“Work flow platforms are enabling us to do for the service industry what Henry Ford did for manufacturing,” said Jerry Rao, the entrepreneur doing accounting work for Americans from India. “We are taking apart each task and sending it around to whomever can do it best, and because we do it in a virtual environment, people need not be physically adjacent to each other, and then we are reassembling all the pieces back together at headquarters [or some other remote site].”
That’s from Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and I though that line important enough to highlight it when I first read the book so many years ago. Now I see, as the Chronicle‘s special digital campus issue suggests, that higher education is being treated the same way.
At a conference last summer, Bill Gates predicted that “place-based activity in college will be five times less important than it is today.” Noting the ever-growing popularity of online learning, he predicted that “five years from now, on the Web—for free—you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
“College, except for the parties,” Gates concluded, “needs to be less place-based.”
Via my new bloggy friend Music for Deckchairs, I see that someone writing in Australia (MFD didn’t leave a link so I went and found it myself), has carried Gates’ sentiments to the point of absurdity:
[T]he momentum towards online teaching, learning and collaboration is unstoppable. That will not necessarily undermine the value of, or demand for, face-to-face teaching and classroom interaction. Nor will free, open-access online courses replace the qualifications, grades and accreditation only universities can confer through rigorous assessment. But it does mean the blending of face-to-face teaching with extraordinary new digital tools, such as immersive 3D ”learning environments”, as well as the ability of motivated students to explore far beyond the courses they are enrolled in. The traditional lecture could, in fact, become an online multimedia package to be viewed at home or on a smart phone on the bus before class, so students can use their time on campus better to make sense of its contents.
Call me a Luddite, but I don’t think a college education where the professors are relegated to the role of intellectual ushers at an academic Disneyland is going to be very helpful to anyone because there’s always the nagging need to actually learn something.
Looking back on the history of industrialization, it’s easy to find examples of cheaper, inferior products crowding out hand-crafted ones – shoes, cigars, etc. Read The World Is Flat and it is easy to find examples of foreign services performed for less crowding out domestic ones – accounting, reading X-Rays, etc. Yet to this day, there are plenty of things that have not been industrialized. The hottest market in food today is for groceries that are less industrialized rather than more so.
Just because you can educate someone cheaper online does not mean that they’ll get a better education. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean they’ll get any education at all.
We’re actually under enormous pressure here to begin teaching online. As someone who is tech-savvy enough to blog (among other things), I’m near the front of the list of potential instructors. However, there is simply no way that I will ever run an online class which I think is inferior to the one I do face-to-face. Ever. If the people who want me to teach this way aren’t online education charlatans, they’ll cut me enough slack to develop something that will make us all proud. If they are (or perhaps they’re just conflicted), I’ll offer up some advice from Music for Deckchairs:
I spend enough time in committees with people who have been at the corporate Kool Aid, to recognise that anyone can fall for the sales pitch that online learning achieves miraculous levels of “student-centredness” and “authentic learning” and any number of other transformative experiences. Mostly, I think these people just need to spend more time working directly with students before they tell us how online anything will transform the challenges they face.
After all, it’s not as if the Chinese will be training their surplus teenagers to teach American history anytime soon. The world may be flat, but knowledge is still bumpy.