Presidents of Reed

Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles

Prix Fixe Education in an à la Carte World: The Impact of the Information Revolution on the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges”

Foster-Scholz Club & Annual Recognition Luncheon

June 2, 2012

Two nights ago, my wife Joan and I went to one of my favorite Portland restaurants, Castagna, and ordered the prix fixe meal. Five courses. One price. We put ourselves in the capable hands of a master chef, who chose the dishes, prepared them, and served them. We just sat back, ate, and enjoyed. But that’s not how we order food most of the time. Like you, I suspect, we mostly prefer to order à la carte. We do the choosing and the mixing and matching. The chef, of course, prepares the meal. If the courses don’t fit together harmoniously, well that’s our fault. But we get to choose what we want. 

In the information world, daily newspapers are like prix fixe meals. One price. One package of information assembled by a professional editor. Domestic news, foreign news, sports, recipes, puzzles, classified ads . . . the complete package. The editor decides what to offer, you decide what part of it to read.  

As you know, newspapers are dying. How many of you still read a daily newspaper every day? How many of your children still read a daily newspaper every day? How about your grandchildren?

Newspapers are dying because, in the world of information, this is the à la carte era. Nowadays, you get your news from television or the radio or a website; you get your sports from ESPN or an iPhone app; you get classifieds from Craig’s List or eBay. You get puzzles, recipes, consumer advice, horoscopes, weather, celebrity gossip from a hundred different sources—mostly from various internet sites at the touch of your fingers. Whatever you want, whenever you want it, wherever you are.

When you think about it this way, an undergraduate education of the sort offered by Reed College is like a newspaper: prix fixe information. One price, four years, 30 courses, a whole bunch of requirements, and choices only from the menu provided by a bunch of professional educators. At the end, after jumping successfully through all the hoops that the professional educators have created, you get one overall certification—a bachelor of arts degree from Reed College. You are thereby pronounced to be an educated person. Now go out and get a job, or go to graduate or professional school (which is just another prix fixe institution).

So the logical question is: In the à la carte–information era, will colleges go the way of newspapers? Are we doomed?

There are many voices saying, “Yes, you are doomed!” They point to the burgeoning, proliferating sources of educational material, courseware, even degree programs available on the internet. And much of it is completely free of charge. All you need is a computer and a high-speed internet connection, plus some patience, persistence, and effort. And voila! You can master Chinese, calculus, Roman history, Baroque art, macroeconomics, computer science, organic chemistry, or quantum physics. 

Anya Kamenetz has written a book called DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, arguing that any ambitious student can get the equivalent of an outstanding college education from the internet. And for free. Virtual universities, such as Western Governors University and the English Open University, are popping up everywhere. The irrepressible Sal Khan started an education program on the internet called Khan Academy, which offers educational videos on over 3,200 topics and whose website claims to have delivered over 155 million lessons worldwide. In 2009 a Reed parent and Israeli entrepreneur named Shai Reshef founded something called the University of the People. It bills itself as the world’s first tuition-free online university, and claims to have enrolled students from over 130 countries. Starting with programs in business administration and computer science, UoPeople, as it’s called, now offers introductory courses in art history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. All for free. Meanwhile, education technology—or ed-tech, as it’s called—is the new darling of silicon valley and the venture capital industry. Goldman Sachs reports that since 2007, over $2 billion in venture funds have been invested in 230 education technology start-ups.

But the à la carte world of internet-based education is not by any means limited to start-ups and upstarts. The higher education establishment is moving in fast. This spring Harvard and MIT announced the creation of a new joint venture called edX that will offer a wide range of courses on the internet designed and taught by Harvard and MIT professors. According to its website, edX will offer “teaching designed specifically for the web. Features will include: self-paced learning, online discussion groups, wiki-based collaborative learning, assessment of learning as a student progresses through a course, and online laboratories. . . . For a modest fee, and as determined by the edX board, online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion.” The website goes on to say, however, that “such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.” In other words, you get the content and the learning and the certificate, but not the pedigree.

Not to be outdone, a coalition of top-tier universities, including Stanford, Penn, Michigan, Berkeley, and Princeton, has started a company called Coursera. Faculty from the participating institutions will offer courses, feedback, and assessment of progress, all online, and all (I think) for free. For example, the course on Analytic Combinatorics, taught by a Princeton math professor, will involve “two lectures (80 minutes each) and a problem set each week. There will also be a final exam.  . . Coursera can maintain a record of your score on the assessments and, with your permission, verify that score for authorized parties.” Again, certification of learning, but no ivy pedigree.

So here is the dilemma: if you can take Physics from an eminent MIT professor, calculus from a legendary Princeton mathematician, economics from a Harvard Nobel Laureate, and psychology from a Berkeley superstar, why take those courses from Reed College? Why take any courses from Reed College? And, most ominously, if you can take these courses for free and get your learning in those arenas certified by outfits like edX or Coursera, why pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Reed education?

The answer—if there is an answer other than “no reason”—must lie in the two essential ingredients of a successful education: integration and interaction. 

Let me talk about integration first. As I was reminded two nights ago, there are real advantages to the prix fixe model. A great chef knows what flavors and textures go well with each other, what wines pair best with what dishes, what sequence of tasting experiences maximizes gastronomic pleasure and promotes healthy digestion. Just so, professional educators are supposed to know how some topics flow from or relate to other topics, how some cognitive processes reinforce other cognitive processes, how knowledge builds. In the Reed College curriculum, perhaps the best example of this is the humanities program. The humanities courses are not simply a collection of great books or great works of art that happen to have been produced by a common civilization. These courses weave together original works with secondary commentary in ways that illuminate grand themes, like encounters of one civilization with another, the concept and limits of empire, the fundamental conceptions and methodologies of the basic academic disciplines. Likewise, in most of Reed’s academic departments, the requirements for a major represent a carefully arranged sequence of topics and architecture of ideas.  

But there is a danger here for liberal arts education in general, and for Reed in particular. Over my lifetime, and yours, the movement in American higher education has been away from structured, integrated curricula and toward a smorgasbord of electives. Many universities and colleges, such as Brown and Amherst, proudly tout their so-called “open curricula.” They are saying to prospective students, in essence: “Come to us and design your own education.” Even at Reed, as the faculty expands, the portion of the curriculum devoted to structured, packaged instruction has declined and the portion devoted to open elective choice has increased. Here is where the danger lurks. Once we surrender to the siren song of the open curriculum, we are casting our lot with the à la carte approach to knowledge. And once we do that, how can we claim that a Reed education is better than Do-It-Yourself University?

That brings me to the second essential ingredient for a successful education: interaction. As you know, if you spend any time on social networking sites like Facebook, interaction on the internet is vastly different from interaction in a classroom or in a laboratory or in the Paradox Café. Internet interaction, by and large, is stilted, abstract, antiseptic, one-dimensional. Personal interaction is emotional, spontaneous, multisensory. We know from the sciences of neurobiology and psychology that learning—real, durable learning—requires an emotional foundation for cognitive achievements to take root. It requires encounters with the unexpected, an experience of being challenged and knocked off your stride. And it requires not only absorption and regurgitation of knowledge, but transformation of what we have learned into some new form, production of new knowledge or of works of the imagination embodying new knowledge. In recent years, I have spoken frequently about the importance of strengthening community at Reed College. And this is the reason: so that we can offer our students not only the cognitive experiences we treasure, but also the emotional, spontaneous, challenging, multisensory experiences necessary for genuine learning and lasting transformation. 

But here again, there must be a caution—perhaps there is a danger. Can the internet reproduce the quality of personal interaction? It is, frankly, getting better and better at it. The evolution from emailing and texting to Skyping, voice recognition, and live video streaming is bringing us closer to the kind of encounters we have in the dorm room or the classroom. The new education-tech entrepreneurs are investing billions in finding ways to reproduce enough of the chemistry of personal interaction to support the kind of learning we now uniquely associate with a residential liberal arts college. Of course the internet will never fully replicate the experience of a Reed conference or a Reed laboratory, much less a Reed dormitory. But, what if the internet can provide 80 percent of the benefit of those experiences at only 20 percent of the cost of a Reed education? Can we long survive? 

I’d love to conclude these remarks by reassuring you that a hundred years from now, Reed College will still be here, still providing the kind of remarkable learning experience that has been its trademark for the past century. But, in a world of information technology changing so rapidly, I can’t see that far into the future. What I think I know is this: the internet—along with all its associated electronic techniques for collecting, storing, manipulating, and presenting information—is, for education, the most disruptive technology since the printing press. This new technology is already profoundly disrupting education at what might be considered the bottom of the higher education food chain—adult education, vocational education, community college education. It is working its way into the arena of undergraduate education at large and woefully underfunded state universities. When will the tsunami arrive at the shores of the great private universities and liberal arts colleges? It has already arrived, of course, in the way that Reed students conduct research and in the way that Reed faculty access and present information. But will the information-technology tsunami start replacing Reed courses altogether? Will it replace Reed College altogether? We have to be prepared to be disrupted. And if we want to protect ourselves from being washed away, Reed College must commit itself, intentionally and deliberately, to maximizing the unique advantages of a prix fixe education by integrating the component parts of an undergraduate education in a way that the à la carte method never can, and by building a genuine community of scholars that can maximize the kinds of interactions that produce lasting learning. 

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