Will the Internet Transform College?

College is expensive, and it’s gotten a lot more expensive in the last few decades. The cost of tuition has outpaced inflation for years. This is the exact opposite of most industries, where real costs tend to drop over time. In most industries, that’s because productivity increases as a result of new efficiencies, better management, and new technologies. This is why the U.S. economy can keep growing even while employment declines: with productivity growth, we make more stuff with fewer people.

The reason why college bucks the trend is that the bulk of the cost is in salaries of highly trained professionals: the faculty. And the work that professors do can’t be scaled up; you can only fit so many students in a classroom–even a big lecture hall–and some types of learning have to take place in smaller classes: like discussion seminars or architecture studio classes. Another profession where costs are increasing is health care, and it’s partly due to a similar reason: Each doctor can only see so many patients in an hour.

For years, people have been saying that the Internet will change this. They think, why not record the lectures of the most awesome lecturer in the country, and have students watch them on the Internet? Then, we could have thousands, even millions, of students watch the same lecture. With so many “customers” the cost to each of them could be tiny and the lecturer would still make a ton of money. Productivity goes through the roof. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Enter MIT and Harvard with their new “edX” initiative: to deliver online learning, for example lectures by their most famous professors, all over the world. At their news conference, they claimed this is “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” In today’s Wall Street Journal,* John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe agree, and say we’re about to see a “historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”

I’m not sure I agree…yet. It’s true that having the powerful brands of MIT and Harvard in the field, really does change the game above the online offerings of less-prestigious outfits like the for-profit Phoenix University.

This new world could look very different. In a book I edited in 2006, retired Professor Roger Schank wrote an article making these predictions:

  • With online learning, top universities no longer need admissions requirements–because there are no classroom space limitations, and grading is done by computer software. So what will that do to the prestige of those universities, when the number of people having those degrees increases dramatically?
  • Research professors at top universities might not be the best teachers. Online, the researcher and the teacher don’t have to be the same person (like they do on campus). The most effective instructors on line are probably not going to be the top researchers in the field. This could be a problem for MIT and Harvard; what if the best lecturers are actually to be found at less prestigious state universities? And then, once the researchers are no longer involved in teaching, then why should they have control of the curriculum (as they do today)? What do they know about what students need to know in the real world, anyway?
  • Right now, every course takes the same amount of time: one semester or quarter, three hours in class each week. But there’s no way that every body of knowledge logically fits into that amount of time. With online learning, some bodies of knowledge could be gained in a few hours; some in a few weeks; others in a few months. The notion of “semesters” and “weekly contact hours” loses meaning.
  • And right now, on campus each student takes four or five courses at the same time. Online, a student could take one “course” all at once, full time, until finished–and then, move on to the next course. A lot of students would find this a more effective way to learn.
  • When knowledge is online, it is always available. You don’t have to learn it between the ages of 18 and 22, just because you might need it at some point in your career. When you get to a point when you need it, it will be there, waiting for you.

Will any of this happen? Should it? What would be gained, and what would be lost?

* Chubb and Moe, 2012, “Higher education’s online revolution”. WSJ May 31, 2012, p. A17.

Schank, 2006, “The fundamental issue in the learning sciences.” In Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

8 thoughts on “Will the Internet Transform College?

  1. As much as I admire Dr. Schank’s vision (and enjoy his ideas), I feel this is a flawed premise. For the majority of students, engaged learning emerges from relationships with teachers and fellow learners. One of the criticisms of the “huge lecture hall” model of a name standing on a stage while anonymous teaching assistants take notes and grade tests is that education becomes an isolating event. The online world Schank describes is even more isolationist than we are today. While the emancipatory aspects of the Internet and online education are quite worthy, Schank only hints at the accompanying reforms that need to take place to ensure real engagement. Online education needs to be accompanied by progressive philosophies that seek to provide real life transformative experiences in local, regional, national or global settings. In some of Schank’s work with simulations he gets quite close to this ideal, but needs to add the piece that incorporates authentic community action around a valid common cause. This presentation of Schank’s ideas focuses correctly on existing flaws in our educational model without accurately capturing strong possibilities for reform. Here is a model that could emerge from the “online revolution” that might work.
    Use online technology to capture the top theorists’ knowledge, in ways that optimize both presentation and content. Make these presentations as widely available as possible as resource pieces. Maintain existing college and university structures but eliminate the role of the professor as the person who speaks. Develop faculty who are masterful, engaging mentors. Create extensive community partnerships at every conceivable level. Have the students work to solve actual problems related to their field in freely evolving cohorts that include students from a variety of majors, faculty, and all interested or impacted community members. The learning will occur naturally from the problem selected. For me Schank generally gets it 95% right, but I think the online components (and accompanying technologies) are insufficient without the addition of a strong social element.

  2. Hello Keith 🙂

    Learning online has certainly already bridged the space and time dilemma most students face today, especially when they are not funded, meaning the have all the time to learn and develop academically speaking, or studying is not the only occupation in their busy lives. So yes, there is a big advantage of accessing high class knowledge. On the other hand, students and professors/teachers sacrifice the most significant quality of learning, that is, the collaborative aspect of gaining knowledge and personal development. In other words, exchanging ideas face-to-face, motivating each other in a small group or creative, collaborative circle is almost impossible. It is the crucial phenomenon that helped me finishing the tedious expectation of German law school. The online medium does not motivate enough to get out of bed every morning, catching the bus and ride to campus; it is rather the social responsibility that drives students to success.


  3. Good insight! I think the costs of the scientific equipment for educational and laboratory should be taken into account. For instance faculties have to invest in new technologies that’s why real costs not necessarily drop over time. Youmani Jerome

  4. What do you think of the Kahn Academy and its online videos? As a result of the media attention Kahn has received, a lot of people are now talking about “flipping” education–meaning, instead of attending class for lectures and then doing homework and projects on your own, watch the lectures on your own and then once in class, students engage in group projects, with the professor as a guide and facilitator.

  5. Gerald, you are spot on in your comments. Keith – I have a hard time understanding people’s objections to KA or to the flipped classroom concept. If we take advantage of the freedom the flipped classroom offers we could make some wonderful changes in education. Is the fear that students will refuse to learn if they are not tightly controlled?

    1. I really like the flipped classroom concept. Sometimes information delivery (i.e. watching a lecture; reading a book) is a necessary part of learning. But no reason to waste valuable in-class time on information delivery. Instead, use face to face time for what it’s uniquely suited for: interaction, collaboration, conversation, creative project work, team knowledge building.
      I really don’t know why people object. I’m always surprised to learn that some of my college students report that they LIKE attending lectures and learn better from being in the room than from watching a video. When I was in college, I skipped all of my lectures because they simply replicated what was in the textbook.

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