An Educational Extinction Event?
Could universities become extinct in the next twenty-five years?
Bud Peterson is the president of Georgia Tech—he is the boss of the boss of the boss of my boss.
Today I plan to talk about the role of Georgia Tech (GIT) in the world of 2035—that is 25 years from now. Peterson started, right after he arrived at Tech last spring, a project on strategic planning. It is an ambitious strategic planning process that is asking the question: “What should Georgia Tech look like in the year 2035?”
The process, at GIT, is getting inputs from all sources possible right now, and is asking all the right questions:
- How do we keep GIT on top?
- How do we make GIT one of the best educational institutions?
- How do we make GIT one of the best research institutions?
- and so on
One question is missing from the list:
Poterintne exsistere certe Officinarum Artes Georgicae in anno MMXXXV?
Sorry, I asked the question in Latin—scholars used to use Latin—my mistake. Thanks to Ken Regan’s daughter’s Latin teacher for the better phrase. What I meant to say is: Will Georgia Tech be around in 2035?
I think there are two reasons to not ask this question. One is it is “obvious” to all that we will be around—pretty much like today—only better. Only using newer technology, but still doing pretty much the same stuff that we did 25 years ago. The trouble with this argument is that I bet that the slide-rule companies thought that they would always be around, I bet that Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) thought that it would always be around, and I do not know if dinosaurs could think—I doubt it—but if they could they should have worried about their possible extinction.
Another reason that no ones asks my question, “will we be around”, is that the question is too scary. Who wants to think about such a scary question? I once asked a technical question at a talk. The speaker paused for a long time and said: “that’s a dangerous question.” What does that mean? Anyway let’s get back to GIT.
I think there is a danger that GIT as we know it today could disappear by 2035. Not just GIT, but all schools, colleges, and universities—at all levels. I think that there is a chance that they could all be gone. They will be replaced by something, but that something may be very different from GIT.
What Do Universities Do?
Let’s start by considering what universities do today.
Educate students. Universities teach undergrads and grad students educational material. This is one, not the, main job of any school: teach students, whether it is formal mathematics or literature. This is the core of any educational institution.
Socialize students. Universities help in the socialization of the students. Going to a school helps change teens into young adults. Students learn much outside of the formal courses that they take.
Network students. Universities help students form networks of people that may be with them for life. Some will meet people that they may work together with in a start-up or a existing company, some may meet colleagues that will be a resource for them throughout their careers, others may meet just good friends, while some will meet their future spouses.
Research and innovation. Universities do a huge amount of the fundamental research in all aspects of science and technology. Most faculty, especially at the top universities, see this as one of the things that they enjoy the most.
Education Extinct Event
I think there is a definite chance that there could be an Education Extinct Event (EEE). Schools—in the general sense—could disappear. Like the dinosaurs, like empires, like whole industries, like many things, schools could become extinct.
What are the reasons that they will become extinct? The main reason I see is the threat from on-line educational systems such as the University of Phoenix and others. Let’s call current GIT and the rest the Un‘s and the new Phoenix style On. The Un‘s are universities as they are today, and the On‘s are like Phoenix type systems that are mostly on-line.
One of the keys to an extinction event is that until it actually happens those who are about to become extinct are usually in denial. If I ask you are you about to become extinct, you almost always say no—not a chance. But, species, companies, and perhaps universities become extinct.
Peter Drucker said in Forbes a while ago:
“Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.
“Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? And for the middle-class family, college education for their children is as much of a necessity as is medical care—without it the kids have no future.
“Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis.”
Un’s vs On’s
How well could the On‘s do what the Un‘s do now? I will leave the economic arguments to those who know better—like Drucker.
Educate students. I see no reason that On could not do as good a job as Un‘s with this basic goal. The usual response is that there would be a loss of interaction with the professors and with fellow students. In 25 years perhaps there could be much more interaction with the On model. Imagine that they have a virtual world where you can talk to my avatar—when ever you like and for as long as you like?
Socialize students. This is perhaps one of the places where Un have an advantage. But, On may already, or could in the next few years create mechanisms that help in this important area. Again 25 years is a very long time, in which huge changes could occur in how humans interact with each other.
Network students. This is one where Un think they have a lead, but I think that is unclear. The rise of net based communities of all kinds may make this a tie at best. One could imagine On putting enough resources into on-line communities of all kinds that give them a lead here.
Research and innovation. This is the place that I think Un have and will continue to have a unique advantage. I will come back to this in a moment.
What To Do?
Since research and innovation is the one place where I see Un‘s having a great advantage over On‘s this is what I would do:
- Confront the existence question head-on. It was not a good strategy for any of the now extinct companies to avoid thinking about it. We must address the question directly.
- Realize that some of the primary functions that we perform must change. Perhaps they can be out-sourced to On‘s. Or done in totally new ways. But, I doubt that business as usual will succeed.
- Embrace our fundamental role of research and innovation. We must become the century place to do this. We already are doing a pretty good job—perhaps we can do much more. Advanced degrees and research are probably the places that we can succeed over On‘s for the next 25 years, if not longer.
What do you think? Will GIT be around in 2035? Will universities become extinct? Could we be facing an EEE?
Finally, I note that my good friend Rich DeMillo is finishing a book on these and related issues. Also see Vonda Sines piece on this same topic.