We will transition from institutionalized degrees to self-taught subject experts


Abstract: Looking into history, even before colleges were established, there were knowledge centers – a place where disciples would gather at a specific place and time, to learn from an experienced teacher. These knowledge centers evolved into educational institutions over time, thereby cementing themselves as centers of learning. In the information age however, knowledge has evolved from being confined to learning at specific locations to becoming omnipresent digitally.  We are gravitating towards the era of self-learning.

The story of a visionary professor

When I was doing my masters at UW-Madison in 2004, my advisor – Prof. John Webster, conducted only open book tests. He would allow our text books, class notes, and any other reference material that would aid our semester exams. He was also generous in giving a lot of time to finish the test. Some students would walk away in 15-20 minutes of completing the test, for which the professor allowed an hour usually. He would express that in the real world, we wouldn’t be memorizing concepts or formulas to design the next pacemaker or MRI machine. He expressed that with increasing internet speeds, knowledge will be accessible from our palms. Interestingly, 3 years later, the first smartphone (iPhone) was launched (June 2007).

Prof. Webster gave us homework / projects that required us to do research on the internet. He would guide us in accessing the right publications. He gave students the privilege to walk into his office any time, and was receptive to alternative approaches in research. While MOOC (Massive open online courses) has emerged a popular trend now, our professor video recorded all his lectures since the late 90’s. If he had to take a day off, then he would remind students to view his video lecture, and in the successive class, he would hold a clarification session. Sometimes, I would watch his video following his live lecture. This way, I could understand engineering concepts better. This man genuinely wanted his students to attain knowledge – more than grades or degrees. Writing this section about Prof. Webster after 13 years since I was a student, has garnered even more respect and admiration for him. He is a visionary teacher indeed.

Why schools or colleges came into existence?

Before schools or colleges where designated with those titles, knowledge centers were in existence for over 2000 years. Mankind’s curiosity has been the foundation for innovations, and learning (knowledge) was the bridge between curiosity and innovation. Curious people started experimenting and documenting concepts, and over the years, they attained invaluable knowledge. Now what’s the point of attaining all the knowledge without passing it on to the next generation? The experimenters or researchers had repositories of documented knowledge – a physical location – and the next generation had access to these knowledge, along with researchers becoming their teachers / advisors.

The thirst for learning made people travel far distances, to the desired knowledge centers. The quest for knowledge therefore, stemmed from the “expeditions” to these knowledge centers. Over the years, knowledge repositories increased in size, and each iteration contributing to an ever growing knowledge base. As knowledge became more advanced, it had to be learnt in progressive steps, and hence education on a mass scale evolved to become a necessity. The awareness for education meant that knowledge centers couldn’t be confined to very specific locations, but instead need to be dispersed at various locations – and hence the evolution of schools and colleges. So when I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, I had to choose a university that offered this major, and along with the text books and research materials within campus, I also had the guidance of Prof. Webster with over 30 years of research in the biomedical field.

The rationale behind colleges becoming obsolete

Today, if we wanted to learn about how a pacemaker or MRI machine works, it is just a YouTube video away. If we want to deep-dive into engineering concepts an MRI machine, we can sign up with MOOC. If UW-Madison tied up with MOOC like Coursera, John Webster’s video lectures will be available to anyone. An aspiring biomedical student from a remote village in India has access to the best minds in biomedical engineering across the world, owing to the internet. There is no need to travel half way across the world or pay high tuition fees. Certified courses are now available at an unimaginable fraction of the cost as opposed to institutionalized cost. A candidate’s passion and curiosity towards any subject is enough for them to become self-taught experts. If there are any clarifications, professors or subject experts are available through online interactions. What this implies is that any candidate with self-learnt subject expertise, can build his own product / technology and go entrepreneurial, or at the least, apply to a position that requires his subject expertise. In the latter case, the candidate’s competencies can be tested by a prospective employer in that particular subject expertise – through interviews or tests.

This goes back to what Prof. Webster was saying, that in the real world one would rely on fastest access to knowledge resources to build the next pacemaker or MRI machine. The workers of tomorrow will be judged on their passion or command they possess towards a subject, and how intuitively they access knowledge sources to build the next great product and / or optimize workplace efficiency. The company of tomorrow will also not seek a candidate’s college degree or resume, but instead, the candidate’s genuine inclination towards a subject or service. A lot of these developments are happening this very moment.

Multinational technology companies are directly recruiting students inclined to coding and gaming from high school, and giving them the infrastructure for training in areas of their interests. News media and PR firms are approaching popular blog writers to do an exclusive content for their company’s publication. Movie makers are hiring expert drone operators to shoot aerial shots, that would otherwise be more expensive when hiring a helicopter and a pilot. Today, one can learn how to fly a drone efficiently, by watching a YouTube video and through forums for drone flying, where experienced drone operators are advising aspiring learners free of cost.  There are YouTube videos of people building garage tools using 3-D printers, while some have built a functional helicopter on their terrace by sourcing parts locally. A low-cost smartphone and a free internet access at a mall or coffee shop is all the requirement one needs to learn about everything. Knowledge therefore is no longer confined to institutions or limited by a 3 – 4 year time frame. In the information age, continuous learning is not an option, but will remain a way of life.


So what will happen to the colleges and universities after 2025? Will they be shut down? The answer is a no. Assessing logically, colleges or universities will probably remain research & development centers. They will continue to remain as knowledge centers for experimenting the unknown. Even self-taught subject experts can choose to be apprentices to research scholars in colleges, if that is what they are passionate about. If we look into history, not every ground braking research or innovation was based on college degrees. What mattered was passion combined with curiosity. In other words, it was passion towards knowledge that had even led to the formation of colleges in the first place.

Innovative thinkers are those who are way ahead of their times. In the past, some of these people were lucky enough to have access to right knowledge resources. I would like to believe that there were many other innovative thinkers in the past, who didn’t have the privilege or affordability to access knowledge, otherwise we would have witnessed more innovations. However, in the information age, affordability or access to knowledge is no more a constraint. This is the most exciting thing governing our information age. Because in our age, we will not only be learning, but given the bursts of innovation happening, we will be rapidly adapting to changes. As sociologist Alvin Toffle perfectly summarized, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” It would be justified then, to conclude that our age is evolving into an era of self-taught subject experts.