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.