by the development of land grant colleges specializing in agriculture and technology and community colleges providing low level arts and vocational experiences for high school graduates, the system is top heavy, expensive, and not clearly learning oriented.

But Carey's book is not merely an indictment. He presents what he calls the University of Everywhere and gives clear and clearly superior examples of how it is emerging as the computer becomes increasingly interactive, cheap, ubiquitous and competitive. The centers of this progress are located in some of the hybrid universities Carey has been writing about: Harvard, MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Stanford. Particularly at these institutions, scholars and technical wizards have recognized the capacity of the computer to respond at the keystroke level to how and what students are learning in order to pace additional instruction at precisely the right speed to assure learning and retention, while developing ways to recognize accomplishment and demonstrate such acquisition to potential employers. In other words, they have revolutionized instruction, evaluation, and certification. This revolution has been developed largely in the soup of start-up corporations surrounding Palo Alto, California (Silicon Valley) and Boston, where vast amounts of venture capital have been made available for people developing ideas about how to tap the broad world of those seeking to improve their lives through eduction, numbering in the billions.

The solutions are based upon the development of MOOCs. Mass Open Online Courses, which can and are made available at little or no cost to students seeking the skills and knowledge made available. Carey writes about the precursor instructional tools (computer assisted education, so-called distance learning, online lectures, and more), presenting them as early primitive efforts in what is an increasingly sophisticated, interactive, and evolving technology. The courses are apparently more widely distributed in math, science, and foreign languages because they are easier to sequence and measure, but also encompass almost the entire universe of introductory and some highly advanced areas of study. As prestige schools begin to offer them, they are, surprisingly, enrolling hundreds of thousands of students from around the world, some from remote areas like Mongolia, where a young student made such an impression he has been awarded a scholarship at MIT. This information is all presented through interesting and lively interviews with and profiles of the innovators, both scholars and entrepreneurs who are making it all not only possible to achieve, but happen now.

While Carey is quite persuasive in presenting the flaws in the hybrid university, and coruscating in his indictment of the importance of big-time sports, college as a sort of late adolescent summer camp teaching sexual and alcoholic mores, he's less thoughtful about how future academic communities will develop and how the humanities will be taught and learned. It remains true that there doesn't seem to be a practical substitute for placing bright students in a seminar setting with thoughtful, attentive, and skillful teacher exploring great ideas. However, this interaction rarely occurs anywhere but in the most pricey and elitist institutions and at the very top of the higher education pyramid. Meanwhile, the ends of training for mass employment in a rapidly changing job environment can be met for motivated students best through online MOOCs. Such students are available among the masses, ambitious people around the developing world, although they appear to be increasingly rare in the United States. Carey is also vague, at best, about how all this will be paid for, except to emphasize that economies of scale make the per unit cost of online education inexpensive. The words advertising and sales are not found in this book.

Kevin Carey


Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America, a non-profit policy institute addressing the next generation of issues facing the United States. He is widely published in pre-kindergarten through higher education issues. He has worked in policy and budget areas for the state of Indiana. A graduate of SUNY-Binghampton and Ohio State, he lives with his wife and daughter in Washington, D.C.

The End of College: Creating theFuture of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey (Riverhead Books, 2015, 288 pages, $27.95/11.99) is an important, engaging, and thought provoking book about the changes in higher education to be brought about by the world wide pervasiveness of computers and the economies of scale created by them. His narrative style relies on anecdotal accounts of the involvement of universities, scholars, and entrepreneurs in developing and popularizing this new approach to learning. The book is aimed at the thoughtful general reader, parents exploring with their children the choices they need to make in this new world, and their offspring, who are discovering this alternative on their own. He examines the inertia, even resistance, sure to be encountered from the colleges and universities as they confront re-purposing their missions, plants, and processes. Carey generally ignores the nature of adolescent development as it applies to higher education; his grasp of the technical seems clearer than of the human, but the human impact is also more muddy. While this book has some flaws, I still recommend it highly. I received TheEnd of College from the publisher through Edelweiss as an electronic galley which I read on my Kindle app.