Book Review: College Disrupted by Ryan Craig

Around the world the benefit of holding a university degree is being called into question; in my industry (technology) we are currently bordering on an anti-degree backlash (not something I ascribe to). This book is a look at some of the problems with higher education in the USA, and is maybe a little obscure for those who aren’t in the business of education. Nonetheless we all have a role in shaping society (well, almost all), and education is hugely important in doing that, so take an interest!The author, Ryan Craig, is currently a director of a private equity fund “University Ventures” which seeks to invest in innovative higher-ed startups. Starting with a charming story involving food-covered shoes, relating why as a Canadian he sought out the US college experience, Craig chronicles what the strength of the US higher-education model was, and then runs us through the ways it has devolved (hint: largely due to schools trying to copy the Ivy League schools). I think he raises some very valid questions about the value-for-money aspect of higher-education, in an environment where costs are skyrocketing, and the long-term income benefit of holding a degree is not as strong as it used to be.The book then proceeds into a recap of some of the recent developments in online higher-education, chronicling the rise and fall of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), and engages in some futurism about how the failed model could be reborn in a more useful way. The discussion of how the current regulatory environment is hurting efforts to move forwards with “unbundled”, or “hybrid” education models; apparently, in the USA, states can require online institutions to conform to the same regulatory standards that they apply to “on-ground” institutions, including in one case, requiring type-written enrolment forms and proving that their filing cabinets have a suitable fire rating.For me this underscores a more general point about innovation and regulation: the two need to hang in tension, but if regulation is introduced to early, especially in such an unthinking way, it can snuff out any trace of innovation. I suppose Uber is the example at the other end of the spectrum, where for many years they seemingly lacked the internal ethics to run a truly safe service for their customers, and regulators like Transport For London have very sternly called them to account.Anyway, back to the book. In general, I agree with much of what the author says: current higher education models really don’t give employers any useful information about a graduate’s capabilities, and are certainly missing out on some important skills (like problems solving, seriously it seems to be a dying skill!); there is not enough research into education (Education Science, if you will); and the value for money proposition needs some serious attention. Where I think I differ from the author (and this may be down to my misinterpretation of what he wrote) is that he seems a little slanted towards higher education being solely a means for workforce preparation. I think if we lose sight of the “General Education” component, such as the ability to think critically, to formulate a reasoned argument, and to appreciate the perspectives of others (hey, maybe debate team should be compulsory?) we are only going to see more of the deliberately anti-factual discourse (I use the word loosely) that we have seen in politics around the world in the last few years. I’m not yet sure how distance learning will achieve that (although I’m hoping through my new job to take a few steps towards answering that), not to mention the beneficial opportunity to make some dumb decisions and experience the consequences in a slightly forgiving simulation of the real world, with a bunch of people who are in the same boat (like maybe you don’t need to drink all the tequila next time). All in all, an interesting book for me, as someone hoping to push education forward in the coming years, but also useful food for thought for all of us: whether we pay for education through or taxes, or directly, or both, we all have an interest in making sure that our education systems benefit society. If you’re inclined to comment, think about these questions: do you feel the money spent on your education prepared you for real life? If there was one thing lacking that you most wish could have been included, what would it be?

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