It turns out that Larry Summers' recent NYT editorial about the future of education was a quiet hint about his new educational venture, the Floating University. (I blogged about it here; thanks to Jules Evans' great blog The Politics of Well-Being for the heads-up about the Floating University.) Summers, Steven Pinker, and other denizens of the America's educational upper-class (modestly self-described as "the world's best thinkers") are launching a new online educational venture, based loosely on the "best course model" of education.
I have no way of knowing how good or durable this initiative will be. The launch video reveals little about how FU will work, preferring to offer snippets of the world's best thinkers passing on nostrums about the great ideas and the value of breaking down disciplinary boundaries. But let me offer two observations:
1. The notion of low-cost online learning has now followed a predictable trajectory, from the first people posting videos about how to play rock guitar through the optimistic period of open learning into an entrepreneurial phase, where people from powerful institutions are competing with innovators to see who controls the market. While it remains to be seen how influential the Floating University will be, the fact that famous professors from Harvard, Yale, and the like have a venture out there may mean that the space is closing quickly for non-powerful innovators.
2. I have nothing against great thinkers starting schools, (and am in fact a huge fan of Alain de Botton's School of Life). But I will confess to being a bit bothered at the vanity of "the world's best thinkers" calling themselves such. The Floating University's teachers are in fact wise and world-renowned. But it is not the case that their wisdom is needed nearly as much as they think. What we know about effective teachers suggests that it is relationships between the teacher and the learner (or whatever else you want to call that relationship) that matters for the student's learning and for her development as a human being. So while learning economics from Larry Summers is undoubtedly a good thing, learning economics with a real human being is a better one. Attribute it to my Intermountain West upbringing and my state university PhD and my decentralist politics but when something is sold to me based on the presence of Harvard, Yale, Bard, and Columbia faculty I have to think it should be opposed on those grounds alone. In the same way that bio-diversity is a good thing in the non-human environment, geographic diversity is a good thing in the human environment.
(Now if only Wendell Berry and Rebecca Solnit would start a school....)