Peter Thiel, College and The Modern Knowledge Worker

Peter Thiel, College and The Modern Knowledge Worker

Billionaire investor and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has stirred up a controversy in the tech and education sectors with a very simple argument: the formal education market is a bubble, both overvalued and overpriced. In addition, Thiel is concerned that too often college students end up unemployed yet overwhelmed with student-loan debt.

In response, Thiel is funding a new fellowship that provides hundreds of thousands of dollars of seed funding for under-20-year-olds who “stop out” of school to start a new tech business. His mission: encourage young people to think beyond the classroom and into the marketplace.

While Thiel’s fellowship is a good approach for potential tech entrepreneurs, it’s a narrow solution for a broader problem: A college education has become a prerequisite for a job in the modern economy, but a college education is not the best preparation for the a job in the modern economy. A liberal arts education is a generic, one size fits all approach to complex challenges in modern workplaces.

A Different Kind of College Degree

As Harold Jarche argues, the future of the workplace is outsourcing, contracting and specialization for workers who know how to learn, evolve and adapt to demand for new skills.

To respond to this increasingly specialized and flexible future, Thiel should advocate a more flexible and tailored approach to education. Instead of encouraging students to “stop out” of school, Thiel should fund innovative education models that enable students (of all ages!) to build self-serve curricula that combine self-directed learning, workplace experimentation and old-fashioned classroom learning where appropriate.
If a student will learn most effectively on the job with a learn-as-you-go approach, then provide the mentorship, milestones and evaluation necessary to make that specialized on-the-job learning a degree-seeking experience. If a student requires more exposure to basic information about a subject, give them access to videos, elearning courses and wiki-type resources that will enable them to build a strong foundation.

You often hear the truism that college teaches students to think. The college of the future will teach students how to learn. The worker of the future will need to teach herself by accessing communities of practice, distributed learning resources and subject matter experts around the world.

If I advised Peter Thiel, I’d tell him to spend his money funding a new kind of college education, where students earn a degree for proving that they can design a learning experience to meet complex real world challenges.

Image Credit: fireboat895 on Flickr