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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.