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David Gelernter's Scary Vision for the Future of Higher Ed

Why our edtech community must stand up to these crazy ideas.

January 24, 2017
 
 

David Gelernter, the Yale computer scientist and possible Trump science advisor, has written a WSJ opinion piece on the future of higher ed:  A High-Tech Rebirth From Higher Ed’s Ruins

Gelernter predicts that: “Over 90% of U.S. colleges will be gone within the next generation...." He thinks this collapse will come about because of "students demand value for their money and society demands colleges that work.”.  

In the place of all these closed colleges, Gelernter envisions the ascendance of alternative credentials certified by think tanks (he mentions the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute), newspapers, tech companies, museums, publishers, major libraries, and symphony orchestras.  Courses will be delivered online, with "digital guides or mentors who are experts in online education” available for "around the clock” written and phone support.  

What will happen to all those bankrupt and closed schools?   Gelernter’s response is that: “Closed-down colleges might be revamped as internet campuses—with sports and labs thrown in. Even libraries!"

He ends his piece by saying that: "The Trump administration could change the world of higher education using not much money but bold ideas and serious leadership.”

Wow. Where to start?

Normally, I don’t recommend giving cranks much airtime.  

Gelernter seems so uninformed about the history, financing, and structure of our postsecondary system that it is difficult to see where arguing against his thinking will get us.  

The fact that Gelernter makes no room for the impact that our higher education system has on providing pathways for economic mobility, or the role that our colleges and universities play in knowledge creation and discovery, disallows any meaningful discussion of how our postsecondary system might be improved.  

Gelernter is gleeful at the thought of leveling our current system of higher education - including (maybe especially) the system of public postsecondary education that educates the vast majority of our students.  (He thinks that a few top schools will survive by selling prestige, not education). 

Rather than decrying federal and state disinvestment from public postsecondary education, Gelernter thinks that it all should be replaced by everyone else but colleges and universities (and presumably professors) offering credentials via online courses.

The reason that it is worth taking Gelernter’s ideas seriously - as ridiculous as they may seem to anyone who knows anything about the history and economics of higher education - is that I fear that his ideas may sound perfectly reasonable to some parts of our edtech community.  

It does would not surprise me if Trump and his acolytes believe in whatever Gelernter is selling - because you know, Trump University etc. - but what is more worrisome is if anyone working in educational technology pays any of this nonsense any mind.

I actually think that Gelernter does us a favor.  

We should recognize that belief in an imminent collapse of our postsecondary system is a mark of crazy talk. 

We should learn to be suspicious of the motives of anyone who talks about replacing educators with online platforms. 

In higher education, talk of technologically led disruption is often code for the continued de-funding of public institutions, and the continued erosion of the economic security and rights of our educators.  

For people like Gelernter, educational technology is a weapon to be used against students, educators, and institutions.  

Educators who believe in the power of digital learning and online education to improve our colleges and universities - rather than as methods to destroy and replace our institutions - must be more vocal in countering the claims of the David Gelernter’s of the world.  

We cannot let the extremist fringe hijack the methods or the tools of digital learning.  

Not standing up to those who wish to use educational technology and online learning to destroy our colleges and universities will be the fastest way to lose any trust or credibility with faculty.  

How can those of us committed to advancing postsecondary education through technology fight the dangerous, divisive, and deluded ideas of David Gelernter - as well as all those who subscribe to this dark vision of the future of higher education?

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