Education · Technology

Some Things Never Change—Until They Do

A medieval classroom
A medieval classroom
A modern classroom
A modern classroom .

Higher education has been basically the same for over a thousand years: a group of students come together, and a teacher stands before them. Teacher talks; students  listen.  We’ve known for a long time that this is not a very effective way of teaching, but that’s the way we do it because well, that’s the way we do it and there hasn’t seemed to be a better way.

Now, however,we are in the middle of a perfect storm that is leading to a transformative revolution in the education of young adults. Rafael Rief, President of MIT, likens its importance to that of the invention of the printing press.

Student Debt Spiraling tuition has made college devastatingly expensive. Student debt is unsustainable. It has now reached one trillion dollars—equal to the amount of total credit card debt. That a society encourages young people to assume a debt that will burden them for years, debt that will constrain their ability to buy a car, get married, buy a home, start a family, is shameful and just plain wrong.  Some students and parents, recognizing that a college degree is no longer assurance of a good job in the student’s field of study upon graduation, are beginning to do the math. They are opting for the cheaper alternative of two years at a community college, postponing college, or foregoing a college education altogether.

University Debt Universities themselves have incurred irresponsible debt. They have overbuilt, erecting  luxury amenities in a competitive race to attract students. Administrative staffs have ballooned out of proportion to the number of teachers. One of the most serious drains on college finances  are administrative salaries. My New York readers may be interested to learn that in 2002 Jack Lew (the guy with the goofy signature) earned $874,000 a year plus other benefits  as executive vice-president for operations at NYU before he departed for Wall Street before he departed for government where he is today the Secretary of the Treasury.  And NYU is one of the highest priced universities in the country with one of the highest collective student debt burdens.

According to a recent Moody’s report, many colleges are in dire financial straits. Revenue streams, including public funding and private philanthropy are decreasing as are enrollments. Tuition cannot go much higher. But the debt for those building projects will remain. Schools with massive endowments (Harvard, for example, with over $25 billion endowment), will have no trouble maintaining their residential program, but mid tier colleges that depend largely on tuition may simply go under,

The Technology It’s all about MOOCS—Massive Open Online Courses taught by the nation’s most elite professors . They are are being offered on platforms like Coursera, for example, which was founded at Stanford with $22 million in venture capital  and today has a roster of 3.6 million students. Udacity, another platform,  offers courses from Harvard and MIT. And there are others. These courses are free, available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

So How Exactly Will Higher Education Change? Already many schools, including MIT, are employing what is called the “flipped classroom,” where students first listen to a lecture and learn material online at their own pace, then once a week come together with a professor to discuss—really discuss—what they have learned so far.

These, of course, are residential students, but in such a model, the online portion of the course could be offered to anyone on the planet for a reduced fee. If thousands sign up—not an impossibility— that would help the university’s bottom line. Online students would not receive credit, but sometimes the online courses offered today do provide certificates of completion for a small fee. It’s too early to know how employers are reacting to such certificates, but it might be that this sort of certification could substantially improve job prospects in some fields and render a residential college degree unnecessary for employment.

Could Online Learning Replace Residential Programs? In some cases, yes. In fact, the University of Wisconsin recently announced that this fall they would begin offering a Bachelor’s degree in subjects like information technology and diagnostic imaging  based entirely on competency. It’s called UW Flexible Option. Students will be able to take online courses from the University or elsewhere and the charges, which have not yet been set, will be based on any UW online courses taken and fees for the assessment tests. UW officials say the Flexible Option will be “significantly less expensive” than a residential program. And the degree will be indistinguishable from those earned in the traditional way.  Georgia Tech, a highly respected engineering school (home of all those “ramblin’ wrecks”) will offer an online Master’s Degree for $7000.

The objection that is always raised to online learning, of course, is that without the give and take of the classroom and the opportunity to debate new ideas with  people from different backgrounds, much of the value of a university education—what is called the “college experience”— is lost.  I don’t know. From what I hear, the undergraduate “college experience” today does not always include much in the way of the collegial exchange of serious ideas.  Under the new model, discussion and debate takes place online (kids of college age now have been conducting much of their social life online and are no doubt very comfortable doing this).  I’d say the more pressing problem is how to ease young adults  into independent living under the new model? A residential college provides the opportunity to live semi-independently with plenty of support. We already have too many twenty-somethings living in their parents’ basement.  Glen Reynolds, law professor at University of Tennessee who has written extensively on the subject of what’s in store for higher education, suggests that colleges might convert residential halls into hotels where students enrolled in online courses could stay temporarily.

Whatever the new model looks like, it promises to offer the equivalent of an elite education in our finest universities to motivated individuals no matter where on earth they are located, and it is bound to be affordable. Seems to me this can’t be bad. Or if simply learning something new is your goal, you will probably be able to do it for free. In fact you can do that now.

Whether we like it or not, in fifty years, it’s pretty clear that the medieval model will be history.

8 thoughts on “Some Things Never Change—Until They Do

  1. Very interesting and exciting. I am determined that my 15 year old will not accrue one morsel of debt going to college. It is looking like this will be feasible. It is very hard to let go of what has always been done, even if you end up going broke doing it. New and exciting times ahead.


    1. I think more and more parents (and their children) will begin thinking this way. Really, isn’t it mainly up to the parents? You can’t expect 18 year olds to understand the implications of taking on so much debt, especially when “everyone else is doing it” and the colleges encourage it!


  2. What a timely topic! I’ve been following this trend in the museum world lately, where a glut of recent grads from all the new “museum studies” programs is overwhelming a field which had relatively few job opportunities to begin with, even before the economic downturn decimated endowments. It seems like the schools are at least partly to blame for not giving students a realistic view of their prospects — the likelihood of getting a job at all, or that said job will pay enough to let you live comfortably and keep up with your loans.

    Have you heard about micro-credentialing? I first ran into it on the Center for the Future of Museums blog. And here’s an interesting article that explains it in detail:

    Not only does it offer a more finely tuned education — or at least a more finely tuned way of presenting your education — it also lets non-traditional players (like museums) offer their own micro-courses. Of course, it turns the traditional academic status quo on its ear. But as you point out, that’s happening anyway.


    1. I agree with you about the responsibility of schools to discuss with their students the job opportunities or lack of same in their field of study. Of course, it is in the department’s interest and the teachers’ interest to draw as many students to their courses as they can. I honestly don’t know how anyone sleeps at night who teaches Museum Studies, a field with which we both have some acquaintance. Had not heard of “micro-credentialing.” As near as I can make it out, it is a way of credentializing real-life accomplishments and experience (?)


  3. A wonderful post, Mrs. K.

    Having two daughters of college age, I have very mixed feelings regarding online degrees. On one hand, even though online degrees from traditional universities are relatively new (and relatively untested in the everyday working world), I like the savings that an online degree promises.

    On the other hand, my residential college years were some of the best times of my life. I was away from home, working part-time jobs, learning about personal finances, air travel, and dealing with roommates. I met my wife there. And while in the classroom I was learning from and interacting with professors, making friends with my fellow students, and developing a lifetime connection with my alma mater. More importantly, there was a lot of “growing up” that happened while away at college; growing up that might not have happened if I had simply taken online courses from the Canal Zone. (Full disclosure; my father paid for the lion’s share of my schooling back in a time when college was far less costly.)

    Ultimately, we wanted to afford our daughters the opportunity of the college experience that we had. As a result — even with generous scholarship money — my wife and I are going into substantial debt by sending our girls to four-year private schools. Because of this, any changes that might reduce college costs would be welcome. Higher education, regardless of what form it takes, should never cost this much.


    1. You’ve enumerated some of the best reasons for a residential college experience. I wonder how young people would learn to live independently if all their college was online. Seems most of them need that interim period where they are somewhat sheltered and yet doing all those things that you mention. “Meeting your wife” is probably the most important! (That’s where I met my husband. although I didn’t know it at the time).

      Well, the genie will not go back in the bottle. I think we are in for a very interesting period as it all shakes out. Best of luck to your daughters. When their grandchildren reach college age, they will probably be telling them about how it was so different “back in the day.”


  4. Sorry to chime in late. But I have to wonder. And my bias as a college professor, a *language* professor, will become obvious in about one second. I adore the classroom and can hardly imagine the college experience without the teacher-student interaction that happens on a regular weekly basis in traditional classrooms.

    To be clear, I have a son and I would *love* to see paying for college become less daunting. That said. Are we bemoaning the gradual loss of print books in favor of E versions, and standing up for the old-school style of reading, but declaring the traditional university classroom passé in favor of online courses?


    1. I appreciate what you’re saying, but not all undergraduate classes are like the ones you are thinking of. I have sampled a half dozen online courses from Ivy League schools. All but one of them was simply a video of the lecture being given to students in a large lecture hall by a distinguished professor. Virtually no interchange was going on, and to tell the truth, I wondered why anyone would pay the freight to go to Yale for this. Such lectures could best be done online in my opinion. Only one of the lessons I sampled made excellent use of what can be done with digital technology, and I think this is probably the future. No teacher, no matter how distinguished, giving the same lecture for the umpteenth hundred time can possibly match the performance of a teacher, distinguished or not, giving a polished presentation employing digital aids. And of course another advantage is that the student can watch the presentation several times if necessary.

      In any case, the train has left the station. My hope is that what will evolve will be a combination of online teaching and warm blooded contact with a teacher. The traditional way of doing this is often the big lecture by the big prof and smaller discussion groups led by graduate students. But as I say, one might as well listen to the big guy online.

      Just in my own family, here is what is happening right now:
      Grandchild #1: 15-year-old high school student, very bright kid, mature for his age. Wants to learn programmming. Found a beginning course online offered by Stanford and is enrolled. He’s very excited about it—and it’s free. No college credit, but it’s a great opportunity to learn—and isn’t that the whole point??

      Grandchild #2: Just finishing up her first two years of college at the community college. She did her entire senior year in high school online. The classes she has now—-all science courses— make use of online learning as well as teacher-directed classes. She also, I believe, took one course completely online from the State university. She will transfer to a bricks and mortar college next year and the cost of her college education, of course, is much lower than if she had gone the “traditional” route.

      Grandchild #3: Teaches high school math. Uses the “flipped classroom” approach. Online presentations of a concept are done at home for homework, and then in the classroom the teacher
      devotes most of the time to helping students individually. His students are just average students.

      As for the textbooks: Grandchild #2 has always had “real” textbooks in her college courses, but they can cost as much as $150. No that is not a typo. That, too, I expect, will change, although I for one could not possibly use an e-book textbook!


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