What We’re Missing When It Comes To Colleges and AI
How to Design a College Alternative from Scratch
ChatGPT and other AI tools have put the future of education on the front page yet again. But beyond large language models, what else can AI do in education? And should we worry about students cheating themselves out of an education—or will that education just fundamentally change?
We tackled this and more on the latest episode of Future U., when Jeff Selingo and I welcomed computer science professors—and AI experts—Charles Isbell of Georgia Tech and Michael Littman of Brown University to the podcast.
As both observed on the show, so much of the focus in the higher education conversation has been about large language models like ChatGPT, but that's not all higher education should be thinking about when it comes to AI. I left the conversation having a deeper appreciation for what else is possible and how much of a role humans will play in shaping the use of AI—particularly as individuals and teams create specialized models for the wide array of disciplines relevant to higher education. That was both reassuring and exciting from my perspective, but I’d love yours after you listen to our conversation here on Future U.
More on AI
One of my favorite writers, thinkers, and fellow Substack writers,, recently posted a terrific conversation titled “Inside the ‘Mind’ of ChatGPT” with computer scientist Cal Newport. Newport wrote a piece for the New Yorker about how ChatGPT actually works to try and help reset the utopian and doom-and-gloom conversations around the tool. Epstein’s piece helps distill some of the points.
One of his lines reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s insights that these generally aren’t just technology conversations. Epstein wrote:
I wonder if AI can fundamentally alter healthcare (and other jobs) to allow humans to focus more on the areas where we can uniquely add value. If a lot of diagnosing can be automated, say, then maybe the more important skill for a doctor becomes understanding the context of a patient’s life and spending more time strategizing with them about how to respond to a diagnosis.
I think this is right—but for it to happen, we’ll need an update in the business models undergirding healthcare (and other fields). So long as those models profit from sick care, it’s unlikely we’ll get from here to where Epstein is pointing. Entities of course are working on this—from Chris Kresser’s ADAPT health coaches to Wild Health, SteadyMD, and more.
From Reopen to Reinvent
One thing you might not know about me is that I love Mister Rogers. Meeting him as a child is something I still recall fondly—see the picture below courtesy of my mom. And while my children didn’t watch a ton of TV when they were little, Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger had early places in our home. It wasn’t just for the kids! Their wisdom helped guide us as parents as well.
That background helps explain why I was thrilled to join Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski on their Remaking Tomorrow podcast to talk about my book, From Reopen to Reinvent. Behr and Rydzewski are coauthors of the book When You Wonder, You're Learning: Mister Rogers' Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids.
One of the questions they asked is that so many people at conferences and elsewhere right now talk about reinvention, but what might it actually look like. My answer?
It’s going to be very grassroots driven…. We’re not going to sit there from on-high and mastermind “the system,” but that community by community, educators, parents on the ground together, are really going to come up with those answers. And it’s not going to look the same in every single locality or even within a district.
My book offers some principles—like mastery-based learning—that I think ought to be at the core of those efforts. But even more important, it offers a playbook for people on the ground to start to create something that overthrows the system that isn’t working for most, if not all, children.
Check out the conversation here.
In a similar vein, I rejoined Tim Fish of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) on the NewView EDU podcast to talk “Reinventing Education Beyond 2020.”
As with Gregg and Ryan, Tim and I delved into the themes from my book From Reopen to Reinvent. The events of 2020 changed education, both in America and worldwide. But three years after COVID-19 closed schools, what is the state of our education system? What lessons did we learn, and what mistakes have we made? What opportunities lie ahead for transformation?
In response to Tim’s invitation to design an optimal school from scratch, I leaned into the idea that there is no single right answer—similar to my answer to Gregg and Ryan. Even when it comes to content and curriculum, there must be flexibility based on the needs and priorities of the community. I talked about the merits of microschools with different approaches within larger school communities and promoted the benefits of customizing learning to allow students to work to their individual level of challenge. Productive struggle is all-too-often missing in our educational systems, instead replaced by ideas about one-size-fits-all “rigor.” If one child needs to learn to read, and another needs to learn to apply their reading skills to an area of curiosity, both should be equally served and valued I argued.
Check out the conversation here.
How to Design a College Alternative
It turns out that Tim Fish wasn’t the only one asking me to design a new school recently. On our Class Disrupted podcast, Diane Tavenner asked me a similar question—although around how to design an alternative to college.
With declining enrollment becoming a staple in American higher education and more students and families souring on the expense of a college education, Diane observed that this can be an opportunity. She then put me to the entrepreneurial test in designing what a college alternative might look like.
Unsurprisingly perhaps I started with some foundational ideas from our book Choosing College, which you can check out here. My big principle in this particular conversation was don’t try to be everything to everyone. Nail one thing and choose to suck at the rest.
I tried my hand at designing an option for those who are choosing college because it’s what’s expected of them—but not because they’re genuinely excited to go or have a clear sense of why they’re going. With little passion, it’s not an easy space to design around.
After you’ve listened to or read the conversation, let me know how you think I did. What you would change or improve?
As always, thanks for reading, writing, and listening.
Curious if you’re familiar with the Postsecondary Commission, a new would-be college accreditor, and whether their approach to accrediting schools based on social mobility and other outcomes-based metrics can change the conversation about new college models: https://postsecondarycommission.org/
Michael, love your comment on the conversation with Cal. Wish I'd thought to use that frame when I was interviewing him!