In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center, 60% of people they describe as “Internet experts” agreed that:
By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources.
Indeed, four hundred million dollars of Silicon Valley venture capital in education startups is both a testament to the faith that investors have in the power of technology to change American universities and a huge force to make change happen.
But what if all these people are incorrect? What if the future of higher education isn’t online? What if the fear of missing out is not enough to make our glorious all-online higher educational future a reality? While such questions may seem crazy, conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong. After all, a lot of experts once believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that the value of real estate in the United States only goes up. The Internet stock bubble of the late-1990s should by itself give pause to anyone who believes that venture capitalists can predict the future.
Anyone actually acquainted with higher education can easily imagine how the future could turn out differently. Online education has to satisfy three separate constituencies in order to displace the existing higher education establishment. The first group is students. After all, if they choose to forego college rather than take all their classes online then the most effective educational technology in the world won’t be able to help them.
Obviously, 18-year olds might prefer being able to attend frat parties and football games, but perhaps their problem with online education lies with the education itself as well as with what they’d miss on campus. Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can be difficult – even dehumanizing – especially if people don’t get to choose what they’re doing online. If students resent being treated like a number in large classes already, taking online classes that might teach thousands of people at a time would only make that problem worse.
If learning online becomes their only option, they might begin to listen to a growing chorus of higher education critics trying to convince them to skip college altogether. These critics argue (incorrectly) that face-to-face education is a bad deal. Making that same argument when college is primarily online will become even easier. Few schools discount tuition for their online classes since they want to keep the cost savings that online education makes possible entirely for themselves. No assurances exist that students will continue to accept this distribution of the proceeds from the efficiencies that new technologies bring, particularly if the jobs picture remains bleak for the long term.
Because the tuition that schools charge for taking online classes is generally as expensive (or in the case of for-profit schools, even more expensive) than on-campus learning, online education also needs to satisfy student loan providers who make it possible for so many students to attend college in the first place. In the United States, the government is everyone’s loan provider of first resort since their interest rates are usually lower than those of private providers. However, the government’s rates are already going up thanks to budget-induced austerity. In the future, that same austerity will likely decrease the entire pool of available government loan money.
With a shrinking pool of money available, sending loan dollars to an unproven educational method rather than a proven one makes little economic sense. Everybody complains that college is expensive, yet countless studies have shown that a traditional college education helps people get jobs and keep the jobs they get. That makes lending to college students a good risk, especially since those loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy court.
Ultimately, the final constituency that online education has to satisfy is employers. If students with online degrees can’t get jobs, nobody will lend them money assuming potential students even want to borrow to pay tuition in the first place. Despite the spread of online education in recent years, its record on this score remains very unclear.
While proponents of online education like to point out that universities haven’t changed the way they operate for several centuries, introducing values that demand constant change is not necessarily conducive to education of any kind. Good educational technology can be extremely expensive, but if universities use revenue from online education as a way to backfill cuts in state aid or for other non-educational purposes, the quality of the education they provide will inevitably suffer. This is where the voices of college professors could make a difference, but one of the many reasons online education saves schools money is that they can farm those classes out to poorly paid adjuncts. If those adjuncts need to teach multiple sections to make ends meet, the quality of their teaching will inevitably suffer. Adjuncts are also more likely to have jobs that depend entirely upon their continued ability to put butts in seats and making classes easy is the easiest way to keep getting students online or otherwise.
If what you actually learn in college means something for employment purposes (and I think it does), then dumbing down or just being overly solicitous of students in order to get tuition revenue will destroy the economic foundation of higher education by encouraging students, lenders and employers alike to back away. While many informed observers think that a mass move towards online learning is inevitable, nobody seems prepared to cope with the fallout if this all turns out to be a passing fad. The financial costs of this current craze are already staggering whether it lasts into the long term or not. The human costs of failure on students and professors alike have yet to be felt, but they have the potential to be just as high.