Monday, September 28, 2009

Revolution in Higher Ed

Zephyr Teachout at the Washington Post offers up a disturbing augury of the future of higher education:

Students starting school this year may be part of the last generation for which "going to college" means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors. Undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering. Colleges, like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet. The business model that sustained private U.S. colleges cannot survive.

The real force for change is the market: Online classes are just cheaper to produce. Community colleges and for-profit education entrepreneurs are already experimenting with dorm-free, commute-free options. Distance-learning technology will keep improving. Innovators have yet to tap the potential of the aggregator to change the way students earn a degree, making the education business today look like the news biz circa 1999. And as major universities offer some core courses online, we'll see a cultural shift toward acceptance of what is still, in some circles, a "University of Phoenix" joke.

Just as other dispensers of information, e.g. newspapers, are fighting an increasingly desperate battle to survive the encroachments of modern communication technologies so, too, will universities be forced to change or perish:

This doesn't just mean a different way of learning: The funding of academic research, the culture of the academy and the institution of tenure are all threatened.

Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and, the main source of reporters' pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise -- a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other "students," and links to free academic literature.

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. Every major paper once had a bureau in, say, Sarajevo -- now, a few foreign correspondents' pieces are used in dozens of papers. Similarly, at noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States.

When this happens -- be it in 10 years or 20 -- we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

There's more on this sad prognostication at the link. I don't wish to sound like a Luddite, but I think what Teachout envisions would be a terrible development. The classroom is more than just a space in which knowledge is imparted. It's a place where relationships are formed, where students get the chance, if they want it, to ask spontaneous questions and pursue lines of inquiry in ways that are hard to achieve through a computer screen. Teaching is more than just putting a syllabus online and emailing tests to students. It's also communicating a love and enthusiasm for the subject matter and an interest in one's students. Moreover, a campus is more than just a place where students go to attend class, it's a community where dozens of opportunities for growth and development present themselves to young people.

It's not that students can't learn by staring at a monitor for even more hours every day than they already do, it's rather that learning in isolation is one-dimensional and impersonal.

What Teachout is predicting is essentially the dehumanization of education, an impoverishment of the intellectual life that will make us more alienated, estranged, and less human. I hope she's wrong.


Eroding Freedom

According to a report at another bit of our freedom will slide away if ObamaCare passes into law:

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) received a handwritten note Thursday from Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff Tom Barthold confirming the penalty for failing to pay the up to $1,900 fee for not buying health insurance.

Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and could face up to a year in jail or a $25,000 penalty, Barthold wrote on JCT letterhead. He signed it "Sincerely, Thomas A. Barthold."

According to the bill currently before the Senate (Sen. Max Baucus' bill) you will be required to buy health insurance, regardless of whether you think you need it or not, and regardless of whether you want it or not. If you don't buy it you will be fined. If you don't pay the fine you will be put in jail. How's that for Hope 'n Change?

The argument is sometimes made that this is no different than requiring people to buy automobile insurance, but that argument is specious. You are not required to buy automobile insurance unless you drive. If you don't drive you don't have to buy it. Moreover, drivers are required to have coverage in the event they harm someone else in a traffic accident. If a driver could only harm himself there would be no need to require coverage.

If people wish to risk not having health coverage they should have that right, but then medical facilities should have the right, as a general principle, to decline treating those who accept that risk. Government should stay out of it.

The reason for requiring coverage, of course, is that it's hard to mandate that insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions if people can wait to buy insurance until they have a problem. By forcing everyone into the system, insurers will have enough capital to cover PEC patients they'd be unable to cover under the current system. The problem is that a lot of people are too well off to qualify for medicaid but too poor to be able to afford to buy insurance or to even pay the $1900 fine. These people should be free to decide how they wish to direct their meager resources without the nanny state coercing them into buying health insurance.

The idea that health care coverage is somehow a right is, in any event, a rather recent and dubious, invention. Millions of people alive today grew up with no "right" to health care coverage and chose to risk living without it until they were able to afford it or got a job that offered it.

The Baucus bill is an attempt to take away the freedom you have to manage your own affairs and to make your own choices in life. If, as we've been told with monotonous regularity since the 70s, the government should stay out of our bedrooms, then even more should the government stay out of our decisions about how to manage our finances and our health care.