Will the internet kill the university? Maybe, maybe not

A few days ago, Chad at Uncertain Principles commented on an article which predicts the death of the traditional university at the hands of online “colleges” offering unlimited classes for $99/month.  I thought Chad did a fine job of tamping down the “get smart quick and cheap” enthusiasm the article has for such options, and didn’t feel the need to add to it, until the dean of my college sent a link to another article about such options, “Welcome to Yahoo! U.

For me, such articles raise two questions: “Will online colleges kill the traditional university?” and “Should they?”  My answer to the second question is “no”, and my answer to the first is “maybe, maybe not”.

As someone who just submitted their tenure package this month for review, I obviously have a vested interest in the fate of the university!

Let’s tackle the first question.  The “Yahoo! U.” article begins as follows:

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. The business model that sustained private U.S. colleges can’t survive.

The real force for change is the market: Online classes are just cheaper to produce. Community colleges and for-profit “education” entrepreneurs are already experimenting with dorm-free, commute-free options. Distance-learning technology has just hit its stride after years of glitchy videoconferences—and will keep improving. Innovators have yet to tap the potential of the aggregator to change the way students earn a degree—much like the news business in 1999. And as major universities offer some core courses online, we’ll see a cultural shift toward acceptance of what is still, in some circles, a “Phoenix U” joke.

It is hard to predict the precise pace of change—but it’s possible that within 15 years most college credits will come from classes taken online. In 2007, nearly 4 million students took at least one online course, and the numbers are growing. Within a generation, college will be a mostly virtual experience for the average student. The Ivies will be much less affected than the mid-tier and local schools. But colleges that depend on tuition, and have no special brand, will be hit hard. The recession will accelerate this trend, as students become warier of taking on loans, and state schools experiment after fund cuts. This doesn’t just mean a different way of learning: The funding of academic research, the culture of the academy, and the institution of tenure are all threatened.

One big problem that I have with both articles is that it they are filled with lots of detailed predictions, but light on facts to back them up.  It reminds me of 1950s predictions that we’d one day all own flying cars, or more recent predictions that the Dow would reach 36,000.  It is very easy to assume that trends — like the rapid growth in online enrollment — will continue unchanged, but the real world doesn’t necessarily follow such simple rules.

I find the comparison with newspapers to be an interesting one, but not necessarily the best.  Certainly the newspaper industry has been hit hard due to the amount of information available online, but I think it deserves a large share of the blame for its own demise to the general… crappiness of a lot of modern reporting.  I personally turned away from major papers and more towards online blogs for information because I can get much more detailed, insightful commentary on an event from the blogs than I can from the modern “he said/she said” media environment.

As long as we’re making comparisons, we should point out that plenty of industries exist which did not collapse under the threat of new technology: I recall that when VHS tapes came out, people were convinced that it was going to kill movie theaters.  Why go to all that trouble to go out to see a film when you can watch it in the comfort of your own home?  Last time I checked, though, theaters were still going strong; it seems that the context (the theater-going experience) has value outside of the content (the movie itself).

Similarly, there are a lot of things that distinguish a university experience from a purely online environment.  For many college-age students, universities are the first chance they have to live away from home, make new friends, and essentially reinvent themselves.  I expect that such an environment is much more appealing than living at home and watching recorded lectures on the internet.

Perhaps the biggest thing which cannot be provided online is hands-on experience.  In the sciences, upper-level classes require a healthy amount of lab work which would be impossible to reproduce at home.  Research projects with faculty are another thing which it is hard to  imagine doing in an online environment.

A huge hurdle for any online institution to overcome is gaining accreditation, i.e. official recognition that the education earned is valid.  Schools have to demonstrate that they provide a certain quality of education in order to be broadly recognized, and it is not clear whether or not an online college can provide that level of quality to a large body of students.  One concern that immediately came to my mind is cheating: without direct interaction with the students, especially during tests, how does one know that no cheating is involved?  I can already envision “professional online test-takers” in various fields offering their services to unscrupulous students.

There certainly are problems with the modern university system, especially in cost.  Universities, especially overpriced private ones, could be faced with obsolescence if they don’t adapt.  Most universities I’m aware of already are looking at offering basic university courses online, which could be especially useful for lowering the enrollment in the massive 100-200 student core courses.  I could envision colleges offering online core courses to students who have learned prerequisite materials in high school for subjects outside of their major.

The other question worth addressing is: Is it reasonable for online colleges to gain equal status as “real-world” universities?  The one thing that makes me nervous about both articles linked above is that they treat education as simply another money-making enterprise.  I personally feel that institutions of higher learned already spend too much time sacrificing educational quality for short-term profits.  A number of university bookstores I’ve explored over the years have evolved from places which contain a variety of rare and specialty books to places which carry tons of college t-shirts and the latest Harry Potter novels (not that there’s anything wrong with Harry Potter, but one would hope that a university bookstore would carry more than that).  This is just a symptom of a broader problem of schools sacrificing educational standards in order to gain more money.  Every student failed for not doing the coursework is viewed as profit lost, which results in schools inflating grades, making courses easier, and generally not educating effectively.  I worry that the problem will be even worse with online colleges formed by entrepreneurs seeking to make as much money as possible.

In conclusion, I feel it is a bit premature to declare the death of the university at the hands of the internet; though online education can certainly be effective for some people, I have doubts that it is generally as effective as a physical campus.  That doesn’t mean that the internet still can’t kill universities; academia will have to adapt and straighten out its act in order to stay relevant.

Note: Many of the comments at the two posts make many of the same points that I do; they’re worth looking into.

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6 Responses to Will the internet kill the university? Maybe, maybe not

  1. Sam says:

    In regards to inflating grades, a fuller discussion of that is given at http://higher-ed-reform.blogspot.com/2009/09/inflation.html. The guy mentions some other reasons for why grade inflation occurs.

  2. IronMonkey says:

    During my undergraduate studies I had to took a few mandatory online courses with a virtual professor. My experience in most of these courses was bad. The minimal interaction among peers and with the teacher was on the forum. From my understanding, these online courses are very lucrative to universities since they require minimal investment: no classroom or laboratory to maintain, less paperwork, a very high ratio of students-to-faculty member; still they are priced about the same as regular in-class courses.
    For one such course, I felt the grades given to students were highly arbitrary, and this is even more frustrating when you cannot “see” or talk to the professor in person to ask for explanations. Basically for that particular online course, I didn’t learn anything and felt robbed.

    • IM: Thanks for the comment. My impression is that it is actually much more difficult to run a successful and productive online course than its advocates would admit. Part of the problem is that the word “productive” is not necessarily essential for institutions only concerned with the bottom line.

    • Blake Stacey says:

      An online course offered (or required) as part of a regular undergrad curriculum at a brick-and-ivy university is a different animal than a course at a wholly online school. At my school, we had lectures given by professors and recitations led by TAs; the regular lecture hour might be in an auditorium with 300 students, while the recitation sections are in classrooms and have 15 to 20. During lecture, you get material pumped into your brain, and during recitation, you use it to work problems together, get help on the homework, etc. With this division of labour, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable to have the lectures and other course materials online. Watching a video isn’t that different from watching the lecture live, and the recitation sections allow for the direct physical conversation.

      Of course, this “hybrid” approach still requires an actual place to meet.

  3. Pat says:

    With professional ceu credits already a standard in the marketplace, there is no reason to believe that students would be less worse off than their already working peers. In fact, it may save time, money, and effort to receive such instruction and set a pattern of lifelong learning practice that is badly needed in our diploma mill driven universities. Will high schools be next?

    Student motivation is key to any industry like education, and no college or employer has ever been able to provide that motivation for a student or employee. Adapation, not coercion, is key to educational success.

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