Unified Field Theory redux or The Internet of Things: Education & Training

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Our family is in the midst of the university evaluation process for our younger son. This statement in no way describes the frustration and disappointment of this byzantine and nearly unreliable methods for trying to figure out how to best educate a child to compete in the global economy. (is this even the purpose of advanced education?). The methods and mores of fast food merchandising seem to have permeated the presentations by our own candidate colleges.

I’ve known that the value of college loans exceeds that of credit card debt and that credit card debt exceeds the total of mortgage debt in the US. Now I know how and why. During one college visit, I mentioned to its representative that $60,000 per year for a four year programs “is a lot of money; it doesn’t matter who you are.” She looked directly at me, paused for two beats and replied,”then you should probably know that most children take 5 or 6 years to graduate.” We calculated on the ride to the hotel that borrowing $40,000 over four years would result in a $250 per month payment for about 20 years. Continued assumption of such debt cannot persist.

And it’s all going to change and here’s how. I hope that you’ve heard of Coursera and the emerging world of Massive On-Line Open Curriculum. After all, what’s the difference between sitting at home in front of an iMac or in the back of the auditorium where the graduate assistant lectures to 300 in English 101?

Education and training, both formal and on the job, will be accessible as required and provided by those who are in the best position to educate. This could be a colleague, an expert from afar or even a machine who understands our needs. I think of Siri on the iPhone.

Our college-aged children have grown-up with tools for information access that were the stuff of science fiction when I was at that age. I was taught how to use the library, a quest for the information. Sources were limited. This is not their problem. They want to know what does it mean and how is this information best applied to them as individuals.

Book_shelves_UWI_Library

There are several warning signs of over-stimulation, inability to focus and just too much information hovering about the young student. Or else, teenagers are really still just teenagers. For now, let’s look at the good. They are able to follow their own threads of interest and learning. They can study at nearly any time of the day or week, i.e. the library is always open. They can collaborate with others from far away and at nearly no extra cost. They can travel in time by accessing videos of people and places that may no longer be with us.

Children, thanks to their own lifetimes of technology interaction, know how to access information. They require practical experience with emphasis on how to and when to apply this information. If basics are required, they’ll develop the building blocks at home taught by appealing instructors via the Internet. When hands-on experience is required, they’ll venture to that location. I doubt if any one of the presently structured university locations will will be able to offer it all, no matter how many latte bars or trimesters abroad that are promoted.

I envision a near future where the well rounded will describe their educations as a mixture of on campus, on line, practical experience and self-directed travel. They will be able to demonstrate skills based upon interest and learning. Expensively achieved degrees will not matter much to them or as much to their futures.