For an idea that, as everyone now knows, started with bored students at a university, Facebook might just be developing all the elements necessary to replace the campus. Maybe not literally. With college enrollment reaching a record 19.1 million students this year, boosted by a rise in the college-age population and a stubborn 10 percent unemployment rate, young people aren’t exactly giving up their degree prospects for more time with Zuckerberg. But the site is developing many of the features that students now pay anywhere between $12,283 and $31,233 each year to pick up from college. And Facebook is free.
The most vital of those features is knowledge. In theory, at least, universities are supposed to teach information and skills. It’s what students are lining up to receive and it’s on the basis of the knowledge they want to learn that they choose their majors. And yet how much of the knowledge that students learn — especially in the humanities — is actually usable? How much do they remember? And, more importantly, is a university the only way they could pick up that knowledge?
The Facebook School of Business
The recent announcement by the London School of Business and Finance, a business school, that it’s placing its entire MBA program materials on its Facebook app suggests not. Entrepreneurs who want to know about corporate finance or portfolio theory don’t have to worry about coughing up the £11,500 for British students or £14,500 for overseas students the British college charges. They can just like the Facebook app and start reading. By the time they’re done, they’ll have learned as much as one of the school’s new graduates but there’s a good chance that they’ll have done it faster and they’ll certainly have much more money in their pockets — a pretty good first business decision. They can join the discussions, asking questions about their education in a way that real students might have found inhibitive during a lecture. And by looking for the Facebook pages of the schools’ professors, they could even ask questions about the course material directly — and some of those teachers might not even mind answering them.
If education is all they’re looking for then the publication of an entire course on Facebook’s platform has made college learning — with all it implies about homework, lectures and finals — redundant.
But of course, anyone who does use the app to become a business expert won’t actually have the qualifications enrollment would bring. They won’t be able to put “MBA” after their name, and if they want to hang a certificate on their wall, they’ll have to answer one of the many spam messages offering fake degrees that land in their inboxes every day. The London School of Business and Finance doesn’t really regard the Facebook publication of its courses as an alternative to enrollment (which would be a bad business decision) but as a chance for students to try before they buy (which might just be some smart marketing.)
For an entrepreneur though, those things don’t matter. They’re more interested in what they’re going to do for themselves than in what an employer impressed by qualifications is going to do for them. They want the knowledge. Other students can have the certificate.
The Facebook Frat Party
But those students won’t just get a certificate either. At any university, the social life is almost as important as the curriculum. At some colleges, and for many students, it’s even more important. Part of that is just the hi-jinx of youth but some of that keg partying, ball throwing and general merrymaking does have a valuable side-effect: it creates the relationships and the networks that can lead to jobs and opportunities in the future. That Facebook started at an Ivy League university wasn’t coincidental. Students who study at places like Harvard know that even if their roommates don’t become billionaires with movies made about their lives, they are likely to go on and achieve high level positions in large corporations. It’s worth knowing the people almost as much as it’s worth knowing the information the teachers are offering.
Facebook though also makes that kind of on-campus networking unnecessary. While LinkedIn might the place to keep in touch with former colleagues in case you ever need to find some new ones, Facebook allows friends and former classmates to maintain the kind of peripatetic contact that feels more natural. You don’t have to be in touch every day to post a comment on a status update posted by someone you haven’t seen high school graduation.
No less importantly, the open nature of the comments also makes it simple to interact with the friends of those friends. While being at Harvard with someone is always going to be valuable, being able to meet your friend’s Harvard roommate and roast your mutual acquaintance together delivers the kind of shared experience on which real relationships are based. On Facebook, it’s a short step from knowing that your friend was at college with someone who’s now a venture capitalist to sharing a joke with that venture capitalist at your friend’s expense. It’s an even shorter step from there to friending, chatting and pitching them.
Facebook isn’t likely to replace a four-year degree. Heading off to college is as much a rite of passage as it is a learning experience, and while one business school is giving away the farm on its app, other colleges, including Harvard itself, use Facebook primarily as a promotional tool, a hub from which potential applicants can run off and find more information about the university. They’re not expecting students to regard a few hours on Facebook each day as the equivalent of a four-year Ivy League degree.
But if Facebook can give self-employed types professional knowledge, and if it can deliver access to alumni networks without the painful reunions, what’s left for the colleges to offer them apart from a piece of paper, and the chance that they might have a roommate with a billion-dollar idea to steal?