Like many teenagers, my son spends a ton of time on his computer. His passion is designing icons to personalize a desktop or iPhone interface. He posts sets of these icons online for people to download. He doesn't get paid for any of this. But he loves doing it.
I sometimes reprimand him for devoting so many hours to this: "Have you finished your Spanish homework?" Yet I also find myself wondering, What's actually the better training for his future, high-school Spanish or honing these self-taught computer skills?
Parents tend to be conservative. We want our kids to follow the routines we did, even if they are out of date. Educational institutions tend to follow this pattern too. After all, they serve these parents as customers.
But what if there's a better way? That's the prospect we raise in "Who Needs Harvard?". If you were starting a system of higher education from scratch today, would you still choose a campus-based model that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree? Or might the efficiency of the Web inspire a model in which classes would be remotely delivered via Web streaming, discussion groups conducted over Facebook, and testing handled electronically? This is already happening, as staff writer Anya Kamenetz reports, courtesy of a rising movement of tech-savvy "edupunks." MIT, for instance, already posts online — for free — the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and selected video and audio for every one of its classes. "Why is it that my kid can't take robotics at Carnegie Mellon, linear algebra at MIT, law at Stanford?" asks David Wiley of Brigham Young University. "And why can't we put 130 of those together and make it a degree?"
Let's take this a step further. American business leaders, particularly in the tech sector, lament regularly that our education system isn't producing enough qualified engineers for our future. Why don't they recruit the best talent straight out of high school and train this next generation themselves? If the NBA can find Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, why can't Intel or Microsoft find what it needs? I've raised this notion with executives and seen little enthusiasm. It turns out that, in this area, they're conservative too.
These are controversial ideas, and there are many more complications than my simplistic telling represents. But moving beyond the model of the 1950s — that an expensive (and elite) four-year tour on a leafy campus is the primary route to success — is a discussion we need to embrace, especially as President Barack Obama pledges more money for education reform. Market forces have had zero impact on the cost of quality academic training; holding onto the past could cripple our future.
Now here's the confession: I'm just as trapped by this model — and committed to it — as any tenured professor or university president. My son has already visited a couple of traditional four-year colleges, and we've got money stashed in a 529 account to help pay for one. Someone has to be progressive and pioneer a new way. But I'm not going to take that risk with my son's future. If he gets into Harvard — or some other college — I'll spend the money to send him. What kind of hypocrite does that make me?
A version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.