On April 22, 1961 the futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller offered a futuristic vision for higher education, a vision he later published as Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies. His idea was that the population explosion and the emerging revolution in information technology called for a massive scaling up of higher education. Perhaps the best recommendation from his book is that universities should "Get the most comprehensive generalized computer setup with network connections to process the documentaries that your faculty and graduate-student teams will manufacture objectively from the subjective gleanings of your vast new world- and universe-ranging student probers." His view was that this would lead to improvements in society and universities across the board, leaving scholars largely free of teaching and able to dedicate their time almost exclusively to research.
Massive Online Open Courses, MOOCs, seem on the surface to have achieved Fuller's vision. Yet even as MOOCs reach more students with high-quality lectures than any format in history, they simultaneously threaten the survival of scholarship. The reason for this is that rather than engaging the population in research and development via mass access to teacher-scholars, MOOCs lead us closer to the vo-tech-ization of higher education. Rather than leading the larger population to deep thought, new ideas and useful applications, MOOCs too often facilitate the cheaper acquisition of credentials (which some online educators already refer to as "badges," reminiscent of the boy scouts) that certify skill acquisition. And along with this shift in the goals and methods of higher education the disappearance scholarship as a profession seems ever more probable. This worries me. It should worry you.
This unexpected transmogrification of Fuller's dream into a potential nightmare may eliminate the livelihood of the scholar and scholarship—because the vast majority of scholarship arises from "teacher-scholars," men and women who enlighten their research via their students and inform their teaching by their research. Though MOOCs are unlikely to threaten elite universities, they will lead many closings of smaller liberal arts colleges and branch campuses of state universities. Bill Gates predicts that a college education, through MOOCs, will soon cost only $2,000.00 and that "... place-based activity in that college thing will be five times less important than it is today.” And with this loss of importance of colleges will come the demise of the teacher-scholar—the promoter of knowledge and scientific thinking. MOOCs will replace many universities, the employers of scholars, by on-line certificates.
The teacher-scholar is a moderately paid individual who models problem-solving and a cultivation of thirst for knowledge. The home in which this modeling takes place, the modern college or university, is the descendant of the academy of Plato. The greatest accomplishments of western civilization have come from university and college students, past and present, the disciples of professionals who have taken them under their wings, taught them in classes, worked with them in research labs, and talked about the glories of learning over a beer (or a coffee) in campus pubs and student unions.
A few miles from my home in the greater Boston area are some of the finest universities in the world. When I look at the schedules of departments in the dozens of universities in this region, I see listings for nightly lectures, brown-bag lunches, lab reports, book launches, and debates. And I know that these are only part of the peripatetic learning that takes place in America's brick and mortar institutions. Replacing these experiences is not currently within the abilities or the objectives of MOOCs.
The driving force behind universities as they have come to be defined in the USA and other countries has been the idea of present and future discovery—learning new insights from the past, new cures for human ailments, new methods for thinking about problems, new ways of understanding of value and values, new flows of capital and labor, and new methods of quantifying and interpreting the knowledge so laboriously attained. Yet this vision of the university as an incubator of discovery is dying. As a generation we are acquiescing to the misinterpretation of universities as certifiers of job readiness, rather than as cultivators of curiosity and fomenters of intellectual disruption of the status quo. The student who aspires to "find themselves" and change the world is being replaced by the student who wants to "find a job." The tragedy is that people believe that these objectives represent a stark choice, rather than a compatible conjunction. Universities prepare us for both. For now.
The post-Internet idea that all knowledge should be cheap and quick fuels the explosion of interest in MOOCs and the view of education as the transmission of skill sets. If learning for its own sake is a luxury we can no longer afford, then society will not allow professors to "return to their research" as Fuller urged. Why employ so many professors or maintain so many student unions and so many libraries after the automation of education?
Learning is hard slogging helped by cups of hot chocolate, mugs of brew, and conversations with people who have slogged or are slogging themselves. It is the individual's labor as a member of a larger community of learners. Humans have achieved culture—the transgenerational communication and development of learning. One of the greatest values of modern societies is the strange and beautiful notion that it is worth several years of the life of its young to participate in communities of scholars. Not merely the wealthy young. But all the academically dedicated youth of an entire country.
Fuller's vision was to improve teaching via professional video lectures interspersed with illustrative material—videos within videos. We have achieved this. But his corollary ideas that this technology would allow scholars to dedicate more time to research while simultaneously involving a larger percentage of the world's population in the process of discovery are threatened by the very technology he foretold. If scholars make their living as teacher-scholars and technology eliminates the need for most scholars to teach, then there will be few sources of income for scholars. And if students are more interested in finding employment than finding truth then I worry how the economy can fulfill its vital need for scholarship, as students request primarily MOOCs and other classes that immediately enhance employability.
Fuller's prescient idea of education automation failed to anticipate the economic and intellectual consequences of its own success—the demise of the very scholar he expected it to protect. That should worry us all.