Online education and higher education

I recently attended a meeting at which the subject of online education came up.  Indeed, over the past few months, the possible impact of online education on higher education has come up a number of times in conversation.  There seems to be a widespread feeling that as the technology for online education improves, it will have an enormous impact.  As is usually the case with disruptive technologies, no one knows what form that impact will take.

I seem to remember reading predictions in the last few weeks that online education augured the end of the university as we know it.  Somehow, the availability of free online courses available from a small number of elite universities like Stanford and MIT would lead to a collapse in demand for attendance at brick-and-mortar universities.  To some, this is a wonderful prospect.  To others, it is horrifying.

To me, the wild speculation over the implications of online education sounds like the same schizophrenic combination of undue optimism and pessimism that greeted television.  To optimists, television would be a civilizing influence because it would universalize access to lectures, concerts, and plays.  People would no longer need to be well-off residents of a large city to see lectures given by distinguished scholars and statesmen, plays performed by the greatest actors and actresses, and concerts performed by the best musicians.  All of this would be piped into living rooms across the country, drowning the population in endless flood of high culture and elevating the tone of civic discourse.

Of course, we just have to turn on the television to know how misplaced this optimism was.  To put it mildly, television content is diverse in terms of its high-mindedness.  For every educational and uplifting nature show or documentary, there are ten Jersey Shores.  And television has done an especially poor job of presenting reasoned debate on key issues.

To pessimists, especially in the movie studios, television was a threat.  Given the opportunity to stay home and watch in the comfort of their living room, why would families visit the cinema?  Of course, this pessimism turned out to be misplaced.  Cinema not only survived the television, but the video recorder, as well as most other advances in recording formats.

To me, the example of television, and other disruptive advances in technology for interaction and delivery of content, suggests that online education is unlikely to obliterate brick-and-mortar universities.  So I’m not ready to bail out on my teaching career yet.  In general, I don’t think we should be throwing up our hands in panic and running for the exits.

Some might go so far as to claim that universities offer a special and unique experience that can’t be replicated online, and might even argue that no one should even try.   The most absurd claim would be that whatever we do is so mysterious and special that it it can’t be bottled and sold by anyone except our own wonderful selves:  its effects can’t be measured objectively, and there is no way of distilling the process into something that can be replicated by someone else.  Such claims resemble the ones made by long line of disreputable professions that includes alchemists, faith healers, psychics, temple priests, charlatans, quacks, and management consultants.  The common element is an objection to competition, evaluation or external scrutiny on the grounds that they have some kind of special knowledge deriving from their unique personal experience that cannot be quantified or described, replicated, or even understood by others.  I don’t know that anyone has made such extreme claims about the special role of universities and the skills of professors, but I’m sure someone will.

A more plausible claim is that higher education will be hard to move online because it is about branding, and is that what parents and students really seek and are willing to pay for is the diploma from a famous university that allows students to access to jobs at prestigious employers, and allows parents to brag to the members of their social circle.  This may hold for elite institutions.  For certain families, and certain employers, the name of the institution on the diploma is more important than the content of the education provided by the university.  If Harvard or the other Ivies gave diplomas to monkeys, management consulting firms and investment banks would still hire them because they don’t really care what they know or what they can do.  They are more interested in being able to tell a new client that the team of new hires they are dealing with are all Ivy League graduates.

I doubt that branding or credentialing will insulate non-elite institutions from the effects of .  Employers that are more reality-based than management consultancies and investment banks might very well come to the conclusion that someone who performed well in a series of well-designed online courses that taught specific skills needed by the employer is just as qualified as someone who has a diploma from a second- or third-tier school.

Overall, I don’t think complacency on our part would be wise.  Online education may not destroy universities, but it will have powerful effects that universities need to address.  If we stick our heads in the sand and claim that the university experience is so unique and special that nothing could possibly augment or replace it, we’re doomed.  And if we stand in the way and actively seek to block inevitable change through clumsy, ham-handed efforts to take advantage of our current status and limit competition, we’ll be run over, much like the music labels have been run over as the result of their bungled response to the rise of the internet as a medium for distributing content, and studios and cable companies are about to be run over.

Assuming that online education will have powerful, perhaps transformative effects on higher education, but will probably still leave universities standing, what is to be done?

The response of musicians to changes in the music business may be instructive.  As I understand it, revenues from traditional sources such as royalties are declining or disappearing.  The old model in which a band or musician struggled in obscurity until they landed a contract with a label and then made money off of royalties seems to be dead.  Instead, musicians are generating much of their income from other sources where they have a comparative advantage and which involve direct human interaction.  Such activities are by definition almost impossible to replicate online.  The most important of these are ticket and merchandise sales at their live performances.  Obviously this has been a struggle, but it does seem like a new model is evolving.

Higher education needs to evolve in a similar fashion.  We need to transform the higher education experience so that faculty spend most of their time engaged in activities in which they have a comparative advantage, and less of their time in activities where online education is more effective, or at least more efficient.

Faculty have a clear comparative advantage in activities that require substantial and substantive interaction with students: responding to student questions, engaging small groups of well-prepared students in discussion, providing conceptual feedback on written work, and mentoring individual students or groups of students on projects.  The common thread here is that the teaching is high-level, and focused more on training students to think independently and carry out research and less on the transmission of basic facts and concepts.  Conversely, I believe online approaches may eventually turn out to have a comparative advantage in tasks currently served by large lecture courses: communication of basic theories and facts, and explication of basic methods.  It wouldn’t surprise me that almost anything in which mastery can be assessed via a multiple choice or short answer test could be taught online.

I propose we replace adapt a new model that recognizes the potential contributions of online education and the comparative advantage of faculty.  We should replace the current model of teaching introductory material in giant lower division courses and advanced material in smaller upper division classes and seminars with a model in which  basic facts, concepts, theories, and methods currently taught in large lecture courses are taught in modular fashion in online courses common to many or all universities, faculty and teaching assistants focus on seminars and small classes that emphasized projects, open-ended discussion, and other activities that make best use of the opportunity for interaction.  The college experience would change fundamentally from the current one in which students enroll in large and probably alienating lecture courses for two years, then take smaller lecture courses in their last years, to one in which students in all four years combined online learning of the basic concepts now taught in large lecture courses and enrollment in small seminars, labs and courses.   What is probably the least rewarding feature of the college experience for everyone involved, the large lecture course, could become a thing of the past, and students and faculty could spend more of their time interacting directly in a more rewarding and productive fashion.

Introductory science and math classes that focus on method and basic theory would be especially good candidates to be outsourced to online courses shared by multiple universities.  Certain introductory courses in the social sciences, especially economics, might also be good candidates for outsourcing.  The fact that these introductory courses are already taught as enormous lecture courses and look very similar across different universities suggests that they should be amenable to automation and outsourcing.  At some point, for the entire country we might end up with a fairly small number of online introductory science and math courses that vary mainly in terms of intensity and rigor and to which universities could ‘outsource’ at least some of the lower division teaching that is now done in large lectures.

Remaining introductory courses in the social sciences and humanities will likely require a hybrid approach.  Lower division social sciences and humanities courses differ more from one campus to another, and even from one instructor to another.  The major exception, of course, is economics.  It might be that we could never settle on the content of a small number of introductory sociology courses that every university in the county would refer its freshmen to.  While basic exposition of key facts, ideas and concepts might be moved from the lecture hall to the internet, introductory courses might still remain university specific, and taught as hybrids, in which students still gathered in small groups with faculty or teaching assistants to engage in open-ended discussion of readings, or work together on projects.

Colleges could also increase access to experiences that are available now but not yet widespread, and for which an online substitute is inherently unfeasible.  These could include time more spent abroad, either in travel study courses taught by their own faculty, or as an exchange student.  Hopefully this could be integrated with online coursework.  For example, a boring lecture course about Chinese society like the one I teach could be replaced with an experience that begins with an online course that teaches basic facts and introduces important scholarly research, and then concludes with a visit to China and perhaps a short seminar or project there.

More speculatively, perhaps we should revisit the whole notion of the standard academic calendar, in which the year is divided into semesters or quarters, and courses have fixed lengths, and in which the same material is taught in roughly the same week of the course every time it is taught.  Perhaps we will transition to a more flexible system in which basic material that is now taught in well-defined lecture courses of fixed length are instead taught as a series of online modules that students complete at their own pace, and in which students enroll in a series of short seminars or labs organized around very specific topics, or work over long periods of time on individual or collaborative projects mentored by faculty or teaching assistants.

Going even further out on a limb, I wonder if online education could alter the relationship between secondary and tertiary education by increasing the preparation and qualification of applicants.  In an ideal world, more of the material that is now being taught in freshmen year at college would be taught in secondary school.  This is especially the case for basic math and science, which seem to require a great deal of what amounts to remedial teaching in these subjects.  If online education makes it possible to offer more rigorous and advanced teaching to students at high schools that are not currently capable of delivering it, that would certainly be a good thing.  This could be especially important for talented students who are not fortunate enough to attend a school that can offer honors or Advanced Placement courses, or even rigorous instruction in basic subjects.

Overall, I am pretty sure universities will survive online education, but may end up looking very different.  Hopefully they will take advantage of the opportunities offered by online education to offer a much better and more rewarding experience to students.