The Future of Higher Education: Massive Online Open Disruption

Is a college education fundamentally an expensive insurance product that is purchased to avoid falling through the cracks in our society? If so, what can take its place?

What's the Big Idea?

Is college an expensive waste of time?

Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa have debated this question repeatedly -- on 60 Minutes, at an Intelligence Squared debate in Chicago, and most recently at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas that was held on Nantucket, Massachusetts earlier this month.

Thiel is a venture capitalist with a vision for jump-starting innovation. To that end, he has invested in transformational technologies and companies. He also encourages young people to start their own businesses instead of pursuing "the anonymous safety of working for others," according to a manifesto on Thiel's Founder's Fund website

To put his money where his mouth is, Thiel set up a fellowship that pays students $100,000 to drop out of college. Over the course of two years, Thiel Fellows focus on how to make their innovative ideas into reality.

Vivek Wadhwa has been a persistent critic of Thiel's ideas on education, but the Intelligence Squared audience declared Thiel's team the winner of the debate. By a one-point margin, the position that too many kids go to college won the day. On Nantucket, Wadhwa was primed for a rematch. 

Here's what he tweeted before the panel:

The panel did not disappoint. And yet, most of the fireworks did not come from exchanges between Thiel and Wadhwa. The real zingers were instead supplied by Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard who said very pointedly "the idea that there is a massive over-investment in education that needs to get scaled back is very badly wrong."

Watch the highlights from the panel here:

What's the Significance?

While there was certainly disagreement among the panelists about whether or not college is an expensive insurance product, as Thiel put it, there was also strong agreement that things need to change. As information becomes free, knowledge should be less expensive.

Harvard's ambitious nonprofit joint venture with edX offers us a glimpse into large-scale distance learning. The project will offer online courses to the general public. And yet, there is general agreement that expanding access will not dilute the value of a Harvard degree. The panelists said a Harvard degree will probably be worth even more in the coming decades than it is today.

However, as Wadhwa pointed out, the experience of elite college students in the U.S. does not represent the full story of where education is going, and how it will be fundamentally changed by cheap technologies like a $35 tablet that is being introduced in India.

To find out about all of that and more, you can watch the full panel with Big Think's Peter Hopkins, Summers, Wadhwa, Thiel and Harvard dean Mike Smith, here.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

To learn more about The Nantucket Project and how to attend the 2013 event visit

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