Is College Necessary in a Knowledge-Drenched World?

A friend told me recently that people are asking him why learners, in this age, need to ever attend college to become educated. This question undoubtedly has occurred to all educators, and to many parents who are paying tuition. There is perhaps no more raw-edged question than this in all of higher education: Have we educators become obsolete?

If we are considering only the learning value of higher education institutions, and not the developmental life-transition value, the list of unique opportunities for learning that higher education offers seems to have shrunk in the past few years.

One gold mine that distinguished higher education institutions in previous decades, the library and its collections, seems to have deflated in its traditional value. And, who needs large lecture halls to learn? Who needs a sound studio or post-production facilities when you can have them on your laptop? Who needs an art studio if you create your composition on your laptop? If high-end lab equipment or scientific simulation software is also available via the Web, why do you need to visit a campus to run an experiment? And why teach writing in a classroom where you have to talk when you could teach it on the Web where you have to, uh, write?

Maybe the question "Why attend college at all?" is suddenly a serious question.

I visited http://www.allexperts.com to see if those who opt not to attend college but are still serious about learning can at least ask questions and get an educator or expert to answer. In fact, yes, they can. Here's a sample question:

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I'm in my Schools Latin class, and my teacher is always so busy i can't ask him for help... So I was hoping you could tell me what is the difference, and what it is, and what they are about the cases. I just can't understand them.

As in-What are

Nominatives (sing. and plu.)
Genitive (sing. and plu.)
Dative (sing. and plu.)
Accusative (sing. and plu.)

Hope you can help me out

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The answer from allexperts.com was accurate but was probably not helpful to the confused student since much of the terminology in the answer itself was domain-specific. The expert could not see the student nor her facial expression, could not anticipate the next question, and in short, had no way to know if he/she had helped or not.

What the Latin student needed was a Q&A in context, the context of what she already knows, which is the scaffold a good teacher would use in an answer. She needed a teacher, or a tutor.

This is only one random example, but it demonstrates the issue for novice learners: By definition, they don't know how to learn by themselves without mediation. So, maybe the question "Why go to college?" is not such a good one. But we educators have set ourselves up for this very question. We ourselves in higher education have distorted people's perception of the process of learning. We have invited the question about why formal education is necessary by our own language and the misconceptions about learning we therefore perpetuate.

We talk about "content" as if it's a commodity you can buy on Amazon. We talk about "delivery" as if FedEx could teach the course. We have devalued collaborative work by shouting "plagiarism" if students turn to each other for help or flout copyright laws, therefore leading to the delusion that young learners can (indeed should) learn alone.

If knowledge is just content and all you need to do is deliver it, and there is no social aspect to learning because individuals can learn alone, then of course people ask "Why go to college?" Our making education into a commercial transaction by our ways of referring to education has dug us into a deep hole. We would not have known how deep if the digital revolution hadn't shown us.

Learning is of course not content but a process that engages both teacher and learner, knowledge constantly alters because of that process, and all learning is social. Viewing learning as a social process which engages both teachers and learners makes the why go to college question moot.

Do all people need to go to college (on campus or online) to engage in this process and succeed? Of course not. But the exceptions will succeed only as long as there are colleges and universities to keep the process going. Higher education doesn't need to respond to the question "Why go to college?" so much as it needs to change how it frames its own knowledge-building process.

Learning occurs through communication. The Web massively extends communication opportunities for casual interactions or for focused, long-term collaborative investigations around a topic or problem. Learners in general, however, need mentors or guides who are regularly available over a period of time. The quantity of information available through the Web does not mean that individual learners can easily become educated on their own. In fact, with the information deluge, it is even harder now to find clarity and coherence because of the huge ratio of noise to signal.

College is more necessary than ever. In a flood, the hardest thing to find is drinking water.


About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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