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Online Universities Under the Microsope

Here at Via Meadia, we’ve been thinking extensively about the future of education in America. While nobody seems to have a clear picture of what it will look like, it seems virtually certain that education at the end of the 21st century will look nothing like it does now. Charter schools, homeschooling, online learning, and the rise of targeted training programs as an alternative to universities are among the many contenders for future directions in education. Some are more likely than others to bear fruit, and the education of the future will likely combine elements of all of them. One of the most promising ideas seen recently has been online degree programs offered by major universities, most notably M.I.T.’s “M.I.T.x” program, where university professors teach online, credential-granting courses available to nearly anyone with an internet connection.

In a very interesting piece at The Atlantic, Megan McArdle takes a close look at the possible implications of these programs:

 9.  The role of schooling in upward mobility will change.  This is kind of a cop-out, because I’m not sure which way the change runs.  I can tell a story where eUniversities make it radically easier for smart, poor kids to advance in their spare time.  I can also tell a story where education is very complementary to the kind of personal networks and social capital that middle-class kids can tap through their parents.  For poor kids who can get there (and stay there), college provides a lot of education on how to socialize with other college students, and of course, expert professionals who can help you find a job if you ask for help.

10.  The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s.  That’s hopefully going to translate into more investment, and more risk-taking, which is great for everyone.
11.  The tutoring industry will boom.  While tenured professorships will go away, there will be lots of opportunity for those who can help an online student pull through a rough spot. (At least until computers learn to do this too).

McArdle is a consistently interesting observer who always has something useful to say, and thinking through a complicated problem like the future of education brings out her best.  Read the whole thing.

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  • John Barker

    What I see in the online world is usually a replica of the the college classroom: lectures, reading lists, a blackboard, class notes, a syllabus. I don’t see much use of supplementary video, images,simulations or anything that uses technology to in a very creative way. We are seeing academic home movies; professors spend a lot of time writing notes and equations on blackboards and often talking to the blackboard.

  • Ken Moore

    Alex Lindsay has written a good “just suppose” article about the future of education. Super teachers with salaries $300,000 to a $1,000,000 who supply the whole world with instruction videos, lifetime competence ratings for each subject but no one in a grade.

  • MarkE

    E-courses can be helpful with highly technical, basic and supplemental material, but in any “course” that purports to teach how to do something or, better yet, to get something done, they fall short. I recently finished an MBA. Many of the courses were fairly pedestrian, but almost all of them required completing a project with a team, selected from the classmates.
    At first I thought this was horrible because it was a lot harder to do something with a team than by myself. Gradually we all got better at and were able to tackle projects that couldn’t have been accomplished as individuals in the time allotted. I use the techniques frequently now and actually believe it was the main thing I learned. All of this was done at the University of South Fla., which although accredited, is never even mentioned in any of the business school ratings, and is fairly inexpensive.
    Now I am taking graduate courses in finance with are mainly about mathematical economics and rarely involve teams. Even so, attending class with students who are from all ethnic backgrounds, countries and continents is instructive. The faculty are also frequently from different countries. The speech, thought patterns, appearance, body language and even smell of the other students is valuable information. In the pre- and post- class chatter one hears the aspirations and frustrations of people from every class and from around the world.
    I suppose some sort of video conferencing may eventually simulate this experience, but I doubt that there will every be an adequate substitute for the genuine “groves of Academe.”

  • Walter Sobchak

    “What I see in the online world is usually a replica of the the college classroom”

    The first automobiles were carriages with engines attached, the first word processors were designed to mimic typewriters.

    So far most online education has been amateur night and it looks like it. But, professional production, design, etc. is expensive and difficult to put together. Someone with a lot of resources will have to stump up to make it happen.

    A prequel was when Annenberg foundation produced some courses for broadcast type education. I was particularly impressed by the “Mechanical Universe and Beyond”. Which was created by PBS, the Annenberg foundation (, and Cal Tech.
    You can watch some of them on Google by searching: “Caltech: The Mechanical Universe”.

    But, I think that is a clue to the level of resources that need to be assembled.

  • Anthony

    The concept online universities/education suggests institutional models changing as online availability inures most civil/commercial activity.

    The educationally encompassing rise of online education/universities are neither inevitable nor natural progression of innovation (IT). Such rise will require the work of specific individuals and groups acting within the context of constraints and facilitators; in other words “contingency” remains contextual as implied in Megan McArdle’s Envisioning a Post-Campus America.

    To her query: what are the engines of mobility for strivers who start out in the bottom quintiles to look like in world of online education? I posit that many people with diverse and conflicting goals and aspirations will participate in shaping future of American education; but for the bottom quintile to have an academic chance they must receive quality content and instruction K-12 (the main engine and area that ought be our paramount concern cognitively speaking).

  • Toni (Rice ’79, B.A. English & Fine Arts)

    No doubt Ms. McArdle is right about the demise of the liberal arts degree in an online world. The world can do without zillions of English, poli sci, philosophy and similar graduates with few workplace skills.

    But I wonder about something the historian David McCullough said. “To think well is to write well, and to write well is to think well.” What about people who learn to think in an orderly way from writing papers of the sort that accounting and engineering majors don’t have to produce?

    Rice U. has just discovered that about a third of its incoming freshmen *can’t* present their thoughts in such an orderly way. An article linked below includes this info:

    “The faculty working group looked at writing programs in peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, and found that Rice was the only school without a formal writing requirement. Some of the other universities require up to four writing courses, said Michie.”

    Perhaps online colleges which want the rest of the world to view their graduates as skilled thinkers will still have to hire skilled paper-graders. There’s still hope for *some* English etc. grads!

  • RedWell

    This notion of online learning rests on a major assumption: education = imparting information. That seems facile to me. Our current system includes plenty of “inefficiency,” but an egaged student will almost always gain more from a traditional classroom experience than an online course. Yes, online learning is efficient, but it eliminates most of the opportunity for interpersonal serendipity and never shifts the student from his own physical context. Yes, if the Indians and Chinese are correct that higher ed is just about cramming information, then an online course may be just as good as, but cheaper than, the alternative.

    However, just because the liberal arts ideal has been corrupted doesn’t mean it lacks added value in a traditional context. Rather, it means we need to disaggregate “college.” Some people just need and want technical education; some need practical business and accounting skills–and should be confronted with other modes of thinking, as well. Some require complex STEM training, and others–though fewer than we get now–are budding professionals who will thrive with a well-rounded liberal arts education.

    For all of these, tracks, though, migrating education to a purely online experience is problematic. Worldly success almost always depends upon at least some tacit social skills and interpersonal relationships. Online learning deprives the learner of both the potential richness of classroom experience as well as the potential to interact with peers and faculty.

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