The (Needed) Revolution Emerging in Education

There is a revolution underway in education being driven by digital technology.  Like all technologically fueled upheavals, this revolution requires creative destruction of the current industry, which is resisting the revolution even as it attempts to embrace the parts that might preserve the status quo.

This is an old story:  Huge labor-intensive industries with enormous fixed costs face competition from new technologies and new systemic processes.  Those earning a living within the old industries resist the destruction of the institutions and cost structures that have supported them, but resistance is futile, for the new technologies and processes are faster, better, and cheaper, often by an order of magnitude.

Though the entire spectrum of education from preschool to doctoral studies is being revolutionized, I will focus on higher education, which is already being creatively disrupted by digital technologies.  All that is needed to fulfill the revolution is a parallel advance in systemic processes.

The Old System: Systemic Scarcity of Media and Knowledge

To understand the revolution, we need to start with the historical roots of the current system, which arose from a profound scarcity of knowledge and instruction.  In the ancient world, storing information was extremely expensive.  Even after Gutenberg’s printing press made mass-produced books available, books remained expensive.  Only a wealthy household could afford to buy more than a few books.

Informed instruction was similarly limited.  Instruction in universities was often one person reading a text aloud to a classroom of students; this is the source of Cambridge University’s longstanding academic rank of “Reader.”

The scarcity and high cost of written media led to the primacy of the oral lecture, as the only way to share knowledge was to concentrate students in one small geographic area to hear these lectures.

Despite the ubiquity of relatively inexpensive books, higher education in the 20th century remained essentially unchanged from the medieval model of students gathering to hear lectures drawn from large libraries. This high-cost structure kept universities elite institutions, offering finishing schools for the upper-class and a narrow channel of meritocracy for the best and brightest of the lower classes.

World War II and the Advent of the Factory Model

The advent of global war required a rapid expansion of industry and managerial skills on an unprecedented scale.  Unlike previous wars, oil, technology, industrial production, advanced research, and management of these complex systems became paramount in World War II.  In response, the U.S. Federal Government ramped up the nation’s small elitist institution of higher education into a vast factory of universities and colleges producing millions of educated workers to serve the emerging knowledge economy.

This Factory Model was based on the principles of mass production.  College students attended the same lectures as hundreds of others and studied the same textbooks as thousands of others.  The system of accrediting each college created an illusion of parity between institutions.  While an Ivy League diploma was recognized as being worth more than a standard-issue diploma, any bachelor’s degree was deemed adequate proof of academic achievement.

This Factory Model yielded a three-part system: the traditional elite of academia, research, and the professional schools (i.e. graduate and doctoral programs), mass-produced four-year bachelor’s degrees, and a two-year community college system that served two roles: as preparation for a bachelor’s degree and as a vocational school.

The need for white-collar managerial workers exceeded the output of college graduates in the 1950s and 1960s, so supply and demand favored college graduates, who found good-paying jobs relatively quickly and opportunities for advancement relatively expansive. 

Colleges expanded quickly, using federal and state funds to construct campus buildings. Costs were held down by modest salaries for non-tenured instructors and flat management structures.

In effect, a hodge-podge system tossed together in a national crisis became institutionalized. This is best revealed by this question: If we could start from scratch now, how would we design an effective, responsive, accountable, low-cost higher education?

Answers vary, but it certainly wouldn’t resemble today’s failing, costly, obsolete system.

Expensive, Obsolete, Failing

Though it pains its advocates to hear, the reality is that America’s system of higher education is expensive, obsolete, and failing. Though proponents finger reduced state-level spending as the cause of higher tuition and fees, this claim ignores the many structural causes of higher costs, including bloated layers of management, soaring salaries and benefits, costly building projects, and so on.

Consider this chart of one University of California campus's employment of professors and administration. If we extrapolate the lines, there will be more highly-compensated administrators than there will be professors teaching in the classrooms.

Federally backed student loans are skyrocketing by hundreds of billions of dollars.  U.S. government-issued student loans ($560 billion) now exceed the entire gross domestic product of entire nations; for example, Sweden ($538 billion).  Non-Federal student loans total another $500 billion, bringing the total to over $1 trillion.

While the cost of higher education has skyrocketed (tuition is up 1,100% since 1980), the value of college education and diploma has declined. One national study, Academically Adrift, found that over one third of college students “did not demonstrate any significant improvements in learning” critical thinking and other skills central to success in the new economy.  From this dismal record, we can extrapolate that another third gained marginal utility from their investment of tens of thousands of dollars and four years of study.

Google is widely viewed as a bellwether of the new economy.  It is noteworthy, then, that Google has found that academic success has little correlation with being productive in the workplace.  Lazlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, made the following comments in an interview published by the New York Times in June 2013:

One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that G.P.A.’s (grade point averages) are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. Google famously used to ask everyone for a transcript and G.P.A.’s and test scores, but we don’t anymore…. We found that they don’t predict anything.

What’s interesting is the proportion of people without any college education at Google has increased over time as well. So we have teams where you have 14 percent of the team made up of people who’ve never gone to college.


Doing well in college—earning high test scores and grades—has no measurable correlation with being an effective worker or manager.  This is incontrovertible evidence that the entire higher education system is detached from the real economy: Excelling in higher education has no discernible correlation to real-world skills or performance.

The Consequences of Cartel

What is striking about these runaway costs and failure to prepare students to thrive in the new economy is the stunning lack of accountability.  The higher education system continues to maintain it is cost-effective and successful even as evidence piles up that it is unaffordable, failing, and obsolete.

This lack of accountability and runaway pricing are hallmarks of cartel capitalism, a variation of monopoly that offers an illusory veneer of competition.  In the present system, colleges maintain a state-granted monopoly on accreditation.  If you want a college degree, you have to pay the cartel its price, regardless of the education’s quality.  There is no accountability for the poor product because students have nowhere else to go for a diploma but the cartel.

What Has Changed

The U.S. economy has changed in fundamental ways since the heyday of the Factory Model of Higher Education in the 1950s and 1960s.  In that era, the U.S. maintained a near-monopoly on capital and industry, as war-ravaged Europe and Japan were still rebuilding their shattered economies.  The rapid expansion of the consumer economy demanded an equally rapid expansion in the white-collar workforce of managers and marketers, and those with college diplomas were a scarce commodity who could command a premium on the labor market.  Health care was cheap and economic growth robust; overhead costs were low; and it behooved companies to offer stable employment, low-cost benefits, and pension plans.

The 1970s upended many aspects of this high-growth era.  Energy crises bled the economy of efficiency and purchasing power, and the era of high wages for low-skill factory work gave way to the first wave of automation, computerization, and robotics.

This structural shift from industrial to post-industrial employment fueled a systemic need for workers with advanced knowledge of computers, software, and related technical skills, as well as a secondary pool of workers able to deploy these new technologies in every sector of the economy: defense, design, communications, marketing, human resources, government, finance, engineering, etc.

The Factory Model could adjust to this new need by expanding curricula in these new fields while keeping the traditional departments and schools on a continued expansionary track.

Demographics played a role as well; the 60+ million Baby Boom that had begun entering college in the mid-1960s reached its college-age apogee in the 1970s.

The economy of the 2010s is undergoing a change just as dramatic and wrenching as the transition from industrial to post-industrial.  The economy—and competition for capital, skills, goods, and services—is global.  Overhead costs such as healthcare have soared, making hiring workers an expensive proposition.  With roughly 40% of the workforce holding a college diploma, the scarcity of college-educated workers has been replaced by a surplus of workers with university degrees. (Only 5% of adults had a college degree in 1940.)

Granting more advanced degrees does not magically create positions for those holding freshly issued diplomas.  Instead, it seems degree inflation is at work: what once required a high school diploma now requires a bachelor's degree, what once required a bachelor's degree now requires a master's degree, and so on.

In effect, a four-year college degree is becoming the entry-level minimum, replacing the high-school diploma. Further up the food chain, master's degrees are also in surplus, pushing many ambitious youth into PhD programs in the hope that a PhD will guarantee a high-paying job.

Alas, there is a growing surplus of people with PhDs in a number of fields. Some claim the unemployment rate for PhDs is very low, but these surveys do not measure under-employment; i.e., Did the PhD take a position that only required a lesser degree? (see The PhD Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists—in 7 Charts)

New Paradigms Arising

The Higher Education cartel is perfectly happy to encourage degree inflation (at enormous expense, of course), but this zeal for issuing student-loan-funded diplomas fails to address two structural disparities: the one between the skills needed to prosper in the emerging economy and the skills colleges are providing students, and the widening income/wealth/education gap between the wealthy and the non-wealthy.

As higher education costs soar, the gap between wealthy and poor families widens as non-wealthy students are forced to become debt-serfs to pay for college.  A system that forces poor households to shoulder student loans for decades in return for marginal-utility college degrees is not just immoral, it is recklessly predatory.  Yet this is the system Higher Education supports and defends.

There is a profound disconnect between the Higher Education cartel and the economy and what higher education should cost in a world where information, instruction, and knowledge have fallen to the cost of bandwidth; i.e., near zero.  What was once costly and scarce (knowledge and instruction) is now nearly free and abundant, readily available on any digital device anywhere in the world with a connection to the Web.  There is no need to concentrate students in a campus with a library; every web-connected digital device is a library and university combined.

In Part II: The New Education Models Offering New Hope we explore the emerging rise of radically cheaper, more effective, and more accountable systems despite the institutional resistance of the Higher Education cartel. We discuss this new Nearly Free University model and how families and households can make use of these innovations as they become mainstream.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Out of college, I went to work for a manufacturing firm run by the descendants of the man who developed the product.  It was a highly successful manufacturing firm and is still in business today.
On a sidebar note, when I hired on, 60 percent of the blue collar workers hired at the new plant I worked at had college educations.

37 years later, by the time my job was eliminated, the company was run entirely by people who moved up the management ladder from marketing careers.  The focus of the company was lost entirely over the years.  It is still somewhat profitable, but profits are made by exponential cost reduction programs that have been ongoing for decades.

The marketing executives don't know how to design a new product, so they increase profitability by cost reducing existing products or head count reductions.  They "reinvest" the savings in better marketing campaigns.

This model has pretty much run it's course.  The companies products are poorer quality than generic brand products and headcount is so low, they have no clue what is going on with the company.

The company I am describing is a household name in the US.  I doubt it is much different than many other major firms.  People who create and produce, no longer run the show.

I'd have to agree with Google's assessment regarding the value of higher education.


The last motor car designed by Engineers was the Citroen DS20 in 1973. Since then the marketing department has muscled in.  Now-a-days it is all about the shape of the headlights.Disclaimer: I have had many of these cars. They are magnificent. Packed with very practical features. I could rabbit on for hours about their low co-efficient of drag, unrollability, high top end speed, ability to run on three wheels, magnificent suspension, on and on.   …   …

Plus, it was really cool when it was turned on and the air shock system raised it up to driving height.
I haven't seen many of these in the US, but there was one in the small town in rural Texas where I grew up.

Les, you raise a very important issue which I would identify as one of entrepreneurial skills and values. I think we need to teach these directly rather than assume students will pick them up by osmosis. Many colleges are launching courses in entrepreneurship but the value of these courses is suspect if they're not taught by actual entrepreneurs. Watching a lecture on entrepreneurship is like watching a lecture on how to cook or play piano. Without hands on experience, learning is limited.

I  highly recommend for free, higher education
 I just finished an upper level computer science course from this organization.

  1. it was one of the best courses I have ever taken and I learned a great deal
  2. totally free
  3. worked on my own time, in airports, on buses, anytime
  4. I got a grade and a signed acknowledgement certificate from the professors of the accomplishment (with a disclaimer from their university that the university was NOT providing a credential)
    this was so good that I have started another course now
    I am working with a couple other engineers who are willing to provide hands on training to a young person who wants to get the personal hands on training side of a free education by first learning the rote memorization basics from the internet and then working with a free mentor (one or more of us) to get started on a career.  Problem is that many young people SAY that they want to learn but we have not found one person who is willing to put in disciplined study.  My conclusion: U.S. higher education provides a make believe world for people who are not serious about their life to wallow around, screw off and pretend to prepare for the future  without really learning while daddy or uncle  (sam) or bill bankster pays the bills. This is clearly brought into perspective when considering Asian students in America who way outperform others even with a language obstacle and end up teaching the math and science courses in the Universities here after they put in serious effort and advance.  On the other hand, serious students need to know that older mentors exist and would be thrilled to help them if they only ask and demonstrate their passion and enthusiasm for a subject…

Let's not forget that age matters. It is one thing to be in your middle 50's taking an on-line course, it is another to be 18 or 19 and taking the same course. Mots, you have the benefit of your previous education and your life experience to put what you are learning into context. Don't assume the 18 year old can do the same. It is not a matter of being lazy or being a goof off, they are just not adults yet, and the maturity level of each student varies, not just in terms of personality and experience, but how they are being engaged in their class. There is no one "best" teacher to teach each subject. Personality of the teacher, the students, the time of day, the material, etc. all create variable learning.
I have found putting students in front of screen/computer/tv to learn is a pretty awful experience, especially if that's all there is. The true learning happens when they have a chance to discuss the subject matter in class with their fellow students to help defend and support their ideas. They need to be able to debate with their peers with an experienced teacher present to help guide them. They learn the value of their own opinions through the live interactions with their fellow students, they learn very little from the two dimensions of screens. This is my biggest beef with the nearly free approach. Education is not a one-size fits all.  Yes it is cheaper, but at what cost?! I am with students every day. They typically do not quantify the value of their education in terms of the input/cost to the output/job. They are all to aware of this quantification,… and they resent it. On a much deeper level, they want to discover who they are and their potential. 

I don't disagree with most of CHS's economic assessment of education (bloated admin salaries, marketing, monopolizing credentials), I just think the answers are complex and often non-economic and more on an ethical/moral/societal level. I agree with Les that we need much more hands-on learning, more shop classes, more creativity, adaptive design, with live people working together. We went down a road that values quantity (standardized test scores, MCATs, GREs, etc) over quality, and exists mostly in the abstract. 

So much of what I see everyday in teaching is a continuation of pushing students to the BYOD (bring your own device) model (pick your favorite ipad initiative, etc.) , so I have to question this "revolution" and if it isn't just another "planned" part of a planned economy. Just a thought, but worth considering. The teacher/classroom experience is not necessarily just a "factory" model, a lot of good experiential learning can happen with teachers who are given the freedom to create their own curriculums

Considering the proliferation of on-line courses is something that has really only happened in the last ten years, as adults, I would say, none of us (if you are over 40) is in the position to say we grew up learning through the internet and on-line courses, so we are not in a position to truly understand the value of this two dimensional asynchronous approach on an experiential level. We are only seeing these courses through our adult eyes. My experience with students between the ages of 16-22 is they have a difficult time contextualizing what they are "seeing" in a two dimensional learning model, because they haven't experienced enough life. Isn't that the wisdom we are supposed to share with our students? Maybe I'm making too much of the teacher experience, but I think it has lasted as long as it has because in the end, it does work. 

Finally, how we engage students will help them with the attention they bring to their own life. If we focus on quantitative outcomes, then that is the attention they will bring to their lives. Oh, and ironically, on my teacher's income, I can't afford to be an enrolled member of this site all year, so I had to opt for the nearly free first half of this article.smiley

Gillbilly, you raise a number of important points. I focused on higher education partly because it's clear that the first 13 years of formal education have quite different circumstances than higher education. By college level, I think we can assume students have learned some self-discipline. If they haven't, then the success of the first 13 years is questionable. I address self-motivation in my book (not a pitch, just pointing out I spent 55,000 words on various topics and barely scratched the surface).
While some people are poorly paid in the education industry, others are doing quite well for themselves for 9 months work per year. For example this gent earns double the  median household income in the US ($50,000)  $101,000 a year as a senior special ed high school teacher. This does not include benefits. : 

Salary: $101,423

Position: Special Education Teacher

Full/Part Time: Fulltime

Percent Time Employed: 100%

Assignment: Learning Behavior Specialist I

Years Teaching: 15

Degree: Master's

School Name: Wm Fremd High School

District Name: Township HSD 211

Secondary school administrators in some states are routinely raking in $200,000 and up:

I spend considerable time discussing "hands-on" learning in workshops embedded in the actual economy and peer-to-peer models. My point is that the tools exist to create a very broad spectrum of education solutions and cost choices.  We need to encourage this broadening spectrum rather than suppress it. If the Nearly Free University can provide a year's education (including workshops) for $1,000, it may not be the choice of everyone but it would certainly be a boon to those who can't afford the current high-cost system.

Yes, the current education model is obsolete, yes there is a technological problem, but the most important problem of the current education model is purpose.
¿What is the purpose of the education in each level, and in general? .

¿What is the need in the society for this new workers?.

We know that automation, robots ans computer,  are replacing the people at works, then we AS  A SOCIETY have to redefine ¿what is work?  ¿What we need?.

Think again.  ¿What is missing in the supermarket what we really need?.

Charles, thank you for your response. I apologize if it seems I'm attacking your book. I'm not (I haven't read it yet), I'm just voicing my frustration with what I see on a daily basis. I have a feeling if we were to discuss education in person we would probably agree on 98% of the issues. I agree there are plenty in education making way more than they should be, but there are many more making under the mean. In the past twenty years, there was a shift away from full-time tenured positions to part-time adjunct.  Not sure about the example you gave. Special ed positions in high school can fetch a premium, and it depends on where this school is and the cost of living (i.e. California = high cost of living). Another thing to consider is the trickledown effect higher ed has on the secondary and primary schools. Curriculums/requirements in the secondary schools are being dictated by the demands of the universities, this is why I see the entire educational system as a trajectory and not broken down into levels we apply to them. An example of this is the recent 4 year requirement of math now at the high school level. Teachers are being completely hamstrung by administrative overreach into their classrooms (standardized tests, assessments, core syllabi, etc). Teachers desperately need to be able to devise their own curriculums without the intrusion of admins that don't understand the subject matter.What concerns me is the shift to even more screen based learning. Students' gadgets are filled with distractions that tap into their impulses more than we realize (facebook, twitter, instagram, sidebar ads, etc). We are accepting this distracted learning environment too easily.
The other concern I have with MOOCs is, to me, they are the equivalent of large agribusiness farming, creating a mono-culture of education. I like to think of education as "growing" hearts and minds, and more (bio)diversity (teachers, approaches, curriculum) is beneficial for all in the end. Therefore MOOCs to me are more like the pesticides we spray over large crops in the name of efficiency and profit. Yes the food gets delivered, but at what cost.
Just my two cents.
I look forward to reading your book.

   Thanks to everyone for a helpful discussion, from which I take away the following key ideas:  (1) the new developments in designing pedagogy with dramatically reduced reliance upon the traditional modalities are needed in a variety of settings, and in other settings the traditional modes remain valuable.  (2) In higher education, at least, costs and dominance of the managerial elite are a genuine source of worry.  
     Concerning the first point, I feel there are both need and opportunity associated with a devotion of personal and other resources to lifelong education, especially now that neuroscience has made clear the awesome resilience and regenerative potential of healthy brains even in very old people (if brains are suitably challenged with new learning activities).   The need I see arises from all the important and complex later-life challenges for which we, it seems, have had close to zero preparation from the formal educational system when we were students. Walking into these challenges with the level of ignorance I feel and sense around me is very troubling; because I now know that this could easily have been avoided by a more sophisticated educational experience in earlier life. The solution, in theory, is to institutionalize aggressive attention to personal educational activity across the whole life course, just as we are now trying to do with personal physical fitness. Putting this into practice will require non-traditional modalities of pedagogy with special attention to how older-adult learning processes tend to be different from young-student learning. Does anyone know where are the centers of leadership concerning the aggressive pursuit of lifelong education?

In 2009, I was fortunate to graduate debt-free in Biomedical Engineering, but in the wake of the 2008 collapse I had pretty effectively lost faith in the economy and decided not to continue pursuing higher education. (The Crash Course was a pretty key element in my losing faith, btw. Thanks, Chris wink)
Anyhow, as a fresh new early-20's college grad out in the world without onerous debt to keep me in line, I took the next 4 years to express my indignation through activism and community organizing. Peaceful Uprising was amazing, but eventually I came to question how effective all that resistance was… to sum it up in a quote:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  ― Richard Buckminster Fuller
That quote resonated pretty deeply with me. So I moved to Colorado and became the first full time student and co-creator of Transition Lab, a grassroots education for local resilience powered through new economic models.

It's been a remarkable experience. This growing season I've learned from local experts about organic farming, permaculture, low-cost and natural building, and how to start a small business. And this has all been on a budget only a fraction of what a college would cost. 

I know this is self-promotional, but I feel Transition Lab has some rockin' potential and is a really smart alternative to college. We're teaching a "Reconomies 101" online class this January. And the big full experience, a 7-month co-creator training, starts in April.

If this sounds interesting, check out the site and get in touch. Or reply here, any kind of feedback is awesome. And if you're in New England, we might even be able to meet in person when I'm out on tour starting Oct 25. We won MIT's Climate CoLab "Local Solutions" contest for being the most accessible, viable, and replicable model for reducing global CO2 on the scale of communities, so we're making the most of our flight and visiting groups all over the northeast as well. 

Theordore,Seven miles from where i live, the University of SC provides free college courses (you pay for books and transportation) for those over 65 years old. It sure beats the heck out of a 10% seniors discount at a store.
Another resource for older people is

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