Edunomics.

by jennifermshoop

A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune of meeting the brilliant and thoughtful Jim Jacoby, founder and CEO of ADCMi, the American Design and Master-Craft Initiative.  (Check out his podcasts here — a fascinating and worthwhile listen.)  We met at 1871, a tech start-up incubator and home to ADCMi’s Chicago campus (such a cool space), and connected on a range of topics that funneled around the seismic waves that have been running through the higher education landscape over the past few years.  He asked whether I’d take a look at a draft white paper on “a new economics in education” that he was working on, and I eagerly accepted.  After completing the final sprint for Moneythink’s design engagement with IDEO.org (see my reflections on this experience here and here) and then enjoying the holidays with family and friends, I finally found time this morning to read through this bold treatise, which asserts that we are in the process of transitioning from a knowledge economy to a wisdom economy, and that this shift has broad and serious implications for our current education system.  I share this opinion, though I would quickly add that I believe that this transition will take a long time to complete and that there are many unsettling comprises that will be forced and accepted in the process that could have long-term detrimental repercussions.

To put a finer point on it, Jim comments that:

“…there’s a new set of market values that is trying to emerge at least along-side the old. As mentioned, relevance and wisdom is the emerging currency. Hard assets like facts have less value and can trade more efficiently without human intervention. Conversely, nuanced assets like relevance and wisdom have huge value and require significant human intervention. Consider the switch from the gold-standard to our current full-faith system. Moving piles of gold around to manage massive economies became silly. So how do we find our way to a new standard? Well, as has been feared with bitcoin, it’s not going to be found in throwing out the old systems wholesale. Instead, it will be a period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems. In time the two value sets will rebalance or the new will overtake the old at least in terms of valued language and metrics.”

My fear is that during the “period of fair and transparent trading — within and between systems,” we will watch yet another class-based education gap emerge, one where the “haves” are earning traditional degrees from top universities, free to study liberal arts and other fields of study less directly applicable to current employer needs, and the “have nots” find themselves in a low-cost (or free), competency-based workforce training program (potentially one where employers and government agencies foot the bill).  While I find this scenario rosier than our current circumstances, where we have hundreds of thousands of students dropping out of college, finding themselves permanently indebted to an education that they frankly would have been better off avoiding from the start, and perpetuating a cycle of inter-generational poverty — it is a chilling scenario nonetheless.  (Note that I do not float lightly the comment about students being better off avoiding higher ed in the first place.  I wince to make such a comment, as I believe that education is a human right and that it is the cure to many social and cultural ills.  And I have been many times reminded of the statistic that individuals that complete college will, on average, earn $500K more than their counterparts that fail to do so.  But I have seen the numbers — around 50% college attrition! — and if we know that we can continue to expect these numbers, I feel that these individuals are far worse off with the enormous albatross of unforgivable student debt hanging around their necks.  We need a high school counselorship program that presents youth with options rather than prescriptions.  We need a culture that embraces the miscellany of different educational, trade, and employment pathways that students can and should take.  The artificial emphasis on earning a college degree is doing as much bad as it is good.  But this is a topic for another day — to be continued.)

The above scenario and much of Jim’s article also begs the bigger question: what is the purpose of education?  Jim criticizes our current educational model for being “disconnected from the employment market.”  But can we say that our system is failing if it is not creating a prepared workforce?  I would — but many will take issue with this assumption, and it is worth dwelling on, as I feel that much of the friction surrounding the “year of the MOOC” hovers around this central question.

Thoughts?  Objections?  Let me hear you!

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