Will online education kill the university?

Summary:If you go to Harvard, how much more are you learning in a second-year calculus class than you might at the University of Massachusetts? Or Podunk State College? It's still second-year calculus. Is there any reason that anyone with the motivation shouldn't take a second-year calculus course at Chris Dawson's School of Internet Learning?

And perhaps the more important question: How much of a problem is it if it does?

The Washington Post ran an interesting story this weekend by Zephyr Teachout that examined an extraordinary shift already underway in post-secondary education. As Teachout described it,

Students starting school this year may be part of the last generation for which "going to college" means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors. Undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering. Colleges, like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet.

She goes on to paint a fairly unflattering picture of the "typical 2030 faculty [that] will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar." Not exactly the ivory tower, is it?

In many ways, though, this not only seems quite likely, but has a lot of potential advantages despite sounding bleak and distinctly un-collegiate. If you go to Harvard, how much more are you learning in a second-year calculus class than you might at the University of Massachusetts? Or Podunk State College? It's still second-year calculus. And given that quite a few second-year calculus courses are already available online (MIT's OpenCourseWare alone provides more opportunities for math instruction than most folks would want to sit through in a lifetime), is there any reason that anyone with the motivation shouldn't take a second-year calculus course?

The Internet is a lot of things to a lot of people, but in education it is a powerful democratizing force. In modern educational jargon, it's incredibly disruptive. This doesn't diminish the research work that happens at universities by any means and Teachout makes the important point that

unless we make a strong commitment to even greater funding of higher education, the institutions that have allowed for academic freedom, communal learning, unpressured research and intellectual risk-taking are themselves at risk.

While I don't know about "unpressured research" (the research work I did at the university level was always incredibly high-pressure, just the way I like it), the university as a research institution certainly needs to be preserved. However, countless students simply want or need to pursue degrees without any interest in serious research. For these students, the Internet represents an incredible opportunity to access content inexpensively.

I particularly liked Teachouts references to "aggregators" in education (again, she's not that flattering about the term, but I like the idea). Just as Google News brings a lot of content together in one place, educational aggregators will (and already do) bring together a variety of educational content for the purpose of granting a degree. Will an aggregated degree from Chris Dawson's School of Internet Learning carry the same weight as a degree from Harvard? Probably not, but if students who couldn't otherwise access a Harvard education (whether because of finances, geography, family needs, age, disability, or any number of other factors) could suddenly have access to high-quality aggregated content and achieve a degree on their terms, that has a lot of value.

Even major universities are reducing costs by offering core courses online and graduate schools are increasingly reaching out to far-flung students with onlne offerings. And why not? If 1000 students can access a course at the same time, the university gets significantly greater return on its investment than it would from a 20-student seminar, student costs can be lower, and that university-level research in other areas can be effectively funded. Plenty of technological solutions exist to promote social learning among those 1000 students as well and much of the course content becomes reusable, further increasing ROI for the university.

I'm actually inclined to believe that online education (and the Internet itself) will not kill universities, but will, in fact, save them. Sure, there are going to be some hellish growing pains as schools sort out revenue models to keep funding their research and attract talented faculty, but potentially many more students around the world will find themselves able to get undergraduate and graduate degrees. If schools can save money by delivering more reusable content online, make more money by accessing more students online, and create new revenue streams by partnering with aggregators (think Google Fast Flip's partnership with publishers), then the universities aren't going anywhere. Those that resist change instead of embracing this Internet-driven shift, however, won't survive.

Topics: Enterprise Software


Christopher Dawson grew up in Seattle, back in the days of pre-antitrust Microsoft, coffeeshops owned by something other than Starbucks, and really loud, inarticulate music. He escaped to the right coast in the early 90's and received a degree in Information Systems from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he began a career in health a... Full Bio

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