Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

The learning pill

Shirky predicts that the bulk of higher education is being disrupted the same way the music industry was disrupted by MP3 files. Should we believe him?

Let us run a thought experiment. Instead of online lectures disrupting higher education, imagine that someone has invented a learning pill. That is, someone can extract the knowledge of experts and embed it in a pill: you take the pill, you are an expert. Your knowledge is perfect in every way right away. Essentially, you could acquire the knowledge of several advanced degrees in seconds by taking a single pill. Let us assume, to make the case even more compelling, that these pills cost nothing to produce and that they are without side-effect (except for the learning, of course).

What would happen?

  • Almost certainly, the pill would be made illegal. The excuse: the pill is surely dangerous and we need to protect the public. A black market would blossom and, eventually, governments would cave in. However, the pill would be highly regulated. There would be a lobby trying to make it scarce.
  • Educators would point out that the pill is just not the same as a quality education. Indeed, they would explain that knowledge is just one component of a good education. People would argue: do you really want to go see a doctor who learned from a pill?

The net result, I believe, is that even though a learning pill would disrupt society, it would do little to disrupt colleges. Degree requirements would not go away: it is unlikely that anyone who took a medecine pill would be allowed to practice medicine. A college degree would remain as a test of character: maybe even more so in the context of the learning pill. Kids would want to signal that they are dedicated enough to learn the good old way.

Politically, the public would take to the streets if a government tried to close down public colleges on account of the learning pill. And Keynesian economists would warn that a collapse of education as an industry would kill aggregate demand and send the economy in turmoil.

We are unlikely to invent a learning pill. However, the Internet is sometimes a close approximation. Do you want a lawyer or a doctor who learned from the Internet? Given a choice between a college graduate in computer science and someone who has a leading reputation on Stack Overflow, which corporation would pass on the college graduate?

Source: Via Seb Paquet.