“It is the best of times — it is the worst of times. In 2020, people have access to a breadth and depth of knowledge unimaginable in an earlier age. However, (colleges) as you know them have ceased to exist. Academia’s fortunes have waned. Twentieth century universities are an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past.”
So begins a video titled “Epic 2020” that has been getting some attention on the Web. I disagree pretty strongly with some of the points made in the video, and believe the timeline is quicker than colleges will actually decline, but I keep coming back to this video for a bunch of reasons.
First, some reservations: Despite the opening passage, Dickens this is not. The presentation is rife with ironies and howlers. It forecasts that technology will overwhelm higher education, but the video itself is low-tech to the extreme, much of it consisting of a “scatter gram” representation of a voice. The narrator, Bill Sams of Ohio University, mispronounces the name of his biggest influence, Sebastian Thrun, for believing traditional higher education is headed for the grave. A little more research, please!
The ending is also a puzzle. Sams seems to be setting up Epic 2020, his “organization,” as some kind of HAL 9000. In 2020, he intones, Google will launch Epic — “the Evolving Personal Information Construct. Epic not only understands everything that you know, but also it knows everything that you need to know to be successful in your professional , social and personal life. EPIC constructs and provides just in time knowledge and information that keeps you current and synchronized with everyone around you.”
But here’s why I can’t get this video out of my head: the straight-ahead, uninflected narrative, and the voicing of the greatest fears of many in higher education — that the forces that will permanently change what we have all thought of as higher education have already been unleashed. Sams lays out a narrative with these key points:
- He speaks at length about the Khan Academy, and notes that its brilliance lies in its assessment system. Time on task is measured in seconds. It is the first real-time assessment of learning, something that schools have long wanted to avoid.
- Sams believes academic badges will grow in stature as alternative to degrees, and successful and promising graduates will be identified not by their degrees and the institutions where they got them, but by professors and fellow students at a place like Thrun’s Udacity, where student comments and questions are rated by others, and the most engaged and insightful students gradually rise to the top of influence ratings. Those students are then identified to potential employers as the most promising potential hires. The companies would pay the educators for their help in identifying their star future employees.
- Public universities will be forced by fiscal constraints and pressure from parents and legislators to award transferable course credits for demonstrated ability rather than class attendance and passing grades on tests and papers. The connection between class content and assessment will be broken.
- Most new online classes are free, and, in time, other colleges cannot sustain the prices for classes that they are commanding. Tuition is abandoned as a concept. The student loan industry collapses, as well.
Will higher education collapse in this manner? No, this is far too simplistic. But are there grains of truth and seeds of nightmares in this? I would argue Yes. This video should inspire a mixture of guffaws, inspiration, and feelings of dread in just about anyone who watches it. So, if nothing else, Sams has succeeded in starting a dialogue that any college thinking seriously about its future needs to have.