Adapt or die

In my teaching days, I used to tell my students that evolution is a law of history.  They might, if they chose, deny evolution biological principle, but they’d never understand history without it.

Human institutions adapt and evolve in the face of changing circumstances – or  they die.

Adaptation often flies in the face of human expectations.  We tend to assume that the future will be much like the present – only more so.  Change, we suppose, goes in only one direction.

We assume, for example, that growth is natural.  Things start small, and if they are successful, they become ever larger.

This assumption is built into our present economic system – corporate consumer capitalism – which we assume is permanent.

There is, of course, no such guarantee.  The theory of markets has a certain logic, and will probably be with us for centuries to come.  But our present economic system evolved to meet a specific set of circumstances – and, as those circumstances no longer prevail, it will either evolve, or it will die.

We have entered a reality very different than that prevailed in the 20th century.  In the new century, bigger will not inevitably be better.  Often, opposite will likely be true.
Which could be a beautiful thing.  

Consider the birds flitting about in your yard.  By some measures, one in four Americans is at least a casual bird-watcher.  

But the birds were not always with us.  Evolutionary biologists are fairly sure that birds evolved as the result of catastrophic events which led to the extinction of the great dinosaurs.

Some dinosaurs, preferring evolution to extinction, became the first birds.   

The mockingbird harassing your cat, the robin hopping around your lawn, the chicken in your refrigerator – all are lineal descendants of fearsome ancestors.  
All things considered, a pretty successful case of down-sizing.

For the past century, in this country, education has become an enormous – and enormously expensive – sector of our national economy.  Every Federal administration – Republican or Democratic – has increased our investment in schools and universities, and the scope and power of the bureaucracies which govern them.

Conservatives and liberals will do battle over what is taught; how students are disciplined; how much teachers are paid; and how resources are allocated among school districts and universities.

But our schools and universities – exercising a virtual monopoly over the certification of educational attainment – have been virtually untouchable.

Until now.  

Recently, I’ve experimented with my first MOOC – a massive, open, online course – a technology-based – offering online lectures, reading materials, interactive learning tools, tests, research assignments – even discussion groups.

I’ve found it to be a reasonably challenging, college-level course.

And the remarkable thing is that anyone with access to the internet – anywhere in the world – can enroll in this MOOC.   For free.

MOOCs are a new thing under the sun, and they raise legitimate questions about the delivery of content.  If it’s now possible for anyone to have access to some of the best teachers on the planet – experts in their fields – at little or no charge, do we still need all the secondary school teachers and college professors we now employ?  

Do we need all the school buildings, lecture halls, and dorms?  

The answer, almost certainly, depends upon defining what our schools and universities are supposed to be doing for us.

If the purpose of schooling is to deliver content – facts and concepts - then clearly, our big educational institutions are in danger of obsolescence.  

What use is a high school teacher who is neither a subject-matter expert nor an outstanding lecturer, when his students have access to both expertise and star-quality teaching online?

What use is four or more years at a residential college – at enormous cost – when better quality instruction can be had at your kitchen table or local coffee shop?

Most importantly, why should we –  as taxpayers, parents, and students – continue paying vast amounts of money for the personal delivery of inferior products, when better products are available online, at almost no cost?

It’s a question our schools and universities are already scrambling to answer.

My guess is that, at the K-12 level, many of the answers will come from the home-schoolers – a growing community which has already rejected the public school model and is oriented to taking advantage of every new resource as it becomes available.

At the university level, I suspect that answers might well be found in the tutorial model prevailing at England’s elite universities.  Students would obtain their information from a variety of sources, including MOOCs, and their professors would meet with them individually – or in very small groups – to develop their understanding and critical analysis of the materials.

But whatever the eventual outcome, online learning has arrived.  As Americans become comfortable with this new mode of learning, existing schools and universities will have to adapt – or die.


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