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Higher Ed 2020: Epic Fail?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

When Sebastian Thrun tweets people listen. Therefore, when I saw the cryptic tweet from the founder of Udacity I immediately clicked on the link that took me to the EPIC2020 Higher Education Reform website.

The EPIC2020 site provides a gateway into thinking about the future of higher education – and the future looks bleak according to Bill Sams and the others behind EPIC. In the "Call to Action" section of the website, the authors urge readers to pressure their legislators to decouple content from assessment through a "test out" option in higher ed. What is surprising about this call to action is that it is asking for something that the feature video on the site, EPIC2020, portrays as the beginning of the end for higher education, and seemingly for education in general.

Painting a Bleak Picture
Watching the EPIC2020 video is like reading a Cormack McCarthy novel. The overall tone, morose soundtrack, lifeless narration, and black-and-white video all work together to produce an atmosphere of hopelessness. This feeling is exacerbated when the video leaves the reality of 2011-2012 behind and embarks on a desolate prediction of 2013 and beyond.

According to the video, the elections of 2012 will result in legislation that eliminates Pell grants and ends the student loan exemption from bankruptcy. The video then predicts that by 2013 the student loan industry will collapse, forcing scholarship funders to shift from providing student loans to funding organizations that provide free online educational content. These changes spark student revolts and a demand for the elimination of set prices for content and assessment. Students push to pay only for the assessment that validates the free content they are able to access online.

By 2014 large state universities will respond to student demands by providing course credits for demonstrated ability independent of class attendance.  This change effectively ends the formal connection between content and assessment.

The video then predicts a merger between Apple and Amazon providing a massive content distribution network.  iTunes U expands as an education platform allowing teachers to offer free content. This change leads to a modification in tenure requirements at universities which begin to emphasize huge international enrollment numbers over peer reviewed publication.

This massive learning network, playing on the student tracking of Khan Academy and the career matching of Udacity begins pairing students with their optimal employment. This alters the funding model for free content. The new model (currently in place at Udacity) stipulates that a percentage of employee salary goes directly to the content providing agency to support continued free course development and distribution. This move spurs Google to purchase Khan Academy and Udacity. This is, according to the video, the beginning of the Great Education War.

During this battle, only the uber-elite universities such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford can afford to participate while all other higher education institutions await the outcome.  Over the course of the conflict, in approximately 2018, badges replace traditional degrees as the preferred validation of skills for companies. These companies in turn cease recruiting students on college campuses, instead looking for lifelong learners from the Apple/Amazon and Google networks. By 2019 the college campus as we know it is a thing of the past.

Most colleges and universities at this point have disbanded. Those campuses that still exist have become playgrounds for the wealthy, focusing on gourmet food, comfortable living, social activities, and athletics. At these resorts a few token faculty members remain to lead occasional discussions.

According to the video, on Monday, June 22, 2020 the education wars effectively end with the launch of Google EPIC – the Evolving Personal Information Construct. This new learning platform "understands everything that you know and knows everything that you need to know to be successful in your professional, social, and personal life" (EPIC2020.org). This new product provides just-in-time instruction that keeps learners up-to-date with whatever they need to know, when they need to know it.

The video then paints a discordant picture of those who are connected to EPIC and the world of power, political influence, information, and knowledge and those who are not connected and are disenfranchised by this lack. At this point those who are not connected to EPIC retreat from the technological world and seek something new…

The Bleak Future of Higher Education
Watching this video and its companion piece, The Breaking Point (below), was a sobering reminder of the precarious state of higher education. But is the future really so bleak as this post-apocalyptic vision would have us believe? While there are many hypothetical events in the piece that raise eyebrows – such as the end of peer-reviewed publication and the purchase of Amazon by Apple – there is much to indicate that this may not be as much a fairy tale as a prescient warning.

The rapid proliferation of MOOCs is a real phenomenon. Starting with Khan Academy and Udacity, the movement has spread rapidly and has been adopted by many elite universities. It even led to the firing and subsequent reinstatement of UVA President Teresa Sullivan as universities and their boards of trustees scramble to stay ahead of the onrushing tsunami. There can be little doubt that change is coming. But are MOOCs and Pearson-esque personalized learning really the answer?

MOOCs currently have a serious flaw
in their inability to help people develop their creative and innovative capacities. That may change, but it is probably an inherent limitation with the model. Personalized learning systems such as the one currently employed by Knewton and academic publishing giant Pearson have more potential to lead learners down individualized paths that will inspire non-traditional thinking, but at the cost of personal privacy and centralized control over content. Those two factors may prove as limiting to innovative thinking as the wall monitors in 1984.

We are programmed as a society to fight exactly the kinds of oppression that the Epic2020 video is describing.  The question is, will we recognize it in its disguise as freedom, choice, and individualized learning? Ultimately, this video and the accompanying site leaves the visitor with an overwhelming feeling of . . . confusion.

The Message Please?
Trying to understand the overall purpose of EPIC2020.org is a bit challenging. Do they want to bring about the end of the university system and subsequently the end of all education as the video and call to action would seem to indicate? Is this a promotional piece for informal learning, as the extensive library of links to sites such as Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, MITx, and many others would indicate? Or is it something else entirely? Right now I am not sure, but I do know that my feelings about MOOCs and other massive free online education efforts have not changed. I am still pessimistic about their contribution to the future of education. Now perhaps more so than before I watched EPIC2020.