Education · Technology

Don’t Look Now; NYU May Not Need All Those New Buildings

There’s a tectonic shift coming in the field of education.
College costs too much. Tuition and fees have tripled in the last 20 years. It is now apparently just an accepted fact that educated young people begin their adult lives with a heavy burden of debt incurred before they even have their first job! That used to be true only of medical students, who were eventually recompensed by making lots more money than most of us. But now, it doesn’t matter what you want to be when you grow up; it costs more than you can afford. I was astonished when a young intern at the Museum told me she had already amassed $70,000 in debt and still had not finished her Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Now I understand that is not all that unusual.

The repayment period for student loans is 30 years plus 8 more for hardship cases. Students have every intention of paying the money back before that time, of course, but somehow it doesn’t always work out that way. People are actually having their social security checks docked for non-payment of student loans (sometimes their own loans or those incurred on behalf of their children or grandchildren).

Are we crazy or what? Something’s got to give. Sooner or later—let’s hope sooner, young people (and their parents) will find alternative ways for them to become educated and convince employers that they know what they need to know without putting themselves in debt for years to come.

There is every indication that a revolution that will lead to this outcome is underway. I have no doubt that in the future digitized learning will be integrated into a system that also provides warm blooded contact between learners and teachers, does a better job at individualizing learning—and all at a reasonable cost without the need for attendance at a cluster of brick and mortar buildings. It may not happen soon enough for grandson Sam who enters high school this fall. But then again, it just might.

Consider this: does it make sense for 100 students to be required to assemble in a lecture hall on a certain day at a certain hour in order to watch a professor, distinguished or not, pace up and down before them, rambling on while they try to distill more or less what he is saying on their laptops? At least some of them are trying to do that. Others, bored after 15 minutes, turn to Facebook, emailing friends, or surfing the internet. But no problem, those who failed to listen can, at the end of the term, buy notes from the more diligent student, which notes will, presumably, reflect what the prof said and provide the buyer with enough information to pass the exam. And we call this education.

Alternatively, the professor could tape a polished lecture and reach thousands of students. Students could actually be engaged with the material and receive feedback as the lecture progressed, be assigned homework that would be graded, and tested on the material. Study groups could be formed—virtual or actual—and the price of the entire experience would be affordable.

It’s not impossible; in fact it is already being done. Coursera is one company offering 117 of these online courses taught by professors at leading universities: Stanford, Duke, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, to name a few. Daphne Tollner, Stanford Professor and co-owner of Coursera explains how it works in this video. Other sources you might want to check out are Udacity, and Good Semester. All of these courses are free. That’s right, free as in they don’t cost anything.

To think that these experimental efforts will not profoundly affect the face of higher education would be naive. As someone with a great respect for tradition, I want to say that this is one place where we need to discard our older model of education, which is literally medieval, for a newer approach. I may even sign up for a course myself.

9 thoughts on “Don’t Look Now; NYU May Not Need All Those New Buildings

  1. I may sign up for a course too! My father in law told me he paid $125.00 per semester when he attended Columbia University. You’re right; something has got to give. Great post.


  2. I’m thinking of taking one of the Coursera courses because they seem to offer subjects in the Humanities. Maybe I’ll blog about my progress. Or maybe we could take the same course and set up a discussion group!


  3. There’s no doubt that the roof is collapsing from its own weight, but is virtual education the answer? More like a bandaid. Look at the myriads of empathy-free, socially inept adults walking the streets who never deign to say “excuse me” when they bang into you on the sidewalk. The virtually educated of the future would likely become the empathy-free on steroids, having had minimal contact with actual people. One of the most valuable aspects of a university education is coming into contact with people of all types under many circumstances and growing as a result. It’s interesting, exciting, frustrating, maddening, eye- and mind-opening. There is no substitute for the energy of the immediate – live theatre comes to mind (despite all the obituaries that have been written over the years, it ain’t dead yet). There’s got to be a better solution for education than computer eye strain! The real problem is the corporate greed that fleeces students and their families in the name of education. There are countries that don’t extort money from their students. I don’t know the stats, but I’d be willing to make a bet they’re better educated than we are – it would be interesting to find out.


  4. You’ve raised the most potent objection to an emphasis on online learning and that is what I call “warm blooded contact” between teacher and probably more importantly other learners. But the current situation is financially unsustainable. Universities have overbuilt, assuming that the increases in enrollment they have been experiencing will continue. Those that are not heavily endowed will run into trouble when enrollment drops, as I think it will as online alternatives grow.
    So in a new model, where will the “energy” that live contact provides come from? We need to think out of the box.
    Incidentally, one of the points made in the video mentioned in the post is how Stanford courses are now available globally at no cost—to people in remote areas who otherwise would never have a chance at accessing this quality of education.


    1. I am glad people are discussing online education. I think the future will lend itself to primarily online learning.Bill Gates donated 5 million dollars to As an educator myself, I believe this will eventually become a stepping stone for online learning. With so many cuts in education across the US there will likely be a breaking point and districts will become open to more online learning. The problem with that is high school students aren’t usually motivated enough to complete tasks without being motivate and sometimes pushed. For college however, I believe this is ideal. It would be cheap and If you crave “live contact” pay more money and go to a typical university.


  5. One of the problems with higher education is lack of bang for the buck. The old adage,” you get what you pay for,” does not apply. Everyone hates getting ripped off and that is exactly what is happening to thousands of students and parents every year. Even if you can afford to pay for an ivy league education, why would you, if having a degree from a prestigious university means nothing to potential employers? This is what is happening.

    I did not go to college. I studied at a conservatory for two years and then, for two more years, I continued my studies with private teachers in different disciplines. I truly believe I learned much more than I ever would have at a university and I’m pretty sure I saved my parents some money. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. Kind of a throw back to the old apprenticeship system.

    I definitely think online classes are an inevitable part of the future. Already my 14 year old is in a “paper free” public school. All assignments are done on the computer except math problems, where work needs to be shown, and the occasional essay. The assignments are given on computer, the work is done on computer and the work is submitted by computer. Kids read books on the computer; they take notes during class on the computer. Yes, these kids still have living, breathing people teaching the class, although in some cases I am not sure the kids are very aware of them.


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