College Crackup and the Online Future

Illustration by Keith Shore Close

Illustration by Keith Shore

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Illustration by Keith Shore

In the coming decade, emerging technologies will thoroughly transform higher education. Although distance learning and computer-assisted education have been around since the 1960s, financial pressures are forcing institutions to develop aggressive online programs.

When education goes online, how professors teach, what students learn and how institutions are structured will change significantly.

Some changes are well under way. In 2009, about 29 percent of college students took at least one course online; by 2014, that number is projected to increase to 50 percent. Much of this growth has been driven by for-profit schools, but in the past couple of years, traditional colleges and universities have designed their own programs in an effort to increase tuition income without expanding the physical plant. It remains to be seen whether this financial bet will pay off.

The most promising initiatives involve cooperation between and among schools. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University recently announced a $60 million initiative to create edX, described as “a transformational partnership in online education” that will “enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.” Through video and immediate feedback, students will be able to take online versions of MIT and Harvard courses that include exams, papers and even laboratories.

Courses Take Off

Two Stanford University computer scientists secured $16 million in venture capital to create a new company named Coursera, which will distribute online interactive courses in the humanities, social sciences and engineering. They were inspired by the wildly popular Khan Academy, which offers more than 3,100 micro-lectures on a broad range of subjects, and by the extraordinary success of a class taught by their Stanford colleague Sebastian Thrun that attracted 160,000 students from 190 countries. The new venture will include Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University. Thrun himself cofounded the online university Udacity.

Many people within and beyond the academy are skeptical about distance learning and online education. The resistance of faculty members has been the greatest obstacle to the development of effective Web-based learning. While it is true that seminars and small discussion classes can’t be taught online, they can be taught effectively using teleconferencing. Two of the most successful courses I have taught were teleseminars with the University of Helsinki in 1992 -- with incoming and outgoing images of the class and myself projected onto a small television screen -- and the University of Melbourne in 1996.

However effective face-to-face classes might be, the reality is that this traditional model is simply unaffordable for most students. In addition, more and more students are working and don’t have time for place-based education. Only 15 percent to 18 percent of students in post-secondary education fit the profile of 18- to 22-year-olds residing on campus. For the 85 percent so-called nontraditional students, it is necessary to develop effective alternatives.

The move from the real to the virtual classroom involves fundamental changes. Education is shifting from a mass- production model to one based on what business calls mass customization. This transformation raises rarely asked questions: Why is college duration four years? Why is every course the same length? Why does graduation depend on the completion of a specified number of courses or credits?

Modules, Not Classes

The format of courses in most colleges and universities has changed relatively little over the years. Classes come in three sizes: large (lectures), medium (discussions) and small (seminars). All are roughly the same duration, running from 12 to 16 weeks in sessions of one to three hours at a time. Most courses are numbered sequentially and ordered hierarchically according to the degree of specialization and level of difficulty. The professor controls the structure and content.

In the new model that is emerging, classes will be delivered in modules that can be downloaded as individual lectures or as an entire class and will be accessible in the data cloud. Rather than a uniformly prescribed program, students will create a diversified portfolio tailored to their interests and needs. In contrast to the standardized format, they will be able to take the whole course or, customizing, select parts of different courses and combine them in various ways.

For example, a class on contemporary art might be linked to one on current literature and another on financial markets. By connecting and layering other courses, or parts that are embedded in a constantly expanding and changing network, new insights that can’t be discovered in today’s siloed curriculum will emerge. As distribution systems change, courses will no longer be limited to the one-to-many model, where hundreds of students gather in university halls at a specified time to watch a “real” professor, but will become many-to-many conversations that allow for more interactivity.

Students will still need guidance. For this system to work, the role of faculty members will change. They will still teach, but they will increasingly serve as academic counselors who advise students on designing classes and integrating programs at different institutions.

This reconfiguration of courses gives students more freedom and creates the possibility of decreasing the time necessary to complete a degree, thereby lowering the cost of a college education. Just as it isn’t reasonable for every course to be the same length, it isn’t necessary to make every student spend four years in college to receive a degree. The principle of evaluation should always be the quality of knowledge acquired rather than the quantity of courses completed.

Virtual Harvard

In two previous articles, I argued that excessive competition and overspecialization are the plagues of higher education. Online education can address both of these problems. By collaborating to provide it, colleges and universities make more efficient use of their limited resources. Producing high- quality online classes isn’t easy and often costs more than investors expect. No proven financial model exists yet.

Some schools facing economic challenges see online education as a source of revenue, but top-tier schools are currently making their courses available free of charge. In the future, I suspect these schools will introduce a variable cost structure for different kinds of courses. A successful online program will strengthen the brand and increase the demand for the “real” Harvard, Yale or Princeton education.

When institutions cooperate in this way, the faculty expands, and students at participating universities as well as other colleges have a broader range of classes from which to choose. Less-affluent schools can outsource courses and even entire departments to qualified providers. Students can take courses from leading teachers and scholars anywhere in the world while receiving credit at the school in which they are enrolled.

Efficiency, however, has its cost. There are going to be winners and losers in the new world of networked higher education. The success of Harvard, MIT, Yale, Stanford and Princeton online programs will prove a challenge to many colleges and universities. Why pay a quarter of a million dollars to go to a second-tier school when you can get a Harvard education online for little or nothing?

This also raises the question of whether one is paying for an education or certification when attending college. Facing skyrocketing debt and dismal job prospects, many students and their families may even ask whether the difference between the virtual and the real Harvard is worth the cost.

These practical considerations shouldn’t overshadow one of the most promising innovations that online education will bring: The very structure of knowledge will change.

Mix and Match

Imagine a curriculum or even an educational institution organized like a web or network rather than an assembly line. As students mix and match courses online, pressure will increase for professors to develop classes that integrate different approaches and disciplines.

This, in turn, will promote research that isn’t confined to current specialized fields and subfields, but will create new areas of inquiry. A more-integrated approach will encourage the development of courses that focus on issues and problems that aren’t narrowly defined but have practical relevance and prepare students to become responsible citizens who are capable of pursuing productive and creative careers.

There is a widening gap between the rate at which knowledge is expanding and the rate at which colleges and universities change. In higher education, as in business, institutions must become more flexible and agile. Colleges and universities that can’t adapt will fail. Departments will either be eliminated or redesigned in ways that support more extensive collaboration among faculty members and students working in different areas.

These changes will meet considerable resistance, but they are unavoidable and will have beneficial results. In all areas of endeavor, innovation comes about by bringing together what is usually held apart. Just as artistic creativity often occurs by mixing different genres, so intellectual innovation frequently results from crossing different disciplines.

With growing competition abroad and increasing financial problems at home, the worldwide pre-eminence of U.S. higher education isn’t assured in the 21st century. Even if it were possible to increase funding in this era of shortsighted austerity, it wouldn’t be enough. A fundamental transformation in higher education will require a thorough rethinking of both what and how we teach.

Colleges and universities will have to be reorganized and create new strategies for cooperation and collaboration that will enable them to provide the best education to the most students for the lowest price. If we have the imagination and determination to rise to this challenge, we will be able to provide the education our children and grandchildren deserve and the world needs.

(Mark C. Taylor is chairman of the department of religion at Columbia University, professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary and professor emeritus at Williams College. His recent books are “Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities” and “Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy.” The opinions expressed are his own. This is the third of three articles on how online education will transform the meaning of college. Read Parts 1 and 2.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Mark C. Taylor at mct22@columbia.edu.

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