Will the Internet Replace Universities?

By Sean Carroll | April 3, 2009 8:25 am

Via Brad DeLong, an article by Kevin Carey in the Chronicle of Higher Education starts with the obvious — the internet is killing newspapers as we knew them — and asks whether the same will happen to universities.

Much of what’s happening was predicted in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web burst onto the public consciousness. But people were also saying a lot of retrospectively ludicrous Internet-related things — e.g., that the business cycle had been abolished, and that vast profits could be made selling pet food online. Newspapers emerged from the dot-com bubble relatively unscathed and probably felt pretty good about their future. Now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse.

Universities were also subject to a lot of fevered speculation back then. In 1997 the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics…. Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” Twelve years later, universities are bursting with customers, bigger, and (until recently) richer than ever before.

But universities have their own weak point, their own vulnerable cash cow: lower-division undergraduate education. The math is pretty simple: Multiply an institution’s average net tuition (plus any state subsidies) by the number of students (say, 200) in a freshman lecture course. Subtract whatever the beleaguered adjunct lecturer teaching the course is being paid. I don’t care what kind of confiscatory indirect-cost multiplier you care to add to that equation, the institution is making a lot of money — which is then used to pay for faculty scholarship, graduate education, administrative salaries, the football coach, and other expensive things that cost more than they bring in.

I’m not sure I buy it. Let’s think about what good purposes a college or university might serve. Off the top of my head, I can think of several:

  1. Classroom-based education. Certainly important.
  2. Extracurricular learning. This includes everything from “participating in actual academic research” to “serving on the school newspaper.”
  3. Meeting different kinds of people. Not only do students get exposed to professors, and an academic way of thinking about problems, but they also meet other students, hopefully from a wide variety of backgrounds.
  4. Establishing independence. For many people, going to college is the first time one lives away from home, and begins to establish an identity separate from one’s family.
  5. Belonging to a community. From the university itself to numerous smaller subcultures within, college provides an opportunity to belong. As great as the Teaching Company is, it doesn’t have a basketball team in the Final Four.

Feel free to add your own. We can argue whether online learning can be effective in replacing the first of these — after all, hearing a recorded lecture is not the same as hearing it live. But it would appear very difficult to replace the others. The four years one spends at college are often the most formative (and perhaps the most enjoyable) years of one’s life. It’s not clear, of course, how much people are willing to pay for those other purposes, as important as they may be.

On the other hand, there is a long-established bargain at big research universities that could conceivably come unraveled at the hands of the internet. Namely: it is research and scholarship that attracts the faculty and establishes the academic reputation of a school, but it is teaching that brings in students and tuition dollars. This is not an arrangement based entirely on avarice; the top research schools bring in a lot more money from grants and gifts than they do from student tuitions. But it reflects a deep philosophical split, that might signal an underlying instability: from within academia, the purpose of the university is seen as the production of new scholarship; from outside academia, the purpose of universities is seen as the teaching of students.

In the case of newspapers, the internet made it harder to tightly bundle straightforward news with advertising and sections of the paper any one reader might not be interested in. In the case of universities, will the internet make it harder to bundle teaching and research? Quick, name the largest private university in the U.S. The answer is the University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, where 95% of faculty are part-time and the large majority of teaching happens completely online.

It could happen that more education-providing corporations (one hesitates to call them “universities”) could develop better ways to provide online classroom educations to a large number of students who are interested in the first purpose listed above but are unwilling to pay for the second. If that model catches on, it will cause dramatic upheaval in the economy of traditional universities. And, much as I love the internet, that would be too bad.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Technology
  • gopher65

    I have a couple of points:

    1) I can’t stand crowds, and I found uni intolerable because of that. That’s just me of course. I hate bars and malls for the same reason. And Walmart *shudders*. I like having companionship of course (I’m human:P), but only in very small groups. Once the number of people around me exceeds ~8 I start to become very uncomfortable.

    So for people like me (and there are a fair number of us) online education is superior in most respects. I can’t concentrate in large groups, and those large 100-150 person 1st year classes taught me nothing. Of course after that the class size decreases greatly, fortunately. Much easier for me to handle second year than first year.

    2) Research != Teacher: Pure academics make piss-poor teachers. Because of the nature of universities, all of my teachers were researchers or grad students. Those people CAN NOT TEACH! They just aren’t good at it.

    I’ve said for a long time that universities need to separate out into 2 distinct organizations: 1)research institutions, and 2)schools. FFS hire trained teachers to be profs, not some Nobel laureate who doesn’t know which end of the chalk is which.

    You say that live lectures are better than recorded ones. This is true, but only if you have a prof that doesn’t simply stand there and read out of the textbook for the length of the class. I can do that on my own (and better), thanks. Is that what I paid a 1000 dollars for? So some moron can read me the textbook instead of actually teaching?

    That ^ is what you get when you but researchers in charge of classrooms. That’s also one of the big reasons why undergrad programs have such a huge dropout rate. You go from highschools where they hold your hand through everything straight into a uni class where they do nothing except toss you an error-ridden textbook and say “osmosis some of that, will you?”

    Not a smart method of maintaining an educated population. And people wonder why the rates of higher eduction are so low *eyeroll*.

  • gopher65

    There were altogether too many ‘of courses’ in that post. Can we have an edit function Discover? Pleaaaaase?

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Students will still need help when they can’t understand things. There’s no practical way to do that without having a person physically there. Moreover, unless someone is being paid, people are rarely going to be willing to give much help.

    A U of Phoenix model might work for lower level education and might substantially impact technical schools and community colleges. But any school that has subjects that are even moderately advanced will not be replaceable.

  • Mike

    I think online teaching will be successful to the extent that we manage to “dumb down” a subject, i.e., reduce it to an algorithm. With access to good software and text, it is not too difficult to learn a set of formulas or procedures and some rules for recognizing when to apply them. But learning a set of skills that can for the most part be applied mechanically is not much of an education.

    How do you teach someone to think creatively? To make connections between different fields that allow you to apply techniques developed for one class of problems to a different class of problems? I do that by having conversations with my students. Showing them where a mathematical formula comes from, why it works in some settings and not in others, illustrating the creative process and how to make connections by sharing plenty of examples and coming up with problems they have never seen before so that they get a real taste of thinking critically. And I watch them. When I see the “deer frozen in the headlights” expression on their faces I stop and ask them to tell me when they lost understanding of the discussion, then I talk to them to find out why and try a different example or way of looking at a problem to see if that helps. And sometimes they just have to figure it out for themselves, but I encourage them and give them as much guidance as I can.

    I don’t think true education is going to go online, but I can see universities using electronic delivery to handle the teaching of purely technical skills more efficiently (on average) than is done in a traditional classroom setting. Maybe we will discover that certain degrees are little more than a set of skills and universities will contract in size, but I don’t see them vanishing.

  • Meg

    As technology advances and telepresence becomes less expensive and more user friendly, I can see education going to more of an online experience. I believe there were several attempts in Second Life to replicate the classroom experience, without much success so far. That telepresence idea is brilliant – get the interaction between teacher and student as well as between students without the hassle of maintaining a residence at one location. As another poster said, the quality of the teacher is the important thing, so why not have the best teachers conduct classes for people all over the globe?

    As for the whole college experience, there are vast numbers of people who managed to become mature and responsible adults without having a sleep-away college. Many students live at home while attending college, or have full- or part-time jobs that prevent them from entering fully into the community aspect of college. I would argue that people will figure out how to have communities without on campus lives.

  • http://www.whereisyvette.wordpress.com Yvette

    No. College is too much fun.

    More seriously though, my university does record some of its biggest lectures by the most famous professors, and every student knows that it is infinitely better to learn by going to the lectures rather than watching the video later- some exceptions perhaps, but frankly if it wasn’t important people would stop going to class. And I do think a research university has great potential for getting students involved later in life in what they want to do- my into physics prof ended up inviting me to work in his lab for example. And you probably learn more outside the classroom compared to in it… the list just goes on…

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    The ‘internet’ is certainly not going to replace universities, but it’s almost certainly going to complement the standard education, or maybe transform it, but ‘replacing’ seems somewhat ill-posed to me.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Because some of the stuff I learned is now seriously obsolete, I’ve been taking some grad-level courses online on my own initiative. I find the experience to be rather mixed. Of course, I’m not going to quit my job to attend classes I don’t strictly need so I can have a traditional experience, as that’s a rather self-defeating approach. For that very reason, distance learning is the best and only option for me presently, until someone in the area agrees to teach pharmacogenomics after 5:00 PM, and won’t try to force me to matriculate besides. Let’s face it, science grad. school is as much about getting cheap labor as it is minting new post-docs, and for that reason I don’t interest those who want to teach the traditional way, even if I offer to pay all of my own tuition.

    That said, the technology really doesn’t presently allow for adequate dialogue between the professor and the students. I feel far too often the text is my teacher, or I must peruse the primary literature on my own to answer questions. I certainly do learn, and it’s good knowledge I’m getting, but what I’m doing is really just one step removed from a correspondence course, despite the rigor and accreditation. IMO, distance learning is nowhere near of the quality it needs to be, though I can see many ways in which the necessary improvements could address many of its present shortcomings. Having done a lot of teleconferencing myself through my job, the basic infrastructure is already more than sufficient, but the hardware most students have at their disposal isn’t nearly powerful enough to allow for wide implementation.

    If and when it does become powerful enough, though, watch out. We have, as a nation, a public educational system that is nowhere near inexpensive and accessible enough to meet the needs of an increasingly challenged population. Private institutions are now well out of reach of many bright students, even with scholarships, and public universities in some states aren’t faring much better. The economic downturn is forcing more and more kids to work after high school, and maybe take gut courses at a community college or online to provide the flexibility necessary to even finish a degree at a state four-year institution. If the American middle class continues on its current economic trajectory, and our institutions of higher learning can’t find some way to adapt to this, then the college experience will truly be reserved for the wealthiest or only the most high-achieving students, while the merely above-average will effectively be shut out without incurring debts that make the cost:benefit a difficult one to justify.

    It will be a sad day if that happens, because I valued my classroom experiences, and I miss them now. But with such a dearth of alternatives, and the financial burdens of working with what we’ve got growing completely out-of-pace with the economic reality, the bleaker future will be realized.

  • hackenkaus

    Last I heard Sean you were working at a university with a negligible undergraduate population and they still seem to be doing okay with supporting the scholarship stuff. Of course they don’t have to spend millions of dollars on a football coach, perhaps the two facts are related.

  • Aaron Sheldon

    Undergraduate universities are going to go the way of the dodo. The vast majority of bachelors, and a good chunk of masters degrees are viewed as little more than purchased commodities by the public. So the provisioning of undergraduate education will be swallowed up by a handful of mega commercial for profit content providers, corporations that hire content specialists to author and validate curriculum. That much is certain, how existing academic institutions navigate through this change is an open questions. A few choices are available:

    1. A university can become a truly research and scholarship orientated institution, where its sole purpose is procuring public and private funding for research and scholarship.

    2. A university can try to become competitive with the corporate commercial for profit undergraduate content providers (perhaps by undercutting the corporate profit margin by providing publicly funded affordable online content, this would act as an important check on the content provided commercially).

    3. A university could market the value added-ness of physical presence education over online content, essentially selling social membership and broader experience over knowledge alone, but as online degrees become less expensive this sell will become tougher to make.

    Both of these undertakings are valid and worthy undertakings for any institution.

    There is one other thing that will happen without direct intervention from academics: the quality and validity of undergraduate education will decline with commercialization without proper regulation. So what needs to happen is an enormous undertaking in political advocacy. Academics who belong to research and scholarships institutions need to have a legislatively enforced peer review of the content provided by commercial providers, something much more stringent than current institutional accreditation.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Of the five “good purposes” listed in the OP, only 1 — classroom-based education with direct personal interaction with professors — was not handled as well or better by my four years as an enlisted man in the military in the early 1960s. That is, four of the five are not unique to college and universities, and there are much less expensive alternative ways to achieve them (I write this as a former full professor in a liberal arts college and current visiting prof in that same college). Hence unless the OP author can make a case for that one being worth the cost of maintaining undergraduate education in universities, it’s a lost cause except for the ‘prestige’ factor and the social and professional connections established in some (but not all) colleges and universities.

  • Jacob Sherwood

    Here is another reason why the Internet won’t beat a brick and mortar university: reputation.

    Let’s be honest, the reputation of your chosen university does matter when looking for work. I have a feeling that in almost every circumstance the resume from Cal Tech is going to end up higher on the pile than the one from DeVry or U. of Phoenix.

    The same is true for newspapers. But the difference is that newpapers (and bloggers) make their reputations every single day. A university (even an online one) can only do that a few times a year (whenever graduation is).

    Online universities won’t be able to compete with brick and mortar universities unless they can product the same quality graduates. But in order to do that it will depend somewhat on who they admit. I have a strong feeling that the online universities will be drawing the lower percentile students — which could in turn will help improve the quality of the brick and mortar universities (since they’ll be getting higher percentile folks to begin with).

  • http://solopracticeuniversity.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    I’m not sure it will replace traditional education but it can certainly supplement it. There are ever-increasing barriers to traditional education, the primary one is cost. Maintaining brick and mortar buildings with limited enrollments will continue to make the internet look very attractive.

    With the internet as a delivery system, the ability to create a truly diverse student body and an amazing global faculty can be very attractive. Physical limiations create educational restrictions.

    The emotional component, the interaction cannot be replicated in any meaningful way. Other than that, I’m not so sure internet-based education is the devil at all.

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  • http://www.booksblogsandbeyond.com Tom Collins

    So, Google’s looking to buy Twitter and already has YouTube and Blogger.

    What if Google put out an ad offering football coach style salaries to a handful of the very best teachers in every university level field?

    And what if they began offering LIVE streaming video courses, with Twitter interactivity to anyone willing to pay, oh say, $10 per credit hour?

    Suppose students maintained an online portfolio (blog) in a social networking site to collect, debate, refine, rethink, and share their learning? Throw in some local Tweet-up style interaction and the occasional topical “un-conference” that we humans seem to make happen organically and … are we there yet?

    Would features like those address the “5 good purposes” and add a host of communication skills important in the real world of business and life as it’s evolving?

    Assuming Google could get accreditation for such online courses — oh, yeah, Phoenix has already paved that road — how long could traditional universities compete with something along those lines?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m actually taking my online class through a brick-and-mortar university. The course is being taught by an adjunct. I’m sure this is arrangement is saving the host institution a boatload of money, and broadening their market considerably. I.e., it’s got “wave of the future” written all over it. The end result might be that the brick-and-mortar places wind up looking a lot more like the virtual campuses than most of us would probably like, with the staunch defenders of the ancient ways available only to economic and academic elites (being, too often, the same population, given the advantages in performance that socioeconomic status conveys).

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    Certain classes and majors probably could be handled online. My mom did much of her master’s in education via internet and video courses (somehow she managed to take 4 classes while going through cancer treatment which still amazes me).

    However not all courses are lecture based. Last I checked it wasn’t practical to have a large chemistry or genetics lab in your house. Dissections on the kitchen table should probably be left to the Thanksgiving turkey. For artist students it can be hard to convince someone to let you draw them nude and via video just doesn’t work well.

    So rumors of the demise of brick and mortar campuses is greatly exaggerated. However I do see a change in campuses as large lecture classes are shifted to the internet with colleges focusing on the smaller hands on classes and those based around discussion rather than lecture remaining on campus.

  • Mike

    The following might fall under the umbrella of “belonging to a community,” but I think support is a big deal.

    On an actual college campus, you can sometimes get face-time with the professor before or after class or during office hours to ask questions, and if not or in addition you can get face time with TAs to get help, and in addition to that it is easy to meet other students in the same class to work together. This last point I think is most important.

    The course I TAed at Caltech had a laboratory component, and the professor told me it was too advanced for any other institution in the US — not because Caltech students are that much smarter; after all, this argument wouldn’t apply when comparing to Harvard or MIT etc. — but because no other campus had the *density* of science students, which made it particularly easy for freshman to seek out upperclassmen for help.

    I also think it’s easy to underestimate the value of peer pressure and competition when embedded in a community devoted to a common cause. Many people conform to some measure against the performance of their peers. When working in isolation from home, they may not devote themselves as vigorously than when surrounded by others who are working hard.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Well, in my case I’ve got a large (rather state-of-the art, if I may be so bold) lab at my job, and maybe ten years or so ago, some decent schools in the area were willing to take people like me on an ad hoc basis, and allow us to fulfill the practical component of the course at work on our own time, which my employer was fine with. I know this because some of my colleagues took courses at these very institutions in the arrangement that I’m describing. Given that I know all the techniques anyway, what’s the big deal? It’s the conceptual stuff that I’m after, not busy work running rudimentary experiments on cheap equipment for the purposes of demonstrating my understanding of electrophoretic migration of nucleic acids, or whatever. For some reason, over the last four or five years, all those schools have ceased serving people like me, much to many of the professors’ chagrin, and so I went where they wanted me. Somebody else got my money, I’m guessing, because they have a much smaller research infrastructure, and hence must focus on weird things like teaching, rather than getting the hands required to attract large grants. If only the teaching were better. I can’t complain about the flexibility and the very genuine effort put toward serving me well, however, and when the experience catches up with the intention, I think for many an “alternative” student, distance learning will be a force to be reckoned with. And realistically, let’s face it: Most undergraduate lab education is next-to-worthless anyway. One isn’t really “experimenting” and the exposure to various techniques is so fleeting it’s of no value to employers or graduate labs. It certainly rakes in the fees, though.

    No, I think the tragedy is to lose the relationships one forms with one’s fellow students and professors, but those relationships come at a very stiff price these days, and increasingly don’t cater to the needs of a student body of diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Why bricks-and-mortar places would want to cede so much to the virtual ones I can’t say, but I assume economics is behind all of it. Places of higher education will either become more accessible as they are, and thus compete as they are, or will transform themselves to survive in a burgeoning virtual market. I dont’ much like that prospect, but I think it’s not so outlandish.

  • mk

    I really think it is #5 that will keep Universities from going the way of the dodo… or newspapers.

  • coolstar

    Lots of good discussion here but I fear a major point is being overlooked: online learning (“distance ed” is the buzzword this year) is NOT cheaper than a brick and mortar education to the people that count the most, the STUDENTS! Phoenix and the other online unis are VERY expensive compared to your local state school or community college, and, since they’re apparently making boatloads of money now, they have no incentive to change this. As long as this remains true, online colleges are not going to replace brick-and-mortars schools for even lower division classes. Oh, they’ll grow, but so are the online offerings of conventional schools (where you get charged the same tuition as if you were sitting in the classroom). I teach DE courses and real-time courses and I tell potential online students NOT to take my lab online, if they can possibly avoid it. I try to make it an equivalent experience (it’s a damn good lab :) ), but it’s never going to be the same as having me watch what 20 (or fewer, this time of the semester) students are doing in real-time. Anyone who has ever used Skype will know there are ways to increase student-faculty interaction in DE classes but what they sometimes forget is that that kind of interaction doesn’t come cheaply: now you’re talking about paying real salaries to your faculty rather than the 10% on the dollar (or less) part timers and adjuncts make. There will always be a place, and a growing one, for DE, and some incredibly poorly run colleges will probably fail or mutate bc of it, but it’s not going to rule the educational universe. And some very expensive colleges will probably fail also, once they drain their endowments, especially the ones that price fix tuition with “comparison colleges” (the quicker they’re gone the better).

    Oh, any research uni that still has 200+ person survey courses should be ashamed of themselves (which of course includes my alma mater, whose chairperson (my ph.d adviser) seems to be proud of the fact). At my extremely poorly funded, atrociously administered, VERY popular college science lectures are limited to 45 and labs to 20.

  • honestman

    First off lets look at the cost of going to a brick and mortor campus. You have the cost of your dorm, meals, books, transportation, alcohol, drugs, (To help you stay up all night to cram for exams), then you have the unwanted pregnancies, etc… I understand that you have an experience of being in a crowd where you meet other people but then again the statistics show that home schooled kids do better on the SAT test and they also tend to make more income then those that go to public schools. That should show you something.
    The online schools like Phoenix lets you go at your own pace. So what if it takes five yrs to get your diploma, at least you will get it and most likely with higher grades. Someone said they would need a physical presence available if they have problems with a subject. Have you ever heard of on line tutors? For around $50.00 an hour you can have a web conferance with one. If I had been able to finish school before I got disabled I would have gone to collage but now I have a GED ad am going to collage online and am going to gradate with a 3.8 and have my degree in History. I am 47 yrs old and just recently decided to do this. Within the next two yrs I plan on being able to tell Social Security to take their check back because I don’t need it.

    There are those who like me depend on these places. I am unable to get around a campus because of my disability. I suffer from chronic pain daily and some days are so bad I can’t get out of bed. I would have been kicked out of a physical campus already because I had missed to many classes.My daughter saw what I was doing and it inspired her to go back to school at 28 yrs of age. She told me that if I can do it then so can she. I have two granddaughters, 5 yrs old and 3 months old, who one day I hope will be able to afford to further their education but with the cost of tuition today and what it will be when they are old enough I’m afraid they will not be able to. These brick and mortor schools need to do something about that if they want to stay open. I believe the internet WILL replace universities if they don’t and soon.

  • http://kenstange.com Ken Stange

    For another take on this topic see: “Don’t Lecture Me, I Can Read!” at

  • Jim
  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisyrose

    What about all the heart breaking philanthropy, endowed chairs, museums, labs, beautiful buildings, inspiration and competition ? Falling in love with your professor? infinite possibilities.

  • Ian
  • Anonymous

    There is one major issue that I haven’t seen brought up, but I know it happens in online education – cheating. This it not to say that cheating doesn’t happen in brick and mortar universities However, I know it happens in online education, because I’ve taken people’s online finals for them (this is why I’m posting anonymously.) Going rate was about 300 bucks for a math or physics final; little more for bio or chem as they weren’t my fields, and thus took a lot of wikipedia surfing to finish the test.

    Now, if someone had offered me 300 bucks to walk into a classroom, sit in front of the professors and TAs, and take a final for them, I’d have told them to go to hell. No reason to risk getting kicked out of my university and losing my education, all because somebody realized I had never been in the class before then and that there was a name that didn’t seem to match my gender on my test paper. But an online final, why not? What’s the risk?

    Again, cheating does happen in brick and mortar universities. But it’s a lot harder to see someone cheating their way through 4 years (probably 50 finals, 50-100 midterms, plus homework handed in on paper in someone’s actual handwriting) of physically taking a test in front of profs and TAs without getting caught, than it is to see someone paying people to get them degrees online in their spare time. Essentially, there’s a lot more reason for an employer to believe that the person from a brick and mortar university actually did the work to get their degree than for the person with a degree from an online university. No offense, as I’m sure most people with online degrees did the work themselves, but in the absence of anything else, I’m taking the guy who had to take all his tests and labs in person.

  • Mark S

    I’m “back to school” this year, after a twenty year hiatus, taking a mathematics course at a large Australian university. All I keep thinking as I sit in class is how UTTERLY inefficient it is to teach everybody at the same rate. The wasted brain-hours, if you were to add it all up, would be just staggering! This of course applies all the back through my education experience from kindergarten on up. If academia really wants to increase the amount of scholarship produced, this is the 500-pound gorilla in the room that no one is mentioning.

    Yes, going to college back in the States was an awesome experience for me, for many of the reasons Sean suggested. But the system needs an overhaul in a bad way.

  • Mark S

    >This of course applies all the back through my education experience from kindergarten on up.

    And I of course appreciate the irony of writing sentences like this when pontificating about problems in the education system.

  • Svaals

    Do I believe that for entry-level courses online discussion forums and lectures are enough to teach students who have a desire to learn: Yes. I also think that this sort of learning environment will never be enough for most students in the sciences. Technical schools and online schools may replace a universities for students desiring a career as an instrument technician or office professional.

    I do not think that universities are in any real danger, though. Scaling down undergraduate programs to cater to pre-professionals and prospective graduate students and drastically cutting down on administrative overhead may be necessary to keep universities thriving with the new “.com schools”. And that sounds OK to me!

  • Odani of the Prophetic Fallacy

    The internet will replace governments eventually; and computers will replace people; and the earth is 6000…oops! Sorry. Sometimes my oft-spoken lectures combine with one another; must remember to stay on topic. Anyway, just be one of those silver-tongued devils hired to produce internet lectures and your futures will remain secure and happy, whether or not those medieval thingys survive in more than name. Remember, change is the only constant in the universe (other than me, of course).

  • sharon

    Distance learning is best suited to older people who have commitments that mean they can’t pack up and go off to learn full time for several months per year, and who – crucially – have the self-discipline and working experience behind them to know how to study in their spare time and on their own initiative. Distance learning is hard. Much harder than learning in a dedicated educational environment.

    The comparison with newspapers just doesn’t work, because a university education is much more than students “buying” information from experts (even if some might not seem to fully understand this…). It’s not the classroom element of higher education that’s the major problem distance learning would have to overcome, but all the work outside the classroom that the student has to put in for a degree’s worth of study. Young students straight out of school haven’t yet developed the independent work habits needed to sustain distance learning. They’re learning new ways of working as much as they’re learning a particular subject, and they need the double-sided structure of campus-based authority and community to support this.

    The bottom line financially is pretty simple: however expensive it is to educate undergraduates on campus, it’s the only way to ensure that enough of them complete their courses to keep an institution financially viable.

  • Pieter Kok

    Online learning cannot accommodate lab-based teaching. You cannot learn how to align a laser, untangle that spaghetti of wiring, or even debug your data-acquisition program, without having physical access to the experimental setup. For this reason alone, the sciences at least are safe.

  • Educational Equilibrium

    I think that for certain types of eduction, the brick and mortar schools can not be replaced. I also think that for families of sufficient resources, the reason to send their kids to college is not going to change.

    The growth of online universities (and many states actually sponsor online university education…see http://www.umuc.edu/index.shtml ) serves a function and provides a service to people who already have significant professional or personal obligations.

    Online universities simply won’t replace any program that can’t be replaced by an online program (that might sound tautological, but think really hard and its meaning should be clear). There is some equilibrium in the supply and demand plots that will be achieved, if that means that some professors might have to work from home instead of having an office, well then they should be happy about saving the environment :-)

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  • Paul

    Industrialization has replaced artisans in all manner of fields, but always with tradeoffs. A tailored shirt is almost always superior to a mass-produced one, but the mass-produced ones are much cheaper and usually “good enough.” So is mass-produced higher education distributed over the Internet “good enough?” Probably for some of the things universities are teaching now, but certainly not all. Lab/practicum courses are a good example of something that would be hard to replace with a purely Internet-based curriculum. Others here seem to feel that lab courses are not useful, and indeed some of mine were pretty cookie-cutter, but I also had labs that were incredibly helpful both in shaping my error-analysis skills and nurturing my scientific curiosity. And unlike Low Math, I did not have access to a state-of-the-art lab — or lab instructors — at my job. As an 18-year-old just out of high school, most of my friends with jobs worked at things like food service.

    What worries me (aside from being in the position of the tailor, which I am as a college professor) is that the market will settle on the notion that online learning is “good enough,” but that this will involve some significant but difficult-to-quantify loss of quality in higher education. An example of this sort of thing in another area is agriculture. Industrialized agriculture has greatly expanded the food supply and made it cheaper, but with costs to food quality, the environment, etc. whose increased perception has driven a return to organic farming in recent years.

    Another thing to be concerned about is that we might stagnate as a civilization, albeit at a relatively advanced technical level, because we no longer have a vigorous research enterprise. It used to be that large companies supported research laboratories that did basic research in addition to product-driven research. That era is mostly gone, and basic research (at least in the US) is done mostly in universities. If universities become unable to support basic research (however it is funded), where will that kind of work take place?

  • Count Iblis

    The issue of cheating, brought up by Anonymous above, will not be a problem in the future. I think that we’ll have online universities were students don’t graduate. They will simply follow courses to learn. They will verify for themselves if they have achieved the level of understanding they want to have by doing practice problems.

    It is up to the employer to verify that the person he wants to hire has the skills necessary to do the job. So, not the university, but the employers should be in the business of making exams. The exams they set for job applicants can be used as example practice problems at (online) universities.

    Also, the current teaching structure at univeristies is completely reversed relative to what it should be. The students are the paying clients, yet the Profs are making demands to the students to do their assignments and set the exams for them that they have to pass. This will be corrected in the future. Then, the students will be the ones who make demands and the Profs will have to do whatever the students want.

    So, you’ll have students who want to learn certain subjects. They will use past exams used by employers to test themselves. They will pay their university to bring them to the level necessary to pass such exams.

  • Michael Luvaul

    Count Iblis,

    I suggest you research some of the current law on job testing before assuming that exams could ever be given by employers. According to the supreme court it really isn’t legal, unless of course you happen to be a government employer. They get to test your IQ or anything else for that matter and use that information to determine whether or not to hire.

    I’m currently a 28 year old undergrad with a disability and I can echo some of the concerns the gentlemen had about getting around campus. I solved the majority of that problem by only taking Math/Physics courses spring/fall and taking most of my gen-ed classes during the summer. The bigger solution however was going to a small undergrad school whose campus isn’t the size of a small town.

    I’ll try to stay on point somewhat and say that I highly doubt online universities will ever replace B&M for two reasons:
    1. prestige
    2. environment (cheating/competition/motivation/etc)

    I had the unfortunate experience of taking two courses with the University of Phoenix online and was very disappointed at the complete lack of quality control involved in their admissions process. There were people in my “Critical Thinking” course that were incapable of communicating with peers or the professor. I am not 100% sure on this but from what I’ve been told this person passed the course with a B.

    If you want to see incentive for grade inflation—- look online. These online colleges are marketed as a easy/work from home at own pace solution to getting that piece of paper that will (maybe in an alternate universe without the US economic situation) get you a better job.

    ON THE BRIGHT SIDE!!! iTunesU, MIT Opencourseware and others are AMAZING tools for a student, especially in cases where that student may not agree with the lecture style in his/her course. My personal experience with this is Dr. Lewin’s MIT freshman physics courses that are lectured in such an amazing manner. This isn’t to say that my current physics prof isn’t doing a great job, because he is. But, Lewin gets to play with expensive toys in class that help provide further intuition and elucidation behind the ideas being presented. And while we get some examples shown physically, being at a small underfunded (compared to MIT- I think nearly everyone is in that subset of schools) undergraduate university we don’t have the expensive apparatus and the army of TAs to set them up.

    With that being said, I don’t simply skip lecture or play video games during them. I like to use the MIT lectures to provide what can sometimes be the different POV that either opens up a question I’m dying to ask my professor or teaches applications of theory that we don’t have to time or the equipment to properly do at my school.

    To summarize my rambling post:
    1. Changing laws on job testing- unlikely (effectual changes anyway)
    2. Paid for online schooling – marketed primarily to people who want the piece of paper saying they have a bachelors without attending a school. I understand that there are many different reasons for this. However, the fact that it cost more than a B&M education, I have trouble keeping myself from the believe that at least a good portion of these students are doing it because its easier.
    3. Free or very cheep online schooling- MIT Open Course Ware and Walter Lewin made me want to study physics (well him and Feynman but that was the written motivation). I guess you could say Feynman pushed me towards physics and Lewin made it fun! And making physics fun will solve the problem of retention and I think also the problem of quality of graduates where that problem exists.

    OH! before I free you from my TL:DR rant, I wanted to bring up another good point. The more I see classmates hanging out on facebook and playing videogames or outright sleeping through lectures I have serious doubts as to whether they need to be in the classroom in the first place. Go go compulsory attendance (which I’m fairly opposed to but can see the other side of the argument)

  • Andrew S

    You missed one huge purpose of the university system. It provides signalling, or certification. You’re probably about 1000x more likely to get an interview at google if your degree is from MIT than if it’s from University of Phoenix.

    The current state of things is that good universities are better at teaching you how to learn and how to grow, while schools like U. Phoenix are more like trade schools, which generally have better quality teaching, and teach material that help you to get ahead in your job/business.

  • Educational Equilibrium

    “I suggest you research some of the current law on job testing before assuming that exams could ever be given by employers. According to the supreme court it really isn’t legal, unless of course you happen to be a government employer.”

    I would like to see some references for the claim that job testing isn’t really legal by private employers.

  • Educational Equilibrium

    Distance learning at its finest


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  • http://aclinks.wordpress.com Academic Career Links

    Great and thought-provoking post! Thank you!

  • http://catquibbles.blogspot.com serial catowner

    Sean’s post reminded me of something an American carmaker might say. Some of the comments enlarged on the underlying sentiment- that if you are rich enough and smart enough to join one of the small and exclusive schools as a student, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

    But when that small and exclusive school was once a land-grant college promising an affordable baccalaureate education to everyone who could qualify for entrance and stick the course…a promise to the American people is being broken.

    Some of this stuff needs some basic re-thinking. We’re a nation of over 300 million depending on some pretty fancy stuff to keep us up to speed. And it seems to be pretty obvious that we’re not doing very well at that.

    Sure, the physics guys can pat themselves on the back- right up to date with the latest thinking and all that.

    But we are all the citizens who are supposed to be running this place, and just look at it- no money, no trains to speak of, on time or not, people in poor health and likely to get more so, incomes stagnant or declining- and this is even before we get to the environment that we have trod on so heavily.

    AFAIK, a certain amount of rote learning is still essential in developing the ability to tell a hawk from a handsaw, and I’m not so sure physics majors, as smart as they may be, should be free from learning some real history, sociology, psychology (if only to scoff) and maybe a few other things too.

    But most of us don’t need to be geniuses or inspired by Mr. Chips to become better people by learning something new. A computer syllabus and cheat if you want should be perfectly adequate to improve us somewhat.

    There’s also the fact that now learning has to go on for your entire life. But the only people who find this easy to do- in fact, even get paid to do it- are the people at the universities!

    Maybe they should set themselves to the question of how the rest of us can get the retraining we need when the entire technology changes every thirty years. I’m thinking the answer to that question might come in handy real soon. And I’m guessing computers will be involved.

  • Chris

    You (OP) are assuming that your university experience is -the- university experience. It might be the ideal, but I think it’s true of a smaller and smaller proportion of students every year as the cost of school skyrockets while the value of financial aid plummets. I think you’ll find more people who will never be able to enjoy campus life because they’re forced to work long hours, or live far from campus to find affordable housing, etc. For these people many of the nominal benefits of a traditional college education are moot.

    On the bigger issue, we need to remember that “the future” isn’t synonymous with 2010. A few years ago people would have laughed at the idea that I could buy a $300 computer and watch my choice of tens of thousands of TV shows and movies in a Starbucks FOR FREE. But I can do that now, with my netbook, a WiFi connection and hulu. (Okay, I won’t do it in Starbucks since bandwidth is limited, but I can watch it at home.) Today we have video IM but it’s still pretty crude… but that same netbook has a repectable webcam (1.3 megapixel) built into it. It’s not hard to imagine high quality video and a mutual ‘white board’ being readily available by the time today’s HS freshmen enter college. Watch the lecture, maybe live, then ‘chat’ with the instructor if you have questions… it’s not in person, but it might be better since the instructor could easily refer you to earlier discussions he’s ‘taped.’

    On an even bigger picture, I was a math/physics double major. At the time I noticed that classes only made sense as I finished the next semester. I knew the mechanics (which includes proofs, etc), but lacked the bigger context to understand the material at a deeper level.

    In the past few years I’ve come across similar material online, linked akin to wikipedia. It’s fascinating because I can follow links and learn related material, and that often gives me the perspective to really understand the original material. It’s not “one size fits all, in sequential order” like traditional classes. I think it will blow open math, science and engineering educations soon.

    How do we handle degrees? I think a good answer is analogous to graduate programs. The first few years could be taught traditionally, or it could be done independently while keeping in touch with an advisor if there are questions, to ensure you cover sufficient ground, etc. Maybe non-traditional students pay for three credit hours per semester for the advisor’s time. The main thing is that graduation requires the equivalence of comprehensives and some independent work. In a physics program, for instance, you really don’t need to know that somebody can pass a calculus test or a differential equations final if you can see that they’re comfortable doing vector analysis.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    I think that universities will still be needed for infrastructure- whether that be labs, telescopes, galleries, or studios. But the sad thing is that student fees seem to be going up, which is the opposite of what you’d expect if competition is increasing. When annual fees are greater than the median wage, you know something is wrong.

  • RD

    Sean, it is refreshing to see that you can sometimes make posts that are free from your favourite religious obsessions. Keep it up, you could never rival Dawkins’ scholarship.

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  • Scott

    It depends on how businesses respond. If the majority start treating online university degrees equally with normal university degrees, then online will become more popular. The exhorbanent amount universities charge (and continue to increase) for tuition and everything is going to accelerate that change though.

    You mention some key benefits for normal universities, but I’m not sure they are going to matter than much to someone hiring. Classroom-based education is necessary for a certain type of student and for certain subjects. I think the majority of people would get an equal amount of learning from an online class as they would a classroom-based one as long as there are real teachers available to email questions or talk over the phone to. Extracurricular learning is good, but I don’t see why things around your community couldn’t substitute for it.

    Meeting different kinds of people is a definite plus in my mind. I loved my (abbreviated) college experience. I don’t think it really translates much to helping in the real world though. While your meeting different kinds of people, they are mostly in your age group and are going to have similar interests. When you get a job, your going to be meeting different kids of people across all different ages who will be significantly different. Also, we’re in the internet age where kids are often communicating with people all over the country or world before college. Establishing independence is a big one, and one of the major reasons I think parents will continue to send kids to college even if online alternatives become accepted. There are plenty of much cheaper ways of accomplishing this though.

  • ThaboM

    Benefits 3-5 are great, but can be replaced by different experiences. They are not a necessity.
    What preserves universities is power and politics. They are key points in the network of knowledge creation and diffusion. They hold the power to verify knowledge and to lend credence to knowledge via their status. Very few other institutions can do that. The internet by itself cannot replace that

  • http://www.librarything.com/profile/changcho changcho


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  • Niran

    1,Classroom-based education. Certainly important.

    In the big (300+) lecture halls, watching a video or listening to a lecture is no different for all the interaction that takes place.

    I think real learning occurred in labs, reports or in real world application of knowledge. The lecture is an outmoded means of transferring information; however one on one learning or learning in a mentorship situation is far better. I suppose the argument is that you really can’t educate all that many people with such focussed attention. My counter argument is that you are only deluding yourself if you believe that you are truly educating anybody any other way. This is not an argument for disbanding universities, but rather teaching in different, more personal way.

    Learning should be a matter of making decisions and choices to truly demonstrate that a person has a fundamental grasp of the material, rather than the regurgitation of fact. The lecture model of University teaching stresses regurgitation, rather than understanding. To illustrate further – I think it would be far better of spend a large amount of time to figure out how a theorem was derived rather than memorize a large amount of theorems or equations. When I took physics, I was astounded to learn that the masters had tried (and come close) to determining the size of the earth with trigonometry. I knew the same equations that they did, but because I lacked a fundamental understanding of the equations, I could not fathom how these guys went about calculating the size of the earth. I did “well” in physics, but did I really understand the material ?

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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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