Are these threats to institutional higher education?

As my thesis research continues, I find myself getting increasingly drawn into the world of informal learning, autodidactism and self-directed learning, and the role that the web plays in facilitating this type of learning. Thinking about these topics makes me think about the future of the formal higher ed institution, which, incidentally, is not a topic of my thesis, but seems to naturally flow into my thoughts when I start looking at this type of learning.

More and more I wonder about what post-secondary institutions will look like in the future as a result of the increased availability of not only high quality educational content, but also ready built communities of experts that learners can tap into and interact directly with. With a little know how and motivation, the sky is the limit as to what a self-directed learner can learn on the web IF you know how to learn.

Some things that I have come across this week that have made me go hmmmm about this particular topic.

The example of Ryan Genz, a fashion designer who, along with his partner Francesca Rosella, came up with CuteCircuit, a clothing design company that creates wearable technology – intelligent clothing that integrates technologies like LED lights and cell phones into fashion using smart textiles and micro electronics.  According to Francesa, when they first started the company and approached engineers to realize their designers, they found that engineers couldn’t get past the idea that they wanted their circuits to look a certain way.  They were dismissed by the engineers, and Francesa felt like the engineers thought “they were insane” for wanting them to design a circuit board that looked like a heart. So, rather than getting rejected and packing it in, Ryan – a fashion designer with a background in Anthropology – decided to teach himself how to build circuits. It took three months for him to learn, but in the end he taught himself how to engineer electrical circuits to build clothing like this, and go on to forge a successful company in a highly competitive field. (via the Outriders podcast from the BBC)

The recruitment practices of Zoho. Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, a well known tech company that develops online collaborative and productivity tools, recently gave a talk called “Alternatives to College” in which he outlined Zoho’s recruitment and talent development process. Sidar is a PhD from Princeton, but yet looks away from academia when hiring for his company.

Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades and the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance. That was a genuine surprise, particularly for me, as I grew up thinking grades really mattered …

Over time, that led us to be bolder in our search for talent. We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?”

Bill Gates, is also publicly questioning the idea that young people have to go to university to get an education. Now, granted, Bill is perhaps one of the worlds most famous autodidacts and university dropouts, but having someone with his cachet publicly question the role of the university as it is currently structured will engage some people, and might spark more debate on exactly what the role of higher education institutions will be in the future.

Finally, there is the example of James Marcus Bach, who refers to himself as a buccaneer-scholar and has written a book on the subject called Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success. The book is his account of how he “found success in a highly technical field without the benefit or burden of a conventional education”. Now, I haven’t read the book, or know much about the methods he talks about to help others become buccaneer-scholars, but the point being is that here is a person who has no formal training or education in a field (software testing), and, through self-directed methods and with the help of the web, forged a successful career.

Now, I am not ready to espouse a view that learners are going to become self-directed learners in the future and flee screaming from a formal higher education and the public institutions that provide them. I still think many students, especially at the under-grad and college level, will want the structure and guidance that an institutional education offers. Heck, I want it, and I do consider myself as someone who is a self-directed (if not always highly efficient or focused) learner.

And then there is the whole idea of the value, both perceived and real, that comes from having an institutional accreditation stamp of approval next to your name. This will continue to provide incentive and motivation for students to attend a formal post-secondary institution for their education. But I am left with an uneasy feeling that, in an age where learners are going to have so much choice as to how they get “an education”, post-sec institutions are going to come under increasing pressure to maintain their relevancy, beyond being the place that merely provides “the papers”. Because someday soon, someone will figure that out that piece or, perhaps, just stop caring so much about it.

Photo: Threat Level updates by opacity used under Creative Commons license


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out