The End of College

The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, by Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey firmly believes that the future of higher education is largely (or at least a lot) online.  MOOCs are getting better all the time, and so are the verification systems that make it difficult to cheat.  Here comes the future!  He's pretty convincing about a lot of it, and I do think this will happen.  I want it to happen; kids in Uzbekistan and Iowa and Chad deserve access to the educational opportunities available mostly to the relative few fortunate enough to go to an excellent college.  But I have a lot of questions!

Carey starts off by taking a course himself: MIT's basic biology course that all students must take.    (You can take it too, for free; just follow the link.)  He gets video lectures, problem sets, interactive protein-folding games--everything that MIT students get, except he can press 'pause' to take better notes.  He then visits MIT and attends a live lecture, pronouncing it a bit more difficult (no pause, he's sitting in the back, and other students are sometimes distracting).  Personally I tend to find video lectures harder to follow than live ones, but it might help if I wasn't sitting at a messy computer desk.

He then backtracks to narrate an overview of the history of the university.  This was pretty interesting, because he describes the modern university as having three separate and competing missions: research, job training, and liberal arts education meant to broaden the mind rather than result in a job.  I have often pontificated on this myself (except I forget the research part), so I felt pretty smug.  Anyway, according to Carey, the American university model has a lot of problems, including fantastic cost, dubious quality control, and almost completely arbitrary rules.  Surely we could educate more people without requiring this rigamarole?

Well, we're getting there.  Carey imagines a world where anyone with some motivation and an internet connection can take courses given by the best instructors.  Instead of making a very few people move to, say, Cambridge, why not set up community centers all over the place, where groups of students could study together for a low cost?  Outsource all the expensive gyms, dining services, and so on.  Forget the libraries, nobody needs books anyway (I would like to have a little chat with Carey about just what librarians do).  Give real credit for coursework with online portfolios, badge systems, and the like.  Much of this is on the way already, and there are all sorts of innovative things popping up.  (Carey also spends a lot of time admiring Silicon Valley methods of breaking up a market.)

Most of this sounds great.  I truly hope it works.  Right now, millions of smart kids with no access miss out on education, and access often costs a stupendous, mind-blowing amount of money.  (The tuition at my own alma mater is about to go up to about $20,000 per year.  That's insane, but they're just charging what the market will bear.)  I would like to see all this happen.

But.  At no time does Carey address the question of how to reach average or marginal students.  He envisions a world filled with smart, motivated students who "hack their educations" and assemble portfolios to show what they can do, matching themselves to specific criteria for employers' searches.  By the final chapter, light is shining down from the heavens and massed choirs are singing swoopy anthems as we march into a brave new world together...

In my actual life, I see a lot of students who need encouragement and support--in person--to get coherent educations.  I work at a community college, and there is massive support for students; everybody really bends over backwards to help, and the support is needed.  A lot of our students are working to improve their lives despite very difficult circumstances, which is something I admire a lot.  But they usually need a lot of personal support to do it. 

Carey doesn't address any of this at all; the closest he comes is to say: “The message for all students should be: Put down the bong and get to work, because the number of curious, eager-to-learn peers around the world with the means and ambition to get a great college education is about to increase a thousandfold.”  Goodness knows I'd love to see that--I live in a county awash with pot and I'm so tired of it--but that doesn't even begin to address the real issues that a lot of people face, like abysmal K-12 education, terrible family backgrounds, poverty, disabilities, and all that.  Carey just ignores that, so I found it very frustrating.

I think you could probably get 80% or more of this book by reading an article rather than a whole book.  It was an interesting read, though.  And it did make me want to try out some online learning options (which I've often thought of before, but a) I'm in a very busy period of my life and b) I usually prefer books--still, it's tempting...).


  1. "assemble portfolios to show what they can do, matching themselves to specific criteria for employers' searches."

    It sounds to me like he's expecting people, both students and employers, to be able to sort through massive amounts of data on their own and come to correct conclusions. Having been on both sides of this problem, a student trying to figure out what employers want, and an employer trying to figure out if a given interviewee can do what I need, I feel like he's glossing over a lot of information holes and confusion that are inherent in the system.
    For example, have you ever met an employer who can write a concise, clear, and HONEST, list of education they need in an employee right now, let alone in 5 years time? I haven't, generally the employer doesn't know themselves. And that's not even getting into issues of verification....
    Degrees are not all that great at this issue either, but they have evolved to do fairly effective summarize a general idea about what students know and how hard they work.

  2. That's quite true, especially in the programming areas that Carey is referencing most. A lot of employers don't seem to know what they want software people to do. They know they need something, but they can't define it too well.

  3. Portfolios seem like they should work for programmers at first glance, since programmers do actually produce things other people can look at. (How would a nurse or a librarian make a portfolio?) But in practice it doesn't work very well.

    Portfolios work well for art and design because those things take a lot of work but can be evaluated quickly. The whole purpose of design is to make things intuitive and easy to understand. An evaluator can figure out if something is easy to understand pretty quickly.

    On the other hand, reading someone else's code is a horrible chore. You have to understand a lot about the problem they were working on and the constraints involved before you can even being to evaluate it. Figuring out from code what problem they were solving and why is just awful.

    And where does the portfolio come from? If it's school assignments it's all going to look pretty much the same. You probably can't share your work code. So you're left with stuff you did on your own, which in my case is mostly crappy scripts I wrote to do something quickly.

    I think the portfolio case only really works with maybe 1% of actual coders.

  4. I think his idea was that when you did some sort of course, you'd get a badge you could put in the portfolio, which would then show that you had Skill X. But you're right about the problems with putting code into a portfolio for sure.

    One thing I could really tell was that he was enamored of Silicon Valley/software people...but he doesn't know much about computers or coding. He thinks it's neat, but he has to take people's word for a lot.


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