Ever since the introduction of the Internet, there have been predictions that online education would transform the university as we know it. As early as 1997, for instance, management guru Peter Drucker observed in Forbes magazine that “already we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost” and predicted that, “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”
Fast forward to today, and those predictions continue. Again in Forbes magazine, Tim Worstall of London’s Adam Smith Institute writes, “I would expect to see a crumbling of the extant educational order in the next decade or two. Why spend $30,000 to $50,000 a year to go away to school when you can gain the same or better degree at home for $3,000 a year?” He adds, “If I were starting out now I would be very wary indeed of trying for a teaching career in tertiary education. It’s entirely possible that in 20 years’ time there will be perhaps 10 percent of the number of positions, jobs, doing that as there are now.”
The lure of online education seems undeniable. The annual Sloan Consortium report on online education in the United States, released earlier this month, found that 6.1 million American college students took at least one online course in fall 2010 – a half-million more than in 2009. The report further noted that nearly one-third of all college students are learning online now, up from less than 10 percent in 2002.
Then there’s the recent phenomenon of the 160,000 people who leapt at the chance to enrol free of charge in the online course “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” offered by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun. There’s also the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new MITx e-learning venture, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of college lectures on iTunes U, the thousands of videos available from the Kahn Academy, and so on.
And yet, I remain unconvinced that a revolution in higher ed is at hand. Or, more precisely, I think the predictions of the demise of the traditional university campus are greatly exaggerated. There is a value to the campus experience and the campus culture that is very real and hard to replicate online. As one professor wrote recently, “There is a difference between being on a campus with other students and teachers committed to learning and sitting at home. Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters.”
But I do believe that online education will continue to play an increasingly important role in higher ed. I also think that, for better or worse, the impetus for this will be more economic than pedagogical. University costs continue to increase well above the rate of inflation and are unsustainable in the long run. As Stanford’s Dr. Thrun opined in the New York Times, “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience. … I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”
Which leads me to a (non-Swiftian) modest proposal: why couldn’t we try an experiment where a number of Canadian universities banded together to create a series of online foundational courses – Psychology 101 or Introduction to Chemistry, for example – that all of their students enrolled in those programs would take? The universities could be geographically linked, such as the six or seven universities in southwestern Ontario, or institutionally linked such as the institutions that make up the Université du Québec network. There would be a set, agreed-upon curriculum and the best lecturers from each university could prepare one or more of the online lectures while each institution would look after the grading of assignments and the provision of on-campus labs where appropriate. Finished the days of lecture halls filled with hundreds of first-year students.
Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, recently offered a (somewhat) similar vision: “It makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts. Professors will have more time for direct discussion with students — not to mention the cost savings — and material will be better presented.”
This is also somewhat along the lines of what Dr. Thrun has in mind, although he takes it much further. Again quoting from the New York Times: “Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone.”
I say let’s take the first step as I outlined above. Any takers?