Quote of the Day:

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.

–David Gerlernter in today's Wall Street College

Gerlernter, a professor of computer science at Yale, points out that colleges and universities today do not give students an idea of the structure of knowledge. They neglect survey courses, especially in art and the humanities, that give people an educational foundation in favor of politicized courses. Meanwhile, institutions of higher education are spending vastly more money for larger than ever administrative staffs.

Gerlernter predicts that the vast majority of colleges in business today will fail. He suggests that the internet will fill the void. He paints an interesting picture of how this brave new world of internet education might look:

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!

Gerlernter even proposes that institutions other that colleges may replace them in certifying graduates. He cites think tanks, for example, as being able to vouch that somebody has a good education.

Gerlernter's picture may sound quite utopian, but another piece in today's Wall Street Journal makes it clear that colleges have become unaffordable and that something eventually have to be done.

The article is about an apparently accidentally-on-purpose Obama administration coding error that hide the abysmally low repayment rate of college loans. When the government has to obscure this kind of information, then the cost of going college is unsustainable.

The medieval university was something new–perhaps we will see something else new replace it.