The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Does Online Ed Spell Doom for Traditional Universities?

Now is not a good time to be a university professor. For centuries, the profession has remained essentially the same, with professors splitting their time between research and teaching, presiding over courses in which students living nearby or on campus came in year in and year out to hear the same lectures and take the same exams. It was a pleasant, comfortable sysetem, especially for those who earned tenure and were paid well for a lifetime job with no competition.

But that’s all about to change. Online education, spearheaded by programs such as Coursera and EdX, is catching on faster than anyone anticipated even a half-decade ago, as millions of students take advantage of their new access to courses once offered only to a select few. Today, it is possible for anyone from Alabama to Indonesia to take a wide range of courses from MIT and Harvard, among others, and while these courses may not offer credentials, the most forward-looking schools are already looking for ways to address this issue as well.

In an excellent new feature for The American Interest, Nathan Harden profiles the changes coming as a result of online and predicts that the higher ed world of 2062 will look nothing like that of today. In Harden’s vision, online courses will be ubiquitous, education costs will be lower, traditional majors will be replaced with an a la carte course selection model, and more than half of the colleges currently operating today will be out of business—particularly those without a strong brand name or elite cachet:

Anant Agarwal, an MIT computer science professor and edX’s first president, told the Los Angeles Times, “MIT’s and Harvard’s mission is to provide affordable education to anybody who wants it.” That’s a very different mission than elite schools like Harvard and MIT have had for most of their existence. These schools have long focused on educating the elite—the smartest and, often, the wealthiest students in the world. But Agarwal’s statement is an indication that, at some level, these institutions realize that the scalability and economic efficiency of online education allow for a new kind of mission for elite universities. Online education is forcing elite schools to re-examine their priorities. In the future, they will educate the masses as well as the select few. The leaders of Harvard and MIT have founded edX, undoubtedly, because they realize that these changes are afoot, even if they may not yet grasp just how profound those changes will be.

And what about the social experience that is so important to college? Students can learn as much from their peers in informal settings as they do from their professors in formal ones. After college, networking with fellow alumni can lead to valuable career opportunities. Perhaps that is why, after the launch of edX, the presidents of both Harvard and MIT emphasized that their focus would remain on the traditional residential experience. “Online education is not an enemy of residential education”, said MIT president Susan Hockfield.

Yet Hockfield’s statement doesn’t hold true for most less wealthy universities. Harvard and MIT’s multi-billion dollar endowments enable them to support a residential college system alongside the virtually free online platforms of the future, but for other universities online education poses a real threat to the residential model. Why, after all, would someone pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend Nowhere State University when he or she can attend an online version of MIT or Harvard practically for free?

This is why those middle-tier universities that have spent the past few decades spending tens or even hundreds of millions to offer students the Disneyland for Geeks experience are going to find themselves in real trouble. Along with luxury dorms and dining halls, vast athletic facilities, state of the art game rooms, theaters and student centers have come layers of staff and non-teaching administrators, all of which drives up the cost of the college degree without enhancing student learning. The biggest mistake a non-ultra-elite university could make today is to spend lavishly to expand its physical space. Buying large swaths of land and erecting vast new buildings is an investment in the past, not the future. Smart universities should be investing in online technology and positioning themselves as leaders in the new frontier of open-source education. Creating the world’s premier, credentialed open online education platform would be a major achievement for any university, and it would probably cost much less than building a new luxury dorm.

And there is one extremely beneficial feature—college costs will be much, much lower:

Now, because the demand for college degrees is so high (whether for good reasons or not is not the question for the moment), and because students and the parents who love them are willing to take on massive debt in order to obtain those degrees, and because the government has been eager to make student loans easier to come by, these universities and others have, so far, been able to keep on building and raising prices. But what happens when a limited supply of a sought-after commodity suddenly becomes unlimited? Prices fall. Yet here, on the cusp of a new era of online education, that is a financial reality that few American universities are prepared to face.

It’s still too early to say how much of this will come to pass, but many of these changes have already begun over the past few years, with no signs of slowing down.

College presidents and professors should take note: The world you have lived in for decades is about to be turned on its head. Smart professors need to begin thinking of ways to adapt to the new educational landscape, and they need to do it quickly. Change is coming faster than anyone had imagined.

Read the whole thing.

Published on December 16, 2012 3:00 pm