The Walmart of higher education will not be online.

25 05 2011

“The price of college is going to fall, and the Internet is going to cause that fall. The rest of it is really difficult to figure out.”

So begins an article about the coming higher education revolution in the Atlantic that Historiann sent me since, you know, higher education is in crisis. [Cue scary music.] I think you can imagine the argument, but here’s a taste nonetheless:

Despite college costs rising faster in college than any institution in the country including health care, we have the technology to disrupt education, turn brick and mortar lecture halls into global classrooms, and dramatically bring down the cost of a high quality education.

Entrepreneurs like to say there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Is education innovation that next big idea?

It’s like Walmart, right? Stack the education high and sell it cheap! We’ll make millions! To be fair, there is a hint of the alternative point of view in the piece:

[Yale classics professor Diana E. E.] Kleiner reads from the same script, if more cautiously. “If the best economics teacher in the world creates a course that is better than any other, would there be merit in having that course be the only course?” she asks. “Maybe, but you would still need teachers. There’s no substitution for personal education.”

Maybe? The last time they tried to tried to to treat students like a bunch of raw material, Mario Savio and his pals took over the Chancellor’s office. Why does anyone think it’s going to go any better this time when they’re not even getting an education from Berkeley (except, of course, for those poor online suckers who actually will be getting an online education from Berkeley)?

The assumption that college is too expensive is certainly correct. The problem with this article is that it assumes that online education is the way to solve that problem. As I’ve noted before, it is possible to do some really interesting things with education online. However, if you’re just doing it to save money so that your university can keep more money for other things, your online courses are going to be awful. As a result, nobody will learn anything and they’ll all end up unemployed. The negative feedback loop will then lead to a real crisis in higher education, brought on by the people who thought they were saving it.

I have a dream of what a new, cheaper, face-to-face university education might look like: No sports. Cut the number of administrators in half. The President is not allowed to make any more than twice what the lowest paid faculty member in the business school takes home in salary. Run the book store as a co-op. No climbing walls. Spend the surplus every year on scholarships, and cost-of-living adjustments for faculty.

Too bad I’m don’t have a few million to spare for a start-up.


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8 responses

25 05 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Oh dear, sometimes it seems like the Kool Aid is being trucked in by the tankerload. The exact same refrain is audible down here: higher education is in crisis (is that an owl hooting in the graveyard?), the bricks and mortar are crumbling, but thanks to those clever folks who’ve figured out how to do all this in no-place and no-time, we’ll still be able to do more and better with less, especially once we can get our content direct from MIT without having to leave home in Dubbo.

I have a dream that’s not unlike yours. All administration done via online courseware, all the time, for everyone. No more executive travel to meetings or higher education conferences. All university functions online, especially those that previously involved catering. No more office space, or car parking space. All executive and governance functions performed online, from home, in trackpants, at all hours. In Dubbo. If a change of scene is really required, McDonalds with wifi. If small and regional economies can’t generate locally sensitive administrative content that’s on par with global gold standard, then we’ll just buy off the shelf administrative virtuality, and figure out how to make it fit.

25 05 2011
Historiann

Thanks, Jonathan–I knew you wouldn’t disappoint.

“I have a dream of what a new, cheaper, face-to-face university education might look like: No sports. Cut the number of administrators in half. The President is not allowed to make any more than twice what the lowest paid faculty member in the business school takes home in salary. Run the book store as a co-op. No climbing walls. Spend the surplus every year on scholarships, and cost-of-living adjustments for faculty.

Word. Only I would add: increase the proportion of TT to “special” faculty so that it’s no less than 90% of the faculty as a whole. End the exploitation of “special” faculty and open up some searches, and if adjuncts from within a department apply for a TT line, make the department treat them like they’re Vets, disabled, or people from other protected classes. If they’re good enough to teach 50-75% of our FTEs, then they’re good enough to get a little special consideration when they apply for a permanent position.

27 05 2011
Middle Seaman

Business school professors get up to very high six figure salaries; that’s no much of a limit for university presidents.

The solution to higher education all frontal assault is in our hands. We can maintain the core functionality of our schools by initiative, creativity and caring about students seriously.

Trimming back administration does not free meaningful resources.

29 05 2011
Towards a unified field theory of Internet charlatanism. « More or Less Bunk

[…] it to you. If there really is an education bubble, that’s exactly where you’ll find it. The Walmart of higher education would price online courses less because that would be a better business decision, except for the […]

16 10 2011
Creative destruction is still destruction. « More or Less Bunk

[…] Here’s the same dynamic as it plays out in higher education. Or maybe you’d prefer here. I’ve got a practically limitless amount of evidence here because the American example of technology in higher education is to use it to use it not to improve education but to juice total revenue, which inevitably means decreasing labor costs rather than making tuition cheaper. […]

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Where is Mario Savio now that we really need him? « More or Less Bunk

[…] I’ve used the video clip above on this blog before, but it just keeps getting more and more appropriate over time. It almost makes me glad that Mario […]

24 05 2012
Which side are you on? « More or Less Bunk

[…] understand her position because I used to believe it myself. Here’s why I’ve changed my mind: Even students who want the social aspects of college […]

3 07 2014
Going, going…gone? | More or Less Bunk

[…] The problem here is prestige.  A long time ago, when I was in another one of these “I will survive” moods, I wrote a post called “The Walmart of higher education will not be online”: […]

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