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The Promise of Fast Education

B. Joseph White Dean of the University of Michigan Business School The education provided by the world’s top business schools is truly the tip of the global-educational iceberg. How can the riches available at the top be distributed to the great mass that forms the rest of the iceberg? Technology may be the answer.

B. Joseph White

Dean of the University of Michigan Business School

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The education provided by the world’s top business schools is truly the tip of the global-educational iceberg. How can the riches available at the top be distributed to the great mass that forms the rest of the iceberg? Technology may be the answer.

My deepest hope, and my wildly optimistic forecast, is that, in this quarter century, we will see the arrival of universal quality education for the global-talent pool — that is, the world’s population. My contention is that this needs to happen, it can happen, and whether it will or won’t happen will be a result of the inevitable conflict between the advocates of change and the defenders of the status quo.

Why does it need to happen? Because with some form of market economics now in place in much of the world, what most determines how effectively that economic system works and whether individuals and communities are prosperous or not is knowledge and the ability to turn knowledge into action and results. And the key to knowledge and effectiveness is education.

The communist system promised prosperity and equality, and delivered poverty. The democratic market system promises prosperity and equality — but only equality of opportunity. The promise of equal opportunity contrasted with the harsh reality of unequal opportunity is the central conundrum of market economics and democracy. It’s a tough nut to crack, but this we know: Without universal, quality education, prosperity will be at best limited, and opportunity will be vastly uneven, accelerating the world’s division of rich and poor and converting the digital divide into an unbridgeable chasm. The resulting social instability will create an ideal environment for dictators and demagogues, and we will have blown our historic opportunity to create lasting freedom, peace, and prosperity.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Capetown, South Africa. I asked him to tell me his greatest concern in the aftermath of apartheid. “The people need to see an improvement in their lives,” he said. “They’re going on hope and trust now. If the economic system doesn’t deliver….” He trailed off.

So the stakes are very high. Universal quality education needs to happen on our watch.

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Why can it happen? For three powerful reasons: choice, technology, and the unbundling of educational products.

Imagine a world in which every parent and child, from the age of three and older, would have the same rich array of options that are currently available to American high-school seniors. There would be paths for liberal-arts and professional educations. There would be research universities, teaching institutions, and colleges of every size and every point of view. There would be junior colleges and technical institutes, trade schools, and apprentice programs. There would be both full- and part-time education. There would be on-the-job training. And coming on very fast and strong would be “anytime, anywhere, any subject” education via the Internet.

I believe that the prospects for the impossible dream of universal, quality education have never been better than today. The philosophy of choice in education is spreading; information and communication technology is breaking the monopoly of local educational establishments around the world; and the education industry — both nonprofit and for-profit — is introducing unbundled educational products at variable prices at an unprecedented rate.

Consider the parallel between the history of the telecommunications industry in America and the situation of the education industry today. In the early days of the telephone, universal service was achieved by granting a monopoly to a single, national provider: the Bell system. Later, we came to see that a modern definition of universal service — that is, abundant innovation to benefit customers in the form of new products and services — could only be achieved through choice that required less regulation and more competition.

I believe that the same case can be made for education today. In the early stages of development of a nation and its population, the cause of universal, quality education may well be served by granting a monopoly, or at least powerful competitive advantages, to a system of public education. But today, it seems clear that we can best achieve a modern definition of quality, universal education through an open system, competition, and freedom of choice — all of it facilitated by technology.

There was much opposition to the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably by comfortable companies, their employees, and the unions who represented many of those employees. But the forces for change overpowered the beneficiaries of the status quo. It remains to be seen whether the forces that would produce universal, quality education for the global-talent pool can overpower the forces of the entrenched and powerful educational establishment.

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If the forces for change win this one, it will discredit the widely held view that fast education is an oxymoron. And what an achievement that will be!

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