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NYT Fighting the Future of Higher Ed

Every new idea has problems and online ed is no exception. But the New York Times seems inordinately eager to call the whole thing a waste of time. Yesterday’s editorial, “The Trouble With Online College,” is oddly dismissive of what is likely to be the biggest threat to traditional college patterns of instruction: the “hybrid” course in which the equivalent of a TA or a tutor works with small groups of students around a lecture course.

Training people to teach these classes may work, warns the Times, but is expensive: “Hybrid courses are rare, and teaching professors how to manage them is costly and time-consuming.”

Perhaps—but it’s much, much less expensive than the current method of having virtually all classes everywhere taught by full PhDs. A college or institute that trains tutors and assistants to teach one particular course could really save a ton of money by replacing PhDs (many of whom are not particularly good teachers, and most of whom are anything but intellectual leaders in their fields) with highly trained and focused tutors. These tutors, while not knowing a field in as great a depth as a PhD, would be able to provide students with a better experience in one particular course than most PhD faculty at most colleges can now provide.

Does the Times really think it’s more expensive to train people with BAs to be TAs in a physics course than it is to train and hire PhDs?

The NYT editorial board seems deeply invested in the existing model, viewing new forms of higher ed with sentiments similar to those with which the American Blacksmiths’ Association viewed the early cars. Those early cars did have a lot of breakdowns, and there were a lot of problems with them. But it was pretty obvious to everyone but the Livery Stable League that change was coming.

There are serious questions to be asked about the future of American higher ed. We need to make training and job qualifications much cheaper, and at the same time we need to revive and strengthen the concept of liberal education. But until places like the NYT accustom themselves to thinking outside the blue box, that debate is going to be less rich and thoughtful than it needs to be.

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