A Future We Need to Confront Today

Why would Annie and her peers choose a sociology course from us over the one taught at Harvard or Yale? Answer is, they wouldn't. And they won't.
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My daughter, Annie, is a digital native, a child in whose world information has always been free, ubiquitous, and socially produced.

Last week, Annie taught herself sign language by watching videos on YouTube. This week, she pointed me to Tumblr, Gawker (for the top 10 Internet memes), and Ken Robinson's TED talk about how schools kill creativity.

In light of that fact, she informed me, she would like to consider skipping high school so she can move right on to college. "I looked at one of the online history courses at Yale," she said. "It didn't seem that hard." I told her skipping high school isn't an option: after all, whom would she date?

It may be the only question she can't answer.

Annie is a product of her upbringing: she got her first computer at five, her first cell phone at seven. She's a kid whose operating assumptions about knowledge are grounded not in acquisition but in access: She doesn't need to store information in her head as long as she knows where to find it and how to use it. And while it's convenient for the teachers and the school system, she finds it just plain illogical that her education is compartmentalized not by her own pace or skill but by the pace and skill of her classmates ("... and you know, mom, boys my age don't do as well in school as girls do," she reminds me.)

I Googled it. She's right. They don't.

While Annie's mother isn't about to send her off to college next year, that won't stop her from taking college courses. She can go to high school, date the freshmen (OK, sophomore) boys, and still earn college credits -- in traditional AP courses, in "dual credit" courses that assign college credit to work done in high school classrooms, and -- her favorite -- from the comfort (and mess) of her own bedroom. In fact, the Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" program, created to increase by 8 million the number of college graduates by 2020, requires that eligible students have the opportunity to earn up to 60 college credits while still in high school.

That's right. Sixty credits. That would make Annie a college junior the day she graduates from high school. Annie and millions of her peers.

The blurring of traditional boundaries between high school and college is just one of the seismic shifts occurring in higher education -- and it is far from the most disruptive. After centuries of privilege and protection, the academy is for the first time facing effective market competition: Open University in the UK enrolled 150,000 students and was ranked in the country's top 10 for student satisfaction -- and research. Coursera already offers (free of charge) a menu of courses presented by some of the most brilliant minds in the world -- the launch of a new business model that eventually will make mega-millionaires out of brand-name rock-star faculty.

At the same time, public outcry over college cost, quality and outcomes has produced political demands for accountability, transparency and results. And the burden of college debt has prompted students and their parents to question whether investment in a traditional undergraduate education is either possible or reasonable: that special "growing up" period of socializing, self-reflection, and studying may be a luxury many choose not to afford -- especially if a quality and prestigious college degree can be earned online at a fraction of the cost.

In short, the academy faces genuine and radical change. And even so, most institutions proceed as though business-as-usual will suffice: my colleagues at institutions large and small will tell you with certainty that students will never stop wanting a four-year residential campus experience.

They don't know Annie.

Ask her whether she'd like to finish half her college degree while she's in high school, and then travel around the world while she finishes the second half online -- perhaps taking courses from faculty at institutions like Oxford, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and the Sorbonne -- and she breaks into a grin.

"That would be so totally cool," she says.

And she's right. It would. Because Annie -- like millions of her peers -- grew up in an online world in which communities and social relationships are portable; they carry them on their cell phones. And they don't assume -- the way you and I might -- that sitting in a classroom (or a 600-student lecture hall) is the best way to get a college education.

For colleges like mine, that's a future we need to confront today. We need to rethink our course offerings: Why would Annie and her peers choose a sociology course from us over the one taught at Harvard or Yale? Answer is, they wouldn't. And they won't.

That means we need to be sure that every one of our programs is distinctive, engaging, and emphatically grounded in the physical world.

Because even Annie can't learn to ride a horse -- or perform a play, produce a film, or conduct scientific research -- in a class of 100,000 on the Internet.

For that, she'll still need to come to campus.

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