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Online Education and the Future of College

In yesterday’s Times Higher Education, Steven Ward argues that there are two models [1] 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 [2] 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 [3] $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 [4] 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 [5].) 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 [6], 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 [7] 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 [8]—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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Online Education and the Future of College"

#1 Comment By Marie On August 29, 2014 @ 10:37 am

If you look at online learning as disruptive innovation, you are not looking for it to replace the industry but to change it as a whole.

I don’t want my kids to get their ed online. But between the cost of in person education and the mess we’ve allowed campus life to become, I’m not sending a 16 or 17 year old into that fray.

If universities and colleges are smart, they’ll change so that young adults feel campus learning makes sense (morally, intellectually, and financially) again. There’s a bunch of them, so surely some will get there.

I think you’re right, this isn’t a transition to all online, it’s just a transition to a hopefully better on campus product.

#2 Comment By palinurus On August 29, 2014 @ 11:02 am

“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.”

This is not necessarily an argument for a college education; in fact, it works even better as an argument for the apprenticeship model.

In my day job, I regularly teach younger colleagues how to read, write,think, and speak using the rigorous methods and idiosyncratic manner of their profession. This is not simply because of the deficiencies of their college and professional training, though that is increasingly the case. It is more because of the virtues of their prior eduction; the skills they have learned are broad and general, and need to be limited and honed to the professional vernacular.

The skills one acquires from such apprenticeships can be impressive, useful, and powerful — indeed, the method of our profession is one of the most useful for resolving certain kinds of problems that has ever been devised by man. But this comes with a significant limitation. These skills have considerable limitations when it comes to addressing personal problems or political questions. Other than provide the equipment for material prosperity, this apprenticeship does little to promote, and often does much to impair, the public and private happiness of my colleagues. In other words, it is not tend to make better or happier people and citizens.

The great promise of a liberal education is, I would have thought, a greater degree of freedom from the narrowness – in manner, method, and object — of a professional training. College is for many a moment of unique freedom from the pressures and imperatives of the market. For this reason it can be an opportunity, often the only opportunity for one to acquire the equipment, not just for material prosperity, which is important, but also for personal and public flourishing.

The acquisition of such skills is inseparable from the content, the subject matter, as it were, through which it is acquired. The questionable assumption of competency-based education is, in my opinion, precisely that: that intellectual skills can be abstracted from the content through which they are acquired. But that’s another story, and this post is already too long.

My point is rather that by acquiescing in the separation of skills from content, by saying an education can just be a personal encounter with professors and exposure to what they know — whatever that happens to be — you run the risk of giving away the game. If education is, essentially, “contact with an expert in a particular field,” why does that expert have to be a professor and that field one of the liberal arts? What’s so special about them and what they know? If you want to be efficient, let’s cut out the middleman and use public and private monies to subsidize apprenticeships?

One of the great challenges facing higher education is finding the right terms to justify its considerable costs — one that resonates with contemporary needs but still remains true to its mission. In the laudable effort to rise to this challenge, be careful you don’t talk yourself out of a job.

#3 Comment By John On August 29, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

(college is expensive, yes, but that’s not a problem any more than a BMW being expensive is a problem)

A BMW is not being sold as the entry point to a shrinking middle class to a justifiably anxious cohort of young strivers every year. None of these kids could get an interest-bearing unsecured loan for the value of the BMW that is not dischargeable in bankruptcy under most circumstances.

It’s a problem. Or else this “disruption” wouldn’t be happening.

#4 Comment By clairet2 On August 29, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

The problem with today’s college professors and administrators is their character. Too many are aggressive advocates of, or cowardly collaborators with, anti-American Marxism (aka “political correctness”). Having less, rather than more, contact with these ideologically-driven, narrow-minded professors is actually advantageous to students. Especially in the liberal arts programs.

#5 Comment By Dan Davis On August 29, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

One of the best parts of my university education was browsing the stacks of a million – volume library, making seemingly endless serendipitous discoveries. Never mind online students, do full-time traditional students even have that kind of time these days? I’m not referring to outside pressures such as work or family, I mean simply coping with course requirements.

#6 Comment By Rich On August 29, 2014 @ 11:36 pm

Many of the online programs aren’t aimed at kids anyway. Credentialism is now firmly established in the job market. Last week a manager went through an entire department asking each person if they had a Masters degree. It will likely become a job requirement in the next couple of years. Every member of this department are in their 40s or 50s with families. I guarantee most started looking into online programs the next day.

#7 Comment By stef On August 30, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

@Marie: Very few 16-year olds go away to college.

If you want to keep kids “out of the fray,” there are many workable and inexpensive alternatives.

Most community colleges start accepting students at age 16. Students can take classes over the summer while still in high school. They can take classes at their high school for college credit (usually for about $50 a credit hour: a substantial bargain.)

When they graduate from high school, they can go to community college for two years, then transfer to a four-year in-state public university. I am specific about this because while states guarantee transfer of credit from community colleges to *in-state* schools, they do not guarantee transfer credit to out-of-state or private universities.

Many students are more mature by 20 than at at 18, and are capable by then of living away from home in a dormitory or apartment.

And many young people have decided to complete their undergraduate education while living at home, if they are fortunate enough to live in a town with a four-year public university.

I agree that it’s still unreasonably expensive. But it’s far more do-able when you do it this way, at least financially.

#8 Comment By American History On September 10, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

On-line education is wonderful. Colleges, like high schools are influenced by common core, and the more non-biased education the child can get, the better.
However parents should have control of their children’s’ learning; most children today are taught to meet the common core/one size fits all federal standardized tests; this is on-line, the parents have very little idea what their children are learning, and little control.
Currently homeschooling seems to be the only way to escape the worst aspects of common core, and Agenda 21.
NewHeightsEducation.org offers many home-school learning tools. The history blog talk radio episodes cover much of colonial America history that public teachers are prohibited by time limits to tackle.

#9 Comment By Daniël W. Crompton On September 11, 2014 @ 1:59 am

Distance learning isn’t the new thing everybody makes it out to be, it’s old enough that Charles Dickens – calling it the “People’s University” because it provided access to higher education to students from less affluent backgrounds, Queen Victoria and the University of Chicago’s first president William Harper were proponents of distance education. The latter implemented this is 1892, followed shortly by Columbia University.