In my last post I referenced an opinion piece by Glenn Harlan Reynolds in which he wrote, among other things:

“Post-bubble, perhaps students — and employers, not to mention parents and lenders — will focus instead on education that fosters economic value.”

Reynolds also makes interesting points about the distributional benefits of college to the individual, but that’s another post.

When Reynolds writes, “…focus instead….economic value.” I have a troubling vision of a world in which individuals, empowered by a more free educational market, whether it comes from DIY models or leftward shift of the demand curve for higher education or both, design education experiences based almost solely on their “economic value.” For a specific example of why that would be a bad thing, I want to look at computer classes.

First the disclaimers. I am not a computer instructor, but as a distance learning director whose department handles instructional technology support for students, I have some awareness of what students do and don’t know how to do with  computers, and discuss what gets taught in computer classes with  my colleagues across the hall who do teach those classes.

Many colleges require students to meet some sort of computer literacy requirement. Often the course which meets that requirement consists of producing various types of documents using a (most likely Microsoft) application suite on computers running some variety of Windows (though when I took said course it was Apple IIe’s running AppleWorks). On the face of it, this has quite a bit of economic value, to use Reynolds’s term.  Many job advertisements list familiarity or proficiency with one or more parts of the Microsoft stack as a requirement. However, much of what students learn in such a class will be obsolete in three to five years. What then?

Now imagine with me a different class about computers,  one in which students research, discuss, and try to come up with thoughtful answers to questions such as:

  • Should bandwidth providers be allowed to prioritize carriage to/from customers who pay more?
  • Should there be an “Internet kill switch”? If so, whose finger should be on it?
  • What are the benefits and risks of storing my personal data with Software -as-a-Service providers like Facebook and Google?  Am I comfortable with those risks and benefits for myself? Am I comfortable with them for my children?
  • How do we balance device makers desire to optimize user experience with users desire to modify devices they own? Does the answer to that question depend on the methodology? (Microsoft cryptographically signing application downloads for mobile devices as opposed to Apple using non-standard screws)

Unless an individual is going into the IT industry, the knowledge that will allow and encourage thoughtful answers to these questions is unlikely to provide individual economic benefit.  However, as a society, we must address these and other questions in an informed and thoughtful way  as we move through the twenty-first century. So where will we all learn, and why?  In an educational system driven firmly by economic benefit, the individual has no incentive to do that kind of learning.