Will online education kill the university?

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?

TOPICS: Browser

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.

Topic: Browser

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • More to Harvard than the Classes

    While I'm a big proponent of online and hybrid courses, I don't think that the residential college will go away entirely. People go to places like Harvard and Yale not just because they might learn more (and they might, depending on a lot of factors), but for the cultural capital they obtain from attending. Ivy League colleges are just as much about networking, making those every important connections to powerful people. Think about how many of our politicians went to those Ivy League schools. I'm sure many of the people they've surrounded themselves with were people they met in college. So, in that respect, it may be worth the price tag.

    Secondly, I think even with social learning, a 1000 student class is just not a good idea. They have close to that at some large state schools. I know of several courses at UC Davis with 700 or more. I just think it's hard to motivate that many people to work with each other to learn. I mean, the Dunbar number is 500. If that's all the friends you can keep up with, imagine trying to keep up with more than that, especially if those people are mostly strangers. There have been a lot of studies, in fact, that have shown that teaching online can take more, not less, time than teaching face-to-face. And paying someone to teach online should be the same as paying someone to teach offline. Now, you may be able to get more teachers, especially if your pool is now nationwide. So, for example, I could teach an online course in California even though I live in Pennsylvania.

    I don't think online courses are going to be the complete solution nor will they kill the university. They will, however, provide competition and many opportunities for people.
    • Harvard is about networking - agree

      Ivy League schools are more about the contacts you make, not the classes you take. It's all about the affluent and influential developing strong connections with one another. What you learn there is less relevant to your long-term success in life than the contacts you make and prestige you gain.
      • That is the two edged sword.

        Because it is mainly the social network you join when you are at a prestigious university, you don't need to be as good to get your foot in the door. Call on a classmate, let him know you need a little help, bingo you get in. Later, as you are moving up, you will get pulled along by those from your school.

        If you get your degree online, you will be looked on, the same as those that got their degree at a small college, or maybe less. The companies that hire these people may get a diamond in the rough, while the companies that hire leading school graduates, may end up with inferior people, but the edge will still go to the big companies.

        I think that too much of the hiring process is driven by the importance of the school you graduated from. My cousin was a VP for Shell Oil. I remember telling him, because he was the youngest VP, he would probably end up as CEO. He told me there wasn't a chance at all of that happening, because he graduated from the University of North Dakota. Looking back after all these years, he was right, you have to ware the right school tie to make that last push.
      • Any College is about the network you build while there... (NT)

        (NT) means NO TEXT
        • (NT) means NO TEXT

          Thank you! I'd been wondering.
    • Contacts and networking inspiration

      The people you surround yourself with have the double effect of Networking plus inspiration and pull.

      Bright people gravitate to University in general, affluent and powerful people too. So even someone mediocre will feel the pull to do their best when surrounded by them, That's human nature. That personal contact is irreplaceable.
    • Maybe for some people in some fields...

      I went to an Ivy League school--Cornell--thirty-odd years ago, and I promise you it resulted in not a single connection to any "powerful person."

      I'm going to guess that this "networking" stuff is only applicable to certain fields--and those fields don't include electrical engineering, math, or physics.
      Henry Miller
      • pick the best university

        ... because you are most likely to impress someone and get a good job.

        Ivy League, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge - the name alone means something; it says you were pretty good to get in there in the first place.

        In LAw, good universities get their students placements in good Law firms.

        The people you know at university and others 'of the same sort' will help you later. Most people leave university with a few good friends who might in future years be able to help them.

        It that networking?
        • I wouldn't call it "networking."

          Maybe "reputation" would be a better word--the Ivies have a decent reputation of efficiently pounding knowledge into heads that might be a bit more receptive than most.

          I expect having "Cornell" on my first real job application might have gotten me a few brownie points, but the real value of the place was it's ability to cram vast amounts of stuff into my head.

          Of course, as I said, this may only apply to techies--the business, polsci, etc., people probably have different spins.
          Henry Miller
    • You need to do the exercises

      I tend to agree with this post.

      More people get to university. This is great, but university is education not vocational training.

      Calculus was a good example to choose. You can read as many books and online stuff as you like, but you won't learn much about it. You learn by doing the exercises at the end of each chapter, or much better by doing those set by your tutor.

      Beginning students can be discouraged because they find the first, presumably simplest, exercises are like a brick wall. That's where teaching and tutorial encouragement come in.

      Once you get used to it, on-line stuff can be useful, but you can never replace teachers. I am not a teacher and would never aspire to be one.
      Daddy Tadpole
      • I would add that...

        If you do your home work and understand what you are doing then in a university it is very easy to get an "A" for the course because completing your home work and doing it correctly is primarily what they are looking for.

        Also completing the homework helps solidify the principles of the particular course study in your brain so that when it comes testing time it is easier to recall the information and do well on the test.

        Of course it is very important to have a live instructor to talk to. Regarding online courses at DeVry University they have some courses where you build databases while connected to a virtual environment through CITRIX, they also have online lectures where you can ask the instructor questions while the instructor is drawing and making illustrations on a virtual whiteboard, which you can ask questions on as the instructor is presenting.

        Again, I still prefer on-campus based classes as I have better access to the instructor. For example one of my instructors when I was studying a database class was based in Calgery Canada, which for me is considered an international phone call. Interestingly if you call Calgery with a cell phone from the United States it will dial right through as if it is not international because they use area codes much similar to the way the US does and no special country code needs to be dialed. Be careful though because you will get charged for international calling. At least on AT&T's cellphone networks you get an international fee for calling from the US to Canada. I had to do it some to talk with my instructor.
        • aargh!

          > completing your home work and doing it
          > correctly is primarily what they
          > are looking for

          No, no, no. Universities are looking for intellectual spark, trying to get students to think for themselves. That applies in all walks of life.

          There is the world of difference between training and teaching, and a remark like the one above sadly reflects training not teaching.

          I do MS courses. That's training. I did Uni courses - that's definitely not training. Based on what I accomplished there I can read, I can analyse the worth of what I've read, I can construct new ideas based on that.

          The difference between training and education: you'd probably want your daughter to be educated about sex. I doubt you'd want her trained.
          • Beautiful example...

            "The difference between training and education:
            you'd probably want your daughter to be
            educated about sex. I doubt you'd want her

            DGrainge - I'd appreciate permission to use
            that quote at some time in the future :-)
            Simply beautiful!

            I've been an IT trainer for 10+ years, but I've
            found that without a degree (any degree - I
            once worked with an IT manager who had a degree
            in forestry...), I have a harder time being
            hired. I'm getting my degree online because it
            allows me to take a heavy course load and keep
            a job. I've encountered good instructors, bad
            ones, and ones that simply acted as

            There is an opportunity to feed that
            intellectual "spark" in online education, but I
            believe it requires more skill from the
            educator. An educated professor who can speak
            well to a crowd can keep a live class going -
            but all of their public speaking skills don't
            mean a thing online. They have to ask incisive
            questions (sometimes individually), and keep on
            top of a disparate population.

            The downside of online education is that you
            often don't know your peers. There is no way
            to "ask around" and discern who the best
            professors are.

            I have often said that, if I were to win the
            lottery, I would love to get a liberal arts
            degree from an in-seat college. I understand
            what I'm missing by not constantly interacting
            with my peers - but I also understand what I'm
            missing by not having a degree at all.
  • The question you didn't ask is ...

    [i]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?[/i]

    It took me thirty years to realize that it's at least as important to ask, "If you go to Harvard, how much more are you learning [b]outside of[/b] a second-year calculus class?"

    For most students, University is four more years of high school: go to class, do homework, find a way to get out as quickly as possible with as little time away from beer, sports, and sex. Add that indictment to the rather long list of things that US secondary students aren't prepared for.

    On the other hand, for the ones who are heading on to grad school and may actually, like, [i]lead[/i] in their fields, there's a great deal going on that's hard to pick up from canned lectures. Pity that so many miss that from lack of preparation (raises hand.)

    Could we do a better job of meeting the diverse needs of postsecondary students by having a more continuous spectrum from community colleges, online universities, and resident (research?) universities? Perhaps so. Then again, we'd also be doing a better job for [i]all[/i] of our students by discarding the one-size-fits-all approach to education from kindergarten up.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
  • No

    I think online univeristies will have a role in training future students but it will not supplant traditional brick and mortar institutions of higher learning. Like someone already mentioned, there's an important capital in the means of networking that's worth the big ticket price of tuition. Secondly, being in the "collegiate" environment helps to foster and grow a young person's mind. I know that after 4 years of University I had a different perspective on the views I had going into university. Being educated is much more than just getting an "A" in Calculus or Biology 101. It is having a nice philosophical and intellectually stimulating discussion in one of the humanties, polysci, history, or philosophy courses with other smart students. That right there is priceless and online "education" will never come close to matching it.

    Just a thought not a sermon.
    • I tend to agree

      There are pros and cons for both. Both i think the social interaction either by classes or campus is critical to a new college student. Case in Point the gen Y group and some gen X's are so wrapped up in technology like texting social media sites. That they are starting to loose the ability to communicate to people face to face. I think the same would happen if online univeristies were the defacto then i think the same think would happen.
  • RE: Will online education kill the university?

    No, online education costs a heck of a lot more than a university does.
    Loverock Davidson
    • How do you figure? (nt)

      M Wagner
      • Compare prices

        of Phoenix University, Strayer, or Kaplan to that of your local university. $300 per hour online vs. $100.
        Loverock Davidson
        • There are too many variables ...

          ... to make that claim as a general statement. Both of the numbers you quote are extremely reasonable compared to most undergraduate institutions today.
          M Wagner