An Open Letter to the Higher Education System

Dear All,

I think what’s going on here is a confusion of ends and means. Guys, I believe very deeply in your end goal. I believe in the individual, and I believe every individual can and should be an expert in something, and that that person should be held individually accountable for her or his expertise.

But I don’t agree with the means. I don’t like your current model, where students sit in a classroom, take furious and wildly oversimplified notes in their own notebooks and parlay class discussion into an opportunity to impress the professor instead of inquiring deeper into some topic that deserves to be explored deeply.

I’m not the only one to see a different way forward, an alternate set of means to the same end. Over the course of my college career, I’ve noticed a shift in the way that young people get work done.  When I entered college, everything was pretty traditional: I did my own work, I interfaced with my professors, and I worked with my friends only on group projects, more or less.  And I did some copyediting on the side, so I guess in that capacity I worked with people on common projects.

Then, Facebook was kind of this thing one guiltily spent a great deal of time on. And everyone did this, spent time on Facebook. But we didn’t really talk about it because it was not considered standard, copacetic social behavior. One did it in lieu of spending time with friends. But over the course of a few years, we’ve changed the way we view spending time with other people online. Time on Facebook, for many of us, is time with our friends, now. Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and other tools have changed the way a lot of young people view information, how we share information, how we understand what “our work” and “other people’s work” is and means. How we view privacy, and how we view propriety. Information, knowledge is social.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not the only one out there saying we need a change. We are seeing a paradigm shift, okay? Nobody told students to get together and share notes. Nobody told them to divide massive reading assignments amongst a group, and they weren’t instructed on how to outline their allotted segment of the readings in such a manner that, when shared with collaborators, it would be legible and intuitive. They just did it. Just do it now. At some primal, gut level, a whole bunch of people just felt that collaborating, doing their own honest work together, was the right or prudent thing to do, that it was morally and socially acceptable, Charles Lipson be damned.

So the burden shifts to higher education systems, and it shifts to the students who recalcitrantly adhere to academic solitude and puff themselves up, snobbishly, like they’re some paragon of integrity or whatever. To those students, I just say, “Keep on with what you’re doing, dude.” Because it’s working out so well, right? Because you really love sitting in the library late at night in the stacks, sweating jittery and alone with some ungodly pile of books beside your laptop. Because that silence is imperious but leads you to believe you can actually get something done because finally for once you are alone with your thoughts and you can get down to the business of making your brain dance, right?

Does this touch on something, here?

But even these most anachronistic of students will eventually notice that their collaborating classmates seem to be having a lot more fun, that they are, ostensibly, enjoying their work. They’ll also notice that these students do better on their exams and papers, and that they retain more material long after they’ve received their final grades, more material than the stoic academic marooned on her/his deserted island ever hopes to hold onto.

Because knowledge–thought itself–is socially constructed and should thus be constructed socially. Learning together makes knowledge a conversation, and contextualizes information in a medium–interpersonal communication–for which evolution prepared us.

Working together, thinking together, sharing with small groups and creating something bigger than ourselves is what evolution has programmed us to do. We are hardwired for small group work, whether it’s stalking, killing, skinning, breaking down, cooking and eating some poor beast out on the Savannah or taking lecture notes, making outlines, brainstorming, exchanging and critiquing ideas, hypotheses, and theories, sketching out and ultimately–privately or collectively–crafting some artifact–e.g. a paper–or facing some challenge–like an exam–of or to prove our newfound knowledge, we are naturally inclined to work in packs, in bands, in tribes.

The way forward is to turn things back to a time before anyone can remember.

Educators are now faced with a choice: either y’all can keep on with the whole individualism thing and face increasing rates of disaffection and more books ringing your death knell, or y’all can adapt to my generation’s new way of working. If you choose the former, I promise you, promise you, things will get worse and worse. You’ll be coercing ever more connected, instantaneity-fueled students into what they’ll find to be an ever more inflexible, insular, and depersonalized system of expectations: namely that they do their own work without the help or input of others.

Unless you change with us, you’ll be forcing us to conform to some broad-based standard, one with little bearing on our highly personalized lives.

All media is social, now. Media is us. Our likes and dislikes are customizing, personalizing each of our media-consuming experiences. Just as the value proposition of television to advertisers–that “hey, we just produced this show that’ll attract a demographic of _____ ages __ to __,”–is getting a little old, because, let’s face it, markets and demographics are so segmented with such fine granularity today; that narrative of “Hey, guys, so I’m going to ask all of you to read this book or take this test so I can certify that you know __.” is also drawing some questions. Because why do we all have the same discussion that nobody likes when we could split up into groups and discuss a couple of  ideas we’re all passionate about?

I’m not suggesting that you guys go that far, letting us author our own syllabi (unless I am).

But in all honesty, I’m not suggesting that. For real.

I guess I just want to say that if we’re all going to be evaluated on the same material, I believe students should be able to learn that material however they please. And I believe it’s your responsibility as the guardians overseeing our intellectual journeys to equip us with the tools we need and want. If you have a policy against collaboration, change it. If I can’t convince you to change it, you’ll still end up changing it within the next few years. If you stand by a basically non-functional technology platform for officiating coursework and haven’t yet heard complaints from students about it, you will.

Take a walk around your campus.  Ask students whether they would like to work with their friends on coursework. If you’ve done what I’ve done, and pitched them on the idea that they can take notes together, share ideas together in real time, do readings together, team-edit papers, and eventually do all of this not only on the university’s web page but on an app that runs natively in Facebook, where they spend the overwhelming majority of their time already, you’ll notice that the overwhelming majority of them light up. They smile and say something like “wow, that just makes so much sense.” Because it does. Because it’s what they’ve been itching to do all along.

I am working with two of the brightest people I know. We all have our different talents. One of us is a brilliant computer programmer, another is a whip-smart tactician, product developer, operations guy and is a fellow tech journalist. Together we are working on something that will change the way students work. I’m still figuring out where I fit into the whole equation of our little company. You could think of me as the “Ideas guy” or the “Vision guy”, or as our first sales guy. What I am for now is an articulator and an elaborator; I’m proud to say that I’ve come up with some of the core features and functions of our software platform, but I’m even happier that we as a team have run with them far beyond what any one of us could have imagined. We’ve gotten as far as we did through teamwork, by assuming good faith. And if I have my druthers, we will change the way people conceptualize work, learning, and knowledge.

Steve Jobs was the guy who changed the way we think of computers; he made them personal. Mark Zuckerberg changed the way we think of our social lives; Facebook showed us that it’s not all about us, that our interactions are part of a larger conversation happening all around us all the time. I want to be the guy who changes what it means to think, what it means to work, how people work together, and how people do the two things I love more than anything: sharing and developing new ideas, and learning.

To be honest, there is nothing I’ve been raised to believe in more than the higher education system. My mother’s parents came over from Greece in the late ’40s. They raised my mom and her brothers with the understanding that a college degree was the key to success, a way out of the immigrant existence that found my grandmother a garment worker and cut my grandfather’s dreams of going to law school short. My maternal grandfather, despite his lack of formal business education, became successful in the restaurant business, and despite the fact I always bring this up when he mentions that I must finish college, I can never seem to refute his argument that a degree makes life easier, that it’s something to fall back on.

My dad’s side has more academics than you can shake a stick at. And all from the University of Chicago, where I’m a student now. In all likelihood, my grandfather wouldn’t be able to do his immunology research, and my grandmother wouldn’t have discovered the Philadelphia Chromosome, a genetic mutation that causes some types of leukemia, and her findings wouldn’t have been extrapolated to explain that genetic mutations cause cancer and not the other way around if it wasn’t for the intellectual openness of an academic institution and academia in general. Would they be afforded the same freedoms at, say, Eli Lilly, or Abbot? Unlikely.

So why is it that my generation, this group of kids who’ve been told since they were infants that they are going to college, that it’s the best time of their lives, that it’s a transformative intellectual experience, (because their parents have been saving for their children’s college education practically since they started dating,) find the college experience somewhat empty? Is it because we’re just too smart for college? I don’t think so.

The past 130 years have been an exercise in increased connectedness. That’s history in one sentence for you.

But education hasn’t meaningfully progressed, technologically, since the printing press, and before it, paper and ink. (And I know what you’re thinking, but the progression from handwriting to typewriting to word-processing is still inextricably linked to the limitations inherent to paper, and to bookbinding, etc.) And now, we’ve come to a jerk in the curve representing innovation in communications and information technology.  My generation, more than any before it, is deviating from paper and all its limitations farther and faster. We’ve plowed brain-first into this wide open world where everything is contextual, everything is embedded and linked and showcases an emergent intelligence. Our intelligence, together. But if you take a look at the kids just a few years younger than me, they’re a different animal altogether. You guys think 20 year-olds think in threads? Do we parse, recall, and concatenate thought into syntax faster than those thirty-somethings? Just a few years ago, we were the news story about those crazy teenagers and their texting. I have nothing on your average seventeen year-old. But I can articulate in a way they can’t understand.

My syntax, like yours, is somewhat deprecated and is decreasingly supported by each successive generation. We speak a dying language.

Here is my indictment: You, people in higher ed, constantly complain that technology is dumbing us down, that it’s making us scatterbrained. That’s the defeatist message of a system which was too inflexible to change a hundred-some years ago.

If you embrace it, now, if you communicate with and to us through the media and in the language that we use to communicate with each other, you might just save us from an eternity of sex scandals and asinine Youtube videos of cats playing pianos, which is what mass culture is becoming today. If you allow my peers and the kids younger than me to engage with you and your system and your vast resources in the same way that we engage each other, we’ll get more out of the student experience. It’ll be more than just four years of partying and half-assing assignments because we were busy chatting with friends on Facebook about the onerous nature of said assignments. And I think that this would make the world a better place, because your capital-L Learning and capital-W Work would be brought to the level of little-c conversation. It would bring knowledge and information back to its roots. It would become less laborious for everyone.

And if my core belief is true, that everyone retains in their core a curious kid with a butterfly net and a magnifying glass, maybe some of the interesting things you try to teach us will trickle deeper than those who’ve gone to college and heard it firsthand. Maybe, just maybe, y’all can shepherd us through this storm of stupidity. Because perhaps we’re being beaten by it, just like you.

And this was just a 2,420-word way of elaborating my points in summation:

  • With regard to your adherence to the ways of bygone analog days, it does you no favors. It hurts you more and more the more you adhere to it. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
  • If you are willing to change your expectations of what constitutes academic work, we’ll be able to change our expectations of you.
  • We want to help you change the world, ostensibly the goal of education writ large. But you’re going to have to change with us.
  • Ends are achievable by different means.

And I want to help you too. The team and I, we’re doing our part right now. If you are interested in learning more, please sign up. At the time of publication, we just got a bare-bones website up this week. There’s no real content, yet. But you can leave your email address. We’ll keep in touch.

Best Regards,

Jason D. Rowley


Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Higher Education System”

  1. Of course they did. I’m not arguing that they didn’t.
    I am saying that higher ed needs to adapt to the way young people, i.e. their customers, engage each other and understand work.

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