In yesterday’s Times Higher Education, Steven Ward argues that there are two models for online education at universities. One uses online lectures and focuses on competencies and leads to “a (more or less) professor-less future for higher education”:

This university is a place, or cyberplace, that takes its inspiration from the “competency-based” education being offered by the likes of Western Governors University in Utah, the online Capella University’s “FlexPath” and Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America”. The last of these, for example, a not-for-profit college, promises “to help working adults achieve a radically more affordable, more accessible college degree”. Students progress through low-cost courses by showing mastery of a set of “competencies”, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem”. Teams of administrative educrats oversee groups of low-paid “course mentors” (Western Governors’ term for teachers) who define course and programme competencies, map these competencies and guide “education pioneers” (students, in Capella newspeak) towards achievement. Testing specialists or edumetricians then step in to oversee the students’ fulfilment of these competencies on their way to a final credentialisation (aka graduation).

The other—a new venture from a Vermont-based start-up called Oplerno—is professor-centric:

This venture describes itself as “a global institution that empowers real-world practitioners, adjunct lecturers, professors, and aspiring instructors to offer affordable, accessible, high-quality education to students from all corners of the globe”, one that aims “to maximize control, value, and efficiency in higher education for students and faculty”.

Oplerno seeks to bring the Privatdozent into the electronic age by allowing professors to keep about 80 per cent of the tuition fees from their online courses and to retain complete control over the intellectual property found in their course design and presentation. Student fees will be somewhere between $500 and $1,500 (£300-£900) per student per course. Academics will develop their own courses and teach their own online classes of about 25 students. Rather than the severely underpaid roaming part-time adjunct or lecturer teaching courses at a reduced rate prescribed by the university, academics will be able to determine their own courses and set their own rate per student per course.

I think Ward is right that the competencies model, with content delivered via online lectures or presentations, is going to decrease the need for professors, no matter how much administrators promise otherwise, and may even increase the need for administrators, who already outnumber faculty at most institutions.

The federal government has endorsed the model and provided requirements that institutions must meet, which include getting approval from the Feds and regional accrediting agencies. Faculty will most likely determine what competencies should be taught and how they should be taught and evaluated, but this will also require administrative oversight and heck of a lot of data processing (not to mention coordination with national organizations, other schools, and maybe even state governments). Tech support will be needed, as well as bigger communications and marketing departments. While it might allow some schools to reduce campus support staff—residence hall monitors, counselors, janitorial staff, etc.—most non-profit schools are bad about shedding unneeded staff, and facility support staff are usually not the most expensive anyway.

So how will this make college cheaper, which is the whole point of such a model? Well, let’s take the example of the much-hyped $6,000 master’s degree in Computer Science at Georgia Tech. Last year The Wall Street Journal reported:

The upfront costs to create the online lectures run between $200,000 and $300,000, but once those hard outlays have been made the cost per each additional student is minimal, said Mr. Isbell. He estimated the school would have to hire one full-time teacher for every 100 online students as opposed to one full-time teacher for every 10 or 20 students who study on campus.

Some tests will be graded by computer, others will be graded by teachers, Mr. Isbell said.

The classes will be open to anyone free of charge. But in order to earn a degree, a student must gain admission to the program. To do that, the student will need a bachelor’s degree or the work equivalent, and must pass the first two classes with a B grade or better. The entire course will cost about $6,000—less than a quarter of the normal expense.

“We are expecting thousands of people,” Mr. Isbell said. “We anticipate this will be massive.”

(Whether it has been “massive” or not, I don’t know. I did a quick search and found nothing about the program, which was supposed to start this January.)

The competencies model is not bad because it is efficient. It’s bad because it replaces direct contact with an expert in a particular field, which is one of the defining characteristics of a college education, with direct contact with an administrator. As Nathan Heller writes in his recent review of William Deresiewicz’s book, “Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew.” (Of course, it shouldn’t (and didn’t always) only do this, as Gracy Olmstead suggests.) Efficiency is a good thing but not when it ruins the thing being produced.

The alternative—Oplerno—is interesting. It’s better than the competencies-based model because it keeps students in direct contact with scholars. Oplerno is accredited to offer courses, and those courses are transferable, though students might find that some institutions won’t accept them. It is not accredited to offer degrees.

But even if Oplerno does become accredited to offer degrees, I don’t think it, or other start-ups like Minerva, will be as successful as their apologists claim. The reason is—to state the obvious—we have bodies.

Being together in the same place not only helps students acquire knowledge (some research has shown that blended courses—where students do online work but also meet regularly in a classroom—is better than online-only courses and may even be better than some on-site courses, too), but it is needed to shape minds and teach certain skills, too. After all, if you didn’t need a body to learn well, people would have replaced college going with book reading (one of the first distance-learning technologies) long ago.

I’m all for exploring options that reduce college costs, and I think online courses work for certain subjects and certain individuals—such as the upper-level writing courses I teach at HBU—but I don’t think they can replace the intensity and fullness of campus learning.

In short, if we need to offer a solution to the price of a college degree in America—and who’s to say that we do (college is expensive, yes, but that’s not a problem any more than a BMW being expensive is a problem)—it would have to address how to make campus learning more affordable. But this is something that is rarely discussed.