Modern colleges look a lot like lecture farms. Huge halls bring hundreds of students in a room so they can sit and passively receive information. Tests ask, “What do you remember from the lecture?” Class schedules are an itinerary of weekly talks.
Why? Lectures are not great. Here’s a 2009 paper from the National Institute of Health:
Passive lectures provide the lowest knowledge retention rate of any method of learning and encourage learning at the lowest levels of cognitive function.
Yet, other than granting degrees, lectures remain the dominant service that colleges provide students.
The Automation of Educational Content
In the past, the most economic way to transfer information to students was by lecture. Schools can charge hundreds of students high prices for a seat in the hall. If you weren’t in the hall, you didn’t get a lecture.
Enter: the internet. EdX, Khan Academy, Udacity — the biggest new things in education are just automation for lectures. They take good lectures and post them online. For free. That’s it.
Many worry that robots will eat their job. Well, Khan Academy and EdX should eat a lot of lecturing jobs. Chances are that the math teacher hired by your school is worse than Sal Khan. So let’s just use him.
With the internet, there’s now more content available for education than anyone could absorb in their lifetime. The doors to the lecture hall are wide open and everyone is invited. Other than the time commitment, the marginal cost of hearing an awesome lecture is nearly zero.
So why pay for lectures? Why pay for a mediocre version of a lecture on a subject when you can watch a great one from the world’s leading expert on your computer?
The vast majority of schools have no advantage as providers of educational content.
College is About Sociality
With content widely available, what’s next?
Colleges will have to change their value proposition now as content becomes automated. Colleges will have to trade the value of a ‘lecture farm’ for something else.
This might seem scary, except this isn’t a new value proposition. College has always been more about things other than lectures.
The traditional model of education seems like a large-scale practical joke on naive 18-year olds and their well-meaning parents who pay the bill.
We saw why: lectures don’t usually work. No one remembers anything. And you aren’t even practicing a skill when you’re listening to a lecture. But, in theory, that’s what you’re paying for .
We can see the seeds of a different model with a simple test: What do you remember from high school or college?
Ask most people and they’ll describe things like: late-nights with friends debating something, girls (or boys), that one book from the library that changed your life, getting drunk while ‘studying’ abroad, the failed startup you tried from the dorm room, that-one-crazy-time-when-so-and-so-did-that-hilarious-thing. No lectures in sight.
The ‘college experience’ is more about sociality than content. It always has been. Now we have the technology to focus colleges on this strength.
THE INVERSE KHAN ACADEMY
With computers taking care of areas like administration and lectures, colleges now need to look for other things to do. A phrase I like to use is “we need computers to do computer things so that humans can do human things.”
In short, we need to build an Inverse Khan Academy.
Khan Academy says, “Here’s all the content. You figure out the process.”
The Inverse Khan Academy says, “Here’s a process (or let’s figure one out together). You find the content.”
The Inverse Khan Academy focuses on the human stuff.
A Critical Mass of Interesting People
Who you hang out with likely determines more about your education than what lectures you hear. So what colleges need to do is to bring together a critical mass of interesting people . When you hang out with smart people, you get smarter. So get smart people in a shared space.
Good (and bad) habits are contagious. When you hang out with driven people who practice meditation and read 3 books a week, you’re likely to start picking up similar habits.
Building maturity, good habits like discipline, and skills like goal-setting and organization are immensely valuable. Computers may help, but can’t do them alone. So colleges should select for staff and students that exhibit good human qualities.
A college built on this model must be exclusive. People who want to sleep through four-years of lectures to get a ceremonial piece of shiny paper shouldn’t be admitted. They will have nothing to do since content is automated. Policing the admission process is a strong value for colleges to provide.
Colleges may also help students develop better habits through services like personal coaching or hiring various aids to self-development.
Colleges can also help students pursue shared experiences. After all, experiential methods of learning — discussion, projects, experimentation, adventures — are superior to lectures. So don’t use tuition to pay for lecturers, use it to finance awesome experiences.
Colleges can build students’ social capital by helping them find great personal networks. Elite schools are all about this anyway: the content doesn’t matter much. But you make more rich and connected friends at Harvard than at Such-And-Such State College. Rich and connected friends get you good jobs and opportunities. Time seems to have eroded some of Harvard’s prestige. But the value of getting a job by networking in the Harvard Alumni Association will last longer than the value of the credential.
Finally, colleges can permit and support self-organization by students. If students are building a promising new business/book/film/non-profit/whatever, colleges should look for ways to support (and yes, benefit from) the success of their students. This is the opposite of traditional models which seem built specifically to smother the independent initiative of students.
Taken to an extreme, this model starts to look more like a club than a college.
Big, impersonal lecture halls are replaced with intimate areas for individual focus or group collaboration. Students may spend much of their time working or adventuring outside the college itself. Beyond a skeleton crew, faculty is on constant rotation. Like a Boy Scout troop, students enjoy group discounts for their excursions together.
Most of all, education starts to look a lot more human. As services like Khan Academy eat lecturing jobs, they allow for humans to do what humans should. Instead of yammering on and on in front of a hundred sleeping undergrads, staff stands alongside students. People cooperate as a learning community, enhance the environment with their own unique qualities, teach and support and learn from one another, and develop themselves through a shared commitment to becoming better humans.
So let’s allow Khan Academy to eat the lectures. We can build something better.
 What you’re mostly paying for is the social signaling value of your credential (a degree). This is why universities must keep up the illusion of prestige by spending $100,000 for graduation speakers.
 Special thanks to Alejo Rivera of Junto Studio for helping me think through this idea and to Pablo Velasquez of the Michael Polanyi College for the ‘critical mass’ idea.