From the September/October Issue
Tottering Ivory Towers

The higher education business should look to earlier episodes of technological tumult to gauge its future.

Appeared in: Volume 10, Number 1 | Published on: August 11, 2014
Stuart Butler is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
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  • Boritz

    “But in 1955 Sony of Japan introduced the mass-produced battery transistor radio.”

    The Regency model TR1 in October 1954 using Texas Instruments transistors. &nbspThe launch date was chosen to be in time for Christmas 1954. &nbspEventually 100,000+ units wre sold. &nbsp My source is The Portable Radio in American LIfe by Michael Schiffer. &nbspEven Wikipedia has this right, The second mass-produced portable transistor radio was the Raytheon 8-TP-1.


      How many did Sony and it’s Japanese counterparts sell compared to TI & Raytheon?

      By 1959, in the United States market, there were more than six million transistor radio sets produced by Japanese companies that represented $62 million in revenue.

  • rheddles

    The Apple I was introduced in 1976. The Macintosh was introduced 8, not 20, years later in 1984. The reason this guy writes so much about the future is because it’s hard to fact check.

    • bff426

      In fact, the 1984 Macintosh computers were a novelty item. They sold (relatively) well until Windows 3.0 was introduced in 1990, then began a long decline until Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997. It was only with the introduction of the iMac in 1998 that Apple began its ascent. Even that ascent was relative, as Macintosh sales never even reached one quarter of overall computer sales. Tablet domination yes, computer no. The problem is they’ve never been able to break into the business market.

    • Curious Mayhem

      The future ain’t what it used to be, you know 🙂

  • Thirdsyphon

    Perhaps the author studied the history of technology at a MOOC. . .

  • Excellent. On the mark, I believe. The University today is 3 main businesses: Teaching, Research, and Hospitality. A good researcher does not necessarily make a good teacher. But research is what leads to Tenure – and a version of unionization. The real customer for the teaching segment is the student but universities in general are doing a terrible job preparing them for life at large. This will need to be their focus if they are to survive. Research and Hospitality are different businesses and should be treated as such with a modest relationship between teaching and research.

  • LarryD

    The biggest problem big education has is that it’s been taken over by an anti-western, and increasingly loony, ideology. The liberal arts and soft sciences are the worse, because they can’t easily be given a reality check by outsiders. Whereas if bridge falls down, you don’t need an engineering degree to question the designers competence.

    Outside of the STEM fields, academia has become a repository of sincured incompetents, with nothing of value to teach.

    • Phil Mitchell

      Amen. But you are far too generous with your comment that they have nothing of value to teach. What they teach is worse than that–it is destructive. Read Michael Strong’s fine essay on higher ed over the past 150 years. In his words, academics have committed one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity by attacking the values that have made Western culture the freest and wealthiest of all time.

  • mail33006

    If new technology and procedures result in the complete destruction of the liberal lunatic stranglehold on college campuses across the nation, it will be a great day for the education system in America.

  • dailypenny

    There are several major problems with higher education as it stands today- some of which you have touched upon. Relevance. t has been the staple of the higher education system for some time to say that without a degree, of some sort, or at least a college education, the world was pretty much closed to them. Come to find out that for a great many people-educated, degreed, whatever, the world and job market is already closed to them. In other words, the universities are very good at teaching within their given sphere of influence- but the disconnect between academia and the real world is very, very high. The second problem with the academic experience has to do with what we are supposed to be teaching are students-tolerance, broad-based-experience, curiosity about others, etc. In the last 20 the academic experience has become so politicized that it is now resembles- in some of the best institutions-more of an indoctrination than anything else. This will destroy higher education if not corrected, by driving out those that want to learn but refuse to put up with political nonsense.
    The third problem is cost. The cost of higher education today is slowly destroying the notion of an ‘education for everyone’ when it is transparently not for everyone.
    And lastly, the university, as it becomes more of a ‘business’ loses the real reason for it’s existence, while simultaneously not having formulated another clear one. As much as people like to think that the small school/close student professor relationship is good (and I do) it is honored more when spoken about than anything else.

    • malikknows

      Agreed, the hard leftwing ideology of the universities cannot be denied, but I wonder what role if any that will play in what happens to universities. I’d like to think that bad ideology was the downfall of the NYT, Boston Globe and Washington Post, but few believe it is. They point to changing business models. My sense is that ideology hastens the need for people to find alternatives but not much more. Certainly there are millions of parents who resent spending a small fortune to send their child to an institution that actively seeks to undermine their own values. There has to be a better way.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Indeed. The hard-left drift of university culture began at the end of the 1980s and has nothing to do with Obama. It was an assault on academic standards and freedom by New Left radicals of the 1960s and 70s moving into positions of power. The inside job of destroying liberal learning started then. We’re just now seeing the final mopping up operations.

        But the larger society never accepted this trashing of the university, and now, for the first time, they have viable alternatives. The PC radicals won a pyrrhic victory, as the very institutions they took over are increasingly troubled and under competitive threat. The Obama administration’s hysterical treatment of for-profit colleges is a striking case. They prosecute, or merely threaten, for-profit schools for doing on a small scale what the expensive elite schools do on a much worse scale. But those expensive elite schools are essential linchpins of the left’s dominance of American culture. So they’ll never be subject to the same scrutiny.

        All of this is more and more obvious to everyone else outside the PC empire of academia, and major change is coming much faster than over 50 years. It’s more like 10-20 years.

  • marco

    I graduated from a relatively new engineering college in Connecticut. I was taught by professors in all my courses. There were some research projects but nothing funded like the MITs of the world. After graduation I found that we all used the same books. Graduate business school was the live/online for profit model and again, we used the same books but we were taught by professors who also worked during the day for the most part,offering real world feedback, not just theory recycled year after year.

  • hannahkatz

    With all the changes to universities coming, I guess the major college football and basketball teams can just become farm systems for the NFL and NBA. Oh, they already are. Never mind.

  • wheezer

    applying new tech to college educations: OK, where’s all those $10K on line bachelors??

  • Historybuff

    After over 40 years of working in a high-tech profession… getting ready to retire… I think back to my time on two occasions that I consulted for a University once for three years, once for five years. tossing in a few years of adjunct teaching.

    I never met a University Administrator above Assistant VP that did not love to spend money. The students mattered, but building monumental buildings… gigantic artifacts… flashy events… always mattered more. Frankly, compared to businessmen, these educated morons were like children.

  • Monte

    “the degree of the future is likely to become a customized collection of educational experiences and credentialed courses”

    The origin of the university (for the most part in the 13th century, or about 800 years ago, rather than the 2000 years mistaken asserted here) lay in the need of burgeoning medieval bureaucracies for “clerks” trained in rhetorical and legal skills. For many centuries afterwards, however, an elite education was provided by tutors who tailor-made a curriculum for a single or very few students. Futurist speculation aside, it seems very likely that technologies such as MOOCs will merely reduce the cost and increase the distribution of institutional education for institutional purposes: the original point of the university. Elite education, the preparation of the scions of the ruling class, will in all likelihood revert to its traditional form, tutored individualized instruction, or as this author describes it, “a customized collection of educational experiences”.

  • themaskedblogger

    Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of lefties.

    • irwincur

      Always willing to spend someone else’s money. Now like all Marxists, they are finding that there is indeed a limit as to how much they can take before people start to question them.

      Also blame the easy money that came from government backed loans, no risk for the colleges to take any student (good or bad), and plenty of money. This is a huge reason that college costs are rising, because the government keeps giving them what they are asking for. Tuition goes up, so what, government pays up front, student gets a crappy degree and is now in debt to the government and not the college.

      I also blame lax admittance policies and those that favor certain groups of students – I could not believe my first year in a major college when there were kids that didn’t even know what a paragraph was… This has greatly discounted the value of a degree as most employers see what products are being produced.

      • themaskedblogger

        Yup, that they are. There also is little question Affirmative Action is doing far more harm than good as well. And the idea of a doctorate in Lesbian Interpretive Dance Theory, or whatever, is beyond laughable, shading on into make-you-want-to-cry territory. Those poor kids, hundreds of thousands in debt, not even dischargable in bankruptcy, and unqualified to be a barista…

        The good news, as you point out, is what they are actually doing is devaluing the worth of a degree in anything but the STEM fields. When you consider all the false-to-reality left wing foolishness the universities are feeding them nowadays, it won’t be long at all before HR types start looking for “undegreed professionals” or graduates of religious colleges or technical schools, which will do them in even faster than changing technology. And the really good news is those kids, while uneducated, are not stupid. They will see what has been done to them, and by whom.

        • Michki067

          LIDT…God, I love it!

          • themaskedblogger

            It seems laughable, and it is, except to the people who have to pay for it 🙂

  • dailypenny

    I think what ideology does, at an institutional level, (and maybe personal) is seal you off from alternatives, so to speak. This is particularly true of an ideology like Feminism, or Progressive Democracy. What starts out as a good idea that is justifiable under most circumstances is presented as a given by what Eric Hoffer used to call ‘true believers’. What bothers me is that higher education is now populated by more ‘true believers’ than scholars or researchers. It is a something you don’t even realize, and the thing about a lot of faculty that are in the Higher Education market today is that they don’t even realize it. It probably won’t affect institutions directly- unless it gets to the point where the faculty is so politicized and conflict so regular that trustees become irritated. It is interesting, for instance that many of the problems of ‘ideology’ in the universities are in primarily the social science and humanities departments- who are now full of profs raised in the 60’s on this sort of political discourse- or those that have experienced the Bush years and decided they are against them- and would like to broadcast these views to everyone else.
    Parents are gradually being given alternatives to 4 years of debt. The MOOC system two things the universities hold dear- their revenue stream, and faculty control over the curriculum. We’ll see…..

  • BurnerBen

    I’m impressed that you managed to write almost 5,000 words about the challenges inherent in the University business model without one of them being the word “endowment.”

    The Ivory Tower is not funded by its current occupants, but rather by its alumni and through commercializing faculty research initiatives. Yale’s tuition covered less than 10% of its expenses in 2013; given its endowment, it could charge zero tuition and run for 100 years before bankruptcy. Despite the author’s eager dismissal of research as a responsibility for the university faculty, one of the reasons Stanford continues its rise in prestige is its remarkable ability to bring academic research to market. While I agree that the model of student customers providing a revenue source to higher education is inherently flawed, that’s not the business model of the Ivory Tower.

    In fact, the idea that a University should be funded primarily by student tuition is a relatively recent development in higher education starting (not surprisingly) just after most of the boomers finished college. Unfortunately, that’s the business model State Universities have turned to in desperation after their funding from public sources has been eviscerated while their expected service offerings have become increasingly demanding. I agree that this business model is not sustainable and we will see a lot of our state universities become little more than glorified high schools in accordance with the author’s vision.

    Now, we could have a positive discussion about how innovative teaching strategies could provide a great deal of value for the majority of the population who participate in higher education through their state university system. We could talk about the investments these systems could make now to realize these benefits sooner. However, a sober discussion about the potential for leveraging new technology and the role of the state in higher education isn’t as exciting as bloviating about “tottering ivory towers.”

    It’s more fun to imagine how all those elitist suckers at “Hahvahd” will burn.

  • The problem here is that the author is comparing apple to oranges.

    By his definition of a MOOC–simply a way to deliver content–well, we have had that before. It is called the “textbook”.
    Interestingly, although most students, if they wanted to, could learn the same knowledge from a textbook as from a course using a textbook, they don’t. You can automate the textbook with problems that grade themselves and interactives and it still doesn’t matter.

    The reason, quite simply, is that learning is struggle. It is the forceful changing of a mass of neurons into a pattern that they just don’t happen to fall into by chance. It takes effort on the part of the student.

    So unless your MOOC comes with some electronic prod (and I definitely do not recommend this for any training strategy), there will be an inherent passivity on the part of the student in the MOOC even more so then had she or he simply read a book. The passivity is what stifles learning.

    What then does the “Sage on a Stage” provide? Well, it isn’t a better presentation–I will grant you that. It is the human presence–a demonstration of the struggle of the how and why something can be learned with a human face in the very course of the struggle to create the ideas that we call knowledge and–in a moment of inspiration–even understanding.

    But MOOCs are very entertaining just as the movies are entertaining. I suppose one could by the same token have learned journalism and writing by watching a movie. And better movies would make better journalists and writers, correct?

    Or did the author learn to write by practice, self and peer criticism, mentorship, and other intangible methods?

  • General_Chaos

    Disclosure on what I bring to the table in these comments. I am a conservative professor who has taught at liberal arts colleges and big state universities, I do mostly on-site work but also do online classes.

    Relying on technology for a fix to the problem of college is unlikely to succeed.

    1. Students are not consumers and they have no idea what constitutes a good education. Most are naturally inclined to take the easiest path, not the one that will result int he most/bets knowledge.

    2. Employers are justifiably frustrated at the skill levels for graduates, but the empirical and logical reasoning and good writing ability that most seek is not likely to be fostered by online education, and certainly not massive online education.

    • David Whitney

      Good points all, general, but incomplete analysis. Point by point:

      1. College is not for everybody. If you don’t know you’re getting less value than you thought you were you may have a future in the food service industry.

      2. Logical reasoning and writing ability are acquired in grammar and high school, and that is where they should be taught. If you don’t have it by the time you enter college fuggedaboutit.

      3. If there is any one thing the education industry has excelled at, it is test writing. I posit we are equally able to determine whether a student has absorbed Chaucer or Einstein.

      4. I’m surprised you missed this one. The most superior professors have a minute market share because the market is designed that way. Why would we not expand the opportunity for competition and allow consumers to choose among content providers? If those consumers are not able to make a good choice, see point 1. In terms of government control, I don’t hear you lamenting it at the elementary and secondary levels.

      5. Yes, some students do well independently and others need that interaction and rigor. It is not fair to assert all students do better in the seminar environment. Perhaps you are thinking of community building as a substitute for tutoring.

      6. Huh? Your earlier points acknowledge a substantial range of quality among providers in the current systems. You also assume the best quality will continue to be restricted to elite institutions. I beg to differ. The model of the future makes that high quality content available to an exponentially larger market at a lower price point, which squeezes out inferior offerings and lifts all boats like the proverbial rising tide.

      Nothing personal, and I know you gave your comment much thought. Please continue to think, and thank you for your service to education and mankind.

      • General_Chaos

        Thanks for your comments. A couple of responses to your points.

        “2. Logical reasoning and writing ability are acquired in grammar and high school, and that is where they should be taught. If you don’t have it by the time you enter college fuggedaboutit.”

        Clearly you have not been in a high school or college classroom in a while. If you had written “should” instead of “are” I would agree. But at very good liberal arts college I regularly have freshmen that have never had to do a footnote before, that have never written anything more complex than the ubiquitous five paragraph essay, and that have no idea why some sources are more reputable than others. Almost none of them have a good education in history (other then incomplete and politically correct version that is now common), so they have no experience at all in making an even somewhat complex argument and evaluating rival claims with evidence. MOOC or not, that is reality and that is what they show up with. I can try to rectify that to some extent, but feedback on extensive writing assignments is time-consuming and no technology I have seen can replace this function. Nor can it accommodate a student coming into my office to it and talk abut issues that were sparked by what we did in class.

        Re; point 4, I think I made it clear why 18 year-olds as “consumers” is a horrible analogy. Many students do not end up realizing who what they learned fits until years later. It is not a short-coming on their part, it is just impossible. Would you think of your 10 year-old kid as a consumer and let them pick the groceries you buy? Would it make them happy, sure, but it would not be good for them. This is why we used to make engineers still study Shakespeare or English majors take Chemistry (before standards were hollowed out). As consumers most would not choose this, they would just take what the “liked.” We educate to make reflective and responsible citizens not workers. Employers can teach job skills much better than colleges, so perfecting measures of content retrieval are not the point.

        Re: 5. I have yet to meet a student that did not benefit more from a (good) seminar than they would have reading a book or watching a lecture alone. If they are out there they are a tiny minority and not a basis upon which to base education policy.
        If you join a religion, could you just take the relevant texts home and not bother with services? Why go to the stadium for a football game since home is much easier? There is a factor about being in a good classroom (or church, or stadium) that defies full explanation but is deeply meaningful.

        In any massive education environment (MOOCs or 300-person lecture hall) students fall through the cracks and much smaller percentages get an inspirational experience. Having taught all sides of it I have seen this and remained convinced of the value of face-to-face education.

        Technology is a tool not a savior. It will do somethings better and make some things worse. The internet makes my research with much more efficiency, but most of the internet is used for porn. Do education online you will get some benefits (mostly cost) and lose much as well.

        • David Whitney

          We could debate minutiae until the cows come home, so I’ll try to take it up a notch instead.
          Pause 2 minutes before answering the following:
          What is the purpose of the modern top-tier university?

          The truth is these institutions fulfill many purposes. That is their vulnerability. Let us focus on their bread and butter — the transmission of knowledge to students.

          I will use the tired and nevertheless dead-on analogy to the industrial revolution: The ability to mass produce and transport consumer goods at low cost imparted incalculable benefit to society. It also, with limited exception, destroyed the manufacturing model that existed before its advent. Does that mean consumer goods are now “better” than before? No, it does not. However, nobody in their right mind wants to revert to the old model. Such is the fate of the modern university.

          We now have the ability to mass produce and transport information at low cost. Will education be “better” than before? Arguably not. But it, like consumer goods in the 19th and 20th centuries, will cost less and be more widely available as a high quality offering than at any time in history.

          You may grieve at the passing of a way of life, but nobody hammers out tin ceilings by hand any more or makes their own butter except as a leisure pastime.

          • General_Chaos

            Th entire problem with your argument is the market analogy. I am pro-free market and pro-innovation.

            Where we differ first, is the purpose of a university education. The market analogy is just not apt here. Students are not consumers, they have vastly imperfect information. I can choose between models of cars with a couple of days worth of research. Could 18 year-old you have chosen with nay degree of accuracy, what type of education would best serve you in the future?

            Our second point if departure, if I agree to accept that knowledge transmission is the purpose (which I do not, it is a means to a higher end), is that future online education will do that better. Could it better and more efficiently prepare me to be an accountant…sure. Be an engineer..maybe. Now going to my field (international and national security studies). What is the “right” knowledge? IS the US an aggressive imperial power, or a force for good by building and maintaining much of the international order? Turns out that professor in the field for decades do not agree. How do you test when the knowledge base itself is contested? Should the US be back in Iraq from prevent further advances by the Islams State? How do you design on online test to see how well a student synthesized and applied the various debates about this? Not all knowledge is made up of facts that are easily discernible.

            Ultimately I and those that think like me attempt to educate for wisdom. Of course it is imperfect and partial and experience is necessary to get to that point is any of us really do. But significant advancement down that path takes a guide and a personal touch. Reading an essay, and discussing it with a student after they did much research, and then having them go back after that conversation and try again. How in the heck is that ever possible online with large classes? Heck, in my online classes it takes me three or four weeks (out of ten) to see when a students is really struggling. In a live class with smaller numbers I can catch it in a couple of days and turn them around.

            Perhaps my way of thinking of education is outdated, but the vision of super-MOOCs, however good, does not even attempt to seek the same goal.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Perhaps the single thing students should learn is whether high-end tax cuts do or do not help create the jobs they aspire to have right after graduation and later in their careers. Knowing the correct answer to that question—-regardless of academic major—-is essential to whether a person is educated or not.

      I notice that you described yourself as a “conservative” professor, which presumably means you side with those who approve tax cuts of the past 35 years and those now advocated by conservatives for the future. My question to you, given your experience with colleges and the prospects of students, is this: Why?

      • General_Chaos

        Since this a piece on education I do not think a tax policy debate is relevant, but please of look at the income earned versus % tax paid by each quintile of the population and you will see that much of the tax debate is about as based in reality as the missile gap was in 1960. If you want a quick bit of data see the following:

        As a conservative professor I reject the proliferation of “_____-studies” programs that are nothing but political activism with shoddy research as a thin academic veil. I think logic and evidence matter more than feelings. I think the Western Canon is an amazing corpus and should be taught to all students. I do not think that reading Toni Morrison is an equally enriching experience in American Literature as Mark Twain, I think that professors should strive to keep their personal politics out of the classroom and allow for real debates to occur and teach the process of analysis rather than cram the “right” outcome down students throats (when students ask what I believe about an issue I tell them it is irrelevant, and they should instead focus on the logic and evidence that undergird their own ideas), I think that it is possible to make value judgments, and some societies are better than others (female genital mutilation is an abomination and any society that practice sit is barbaric), I think that the US has done much good in the world (as well as some bad) and that the world has been better off with strong American than without. I do not think throwing around the word “imperialism” settles an argument. I believe that professors shroud stick their ares of expertise. As a professor of international politics I promise not the weigh in on the debate of who wrote Shakespeare’s works in Edward Said (a literary theorist) and Noam Chomsky (a linguistics professor) are not treated as experts on politics.

        You want to debate tax policy, fine, I have an opinion, but right now the academy is in crisis,because professors do not even agree on what our role is. I have been called “immoral” by my progressive/leftist colleague because I will not tell my students they must believe in the progressive doctrines otherwise they are racist/sexist., etc. I have even been told I am a fascist because I study war and conflict rather than be an activist against it. That real political debate is not only tolerable but desirable is lost on many of my colleagues.

        So there it is, that is what a conservative professor looks like

        • FriendlyGoat

          Well, I can’t debate with you the virtues or lack thereof in any of the “______ Studies” courses, because I’m not taking them. So, I’ll agree with you that many of them may very well be fluff or worse.

          But, I suspected you might be on the side of more high-end tax cuts because you used the word “conservative” to describe yourself—-and, because the demand for more tax cuts is THE defining call from modern American political conservatism.

          The question is whether anyone has told the millennial generation why their jobs went away, why they were expected to take on waayyyy more college debt than previous generations, and why—for that matter—their colleges are heavily staffed with mistreated adjuncts. I’m afraid they don’t know and their professors may not know either. Aside from funding cuts to colleges, please consider this example about jobs:

          If Susan earns $40,000/yr working at a profitable company with its earnings taxed at 50%, she costs the company’s bottom line $20,000 because her salary is deducted from taxable income, saving $20,000 in taxes. If the taxation is cut to 25%, her job now is seen as costing $30,000 because the tax savings from her deductible salary are only $10,000. In which scenario does the company try hardest to eliminate Susan’s position? (American corporations, it’s said, are now paying about 17% effective federal tax.)

          I hope you will re-examine whether conservatism is really telling people the truth about taxes and jobs.

  • Duo1

    This article is terrific, and after 7 years of my kids’ undergrad and their face 4 more years of grad, the economies of forced education are daunting, but my own profession, architecture, has become the king of hype over expectation:

  • I’m going to declare victory on this.

    The author’s entire case is refuted as another total waste of time and the efforts of a cartoonist.

    Pending an actual discussion and argument, from what I see here, my point is carried.

    As to the publishers, try harder next time to publish something that is not anything more than entertainment and bait and switch. If you cannot defend your thesis, it should go in the trash.

    This, dear publisher, is the academic way. Veritas uber alles.

  • Joe

    Well-written but you can find about 100 versions of this article online.

  • Michki067

    Boy, if you think hot-shot leftist professors hate America now, wait till they get a load of their coming pay cut! He he he he.

  • shawna_ross

    What a terrible article. Author clearly knows nothing about universities. A “five-hundred-year-old ‘sage on a stage’ business model?!” Ach, it wasn’t a “business model” five hundred years ago, and it wasn’t static, birthed in its final form like Venus on the foam. Even simply the birth of the college campus is actually something interesting and strange, and knowing its history would actually give this essay firm ground on which to walk. We need to contextualize the changes to the university within its OWN history, not the contemporary rhetoric of the business section of the Times.

    Author admits only “minor modifications” to this model. What about adjunctification? That’s not minor. If today we can say the university has a business model (and TODAY we can), that is actually the real disruption, not technology.

    What a weird take on the “three waves” of the internet. Interesting theory, but that doesn’t reflect the uneven development of the Internet.

    College won’t tumble in the same way as the newspaper because the system has credentialing that employers actually care about. For that reason, the author is way behind on the MOOC curve, which has gone on the downswing. Your MOOC information is totally out of date.

    The real story is not technology, but the business model of BUSINESS itself infecting the university. That’s the alien stuff that’s threatening the university system. It’s articles like these that normalize seeing universities in the same way you’d see a company that makes lightbulbs. That’s the disruption that we need to worry about.

  • Yaaaaaah

    This all sounds great–even heavenly–in theory. But I stopped cold at this:

    “Virtual class exchanges on Blackboard or GoToMeeting, or sometimes even
    Twitter, can be as stimulating as in-person seminars—and they come
    complete with links to citations and a record of the conversation that
    can be perused later.”

    Um. . . nope. Not even.

    I’ve been to these things. They are indeed stimulating–but not for 95% of students out there. You need a SETTING online that replicates the higher education environment. And this is what Stuart Butler does not, and refuses to, understand. Academia is not a form of behavior that can be ported to any random place. It is like athletics–without some kind of online facility that emulates that setting, you will have a crappy team.

    Until you replicate the SETTING of higher education as it exists today online–i.e. create the academic equivalent of World of Warcraft–the virtual brick-and-mortar-less paradise you describe will benefit no one to the extent that is needed. Perhaps sometime soon that will be created. Until then, one of the central planks of the effectiveness of the college campus–being in an ENVIRONMENT dedicated to intellectual ferment, will remain wedded to physical settings.

    This is not simply a matter of technology and innovation. This is a matter of community. If Mr. Butler had tried to get a degree at any point in the last two decades, he would remember that.

    And just so we’re clear, it also seems rather coincidental that Mr. Butler is making this case at a time when nearly the entire academic community has turned, lock, stock, and barrel, away from his ideology and his party. Completely coincidental.

    • They tried to do this with second life, it failed. There were plenty of university campus presences there, but recreating a 3-D world has shown to be a particularly inefficient way to consume information. A list of links on a single page is far better for most people than wandering the shelves of a 3-d modeled virtual library.

      • Second Life had much more verisimilitude to the real thing than Twitter chats. I love using Twitter. But I loved, and learned more from, my intro to psychology class (lecture hall venue) at Swarthmore AND from 1st year grad school fluid dynamics class at land grant New Mexico State University. Many community colleges are good too, if students take them seriously rather than as a Wander Year or two without the wander.

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  • Are two of the guys on the illustration supposed to be Garfinkle and Mead?

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