Arguing Against 'Range' by Sharing What I Don't Know About Online Education

Do generalists really triumph in a specialized world?

June 28, 2019

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein

Published in May of 2019.

Range is almost irresistibly convincing. Carefully reasoned. Expertly written.  Finish reading Range, and you will come away questioning your assumptions about the value of deliberate practice and deep specialization.  Your mind will be broadened, and your perspective will be enlarged.

The only problem with Range is that it might be wrong. Not just wrong in some details or minor arguments. But profoundly wrong.

The truth may be that hyper-specialization, deep and deliberate practice, and the cultivation of narrow expertise may be the best strategy for individuals and organizations.

The reason we don’t know to trust Range, as persuasive and masterfully crafted as it is, is that Epstein never tries to disprove his ideas. The arguments in Range are not presented as hypotheses to be interrogated, but rather as truths that are revealed through stories and data.

Epstein, in effect, falls into the same fallacy of expert judgment that he so ably examines. As expertise is another word for pattern recognition, Epstein begins to see patterns in the stories and data that he presents that argue against specialization and deliberate practice.

In Range, we have a true Gladwellian example of the difference between the best of popular nonfiction (and Range does belong in that category), and science. In science, we seek to discover where we are wrong. Science popularizers start with a big idea (the more non-intuitive and counter the conventional wisdom the better) and attach the evidence to support the narrative.

As an alternative-academic, Range is especially comforting. We alt-acs tend to think of ourselves as generalists. Almost by definition, alternative academic careers are non-linear.  We work in areas outside of the fields in which we spent years getting a terminal degree, and in different ways than our graduate school mentors.

And yet, my non-traditional academic career has been one of specialization. I’ve devoted the vast bulk of my energies over two decades into the field of online education.  Everything that I see and read tends to get filtered through the perspective of online learning.

This specialization in online learning, however, has forced me to widen my lens.  The more I learn about online education, the more I realize that you can’t understand online education without understanding the postsecondary ecosystem in which it is embedded.  Specialization forces me to investigate broadly.

In some sense, I think that Epstein gets specialists wrong. Expertise has almost everything to do with asking questions, as opposed to providing answers.

The more I think I know about online learning, the more the gaps in my knowledge become apparent. I’m astounded by how much I don’t know about a subject that I’ve been a student of for 20 years.

Basic questions like:

  • Will online education ever bend the higher education cost curve?
  • Will we discover how to create high-quality/low-cost online education through personalization at scale?
  • Are non-profit/for-profit partnerships in online programs a good or a bad thing for schools, students, and educators?
  • Will online non-degree and alternative certificate programs from schools with global brands end up decimating the demand for master’s programs at regional institutions?
  • When, if ever, will online education move from laptops to smartphones?

These are fundamental questions about the future of online education.  As someone with well over 10,000 hours of experience in this space, I know enough to ask these questions. And enough to know that I don’t know the answers.  I have some hypotheses.  But I’m always looking to be wrong.

Range is a terrific book. There is a nontrivial probability that the evidence will not support my hypothesis about the book's errors.

What are you reading?

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Joshua Kim

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