A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges

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By Zephyr Teachout
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Students starting school this year may be part of the last generation for which "going to college" means packing up, getting a dorm room and listening to tenured professors. Undergraduate education is on the verge of a radical reordering. Colleges, like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet. The business model that sustained private U.S. colleges cannot survive.

The real force for change is the market: Online classes are just cheaper to produce. Community colleges and for-profit education entrepreneurs are already experimenting with dorm-free, commute-free options. Distance-learning technology will keep improving. Innovators have yet to tap the potential of the aggregator to change the way students earn a degree, making the education business today look like the news biz circa 1999. And as major universities offer some core courses online, we'll see a cultural shift toward acceptance of what is still, in some circles, a "University of Phoenix" joke.

This doesn't just mean a different way of learning: The funding of academic research, the culture of the academy and the institution of tenure are all threatened.

Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and Cars.com, the main source of reporters' pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise -- a degree, a better job and access to brilliant minds. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other "students," and links to free academic literature.

But the demand for college isn't just about the yearning to learn -- it's also about the hope of getting a degree. Online qualifications cost a college less to provide. Schools don't need to rent the space, and the glut of doctoral students means they can pay instructors a fraction of the salary for a tenured professor, and assume that they will rely on shared syllabuses. Those savings translate into cheaper tuition, and even before the recession, there was substantial evidence of unmet demand for cheaper college degrees. Online degrees are already relatively inexpensive. And the price will only dive in coming decades, as more universities compete.

You can already see significant innovation in online education at some community colleges and for-profit institutions. The community colleges are working with limited resources to maximize their offerings through Internet aggregation. For-profit institutions appear to be capitalizing on the high demand for low-cost degrees and the fact that few public schools do much traditional marketing.

These entrepreneurs are a little like the early online news sharers -- bloggers, contributors to mailing lists and bulletin boards, profit seekers, tinkerers. Just as the new model of news separated "the article" from "the newspaper," the new model of college will separate "the class" from "the college." Classes are increasingly taken credit by credit, instead of in bulk -- just as news is now read article by article.

Of course, a cultural shift will be required before employers greet online degrees without skepticism. But all the elements are in place for that shift. Major universities are teaching a few of their courses online. And the young students of tomorrow will be growing up in an on-demand, personalized world, in which the notion of a set-term, offline, prepackaged education will seem anachronistic.

Taking the newspaper analogy one step further, college aggregators will be the hub of the new school experience. In the world of news, the aggregators have taken over from the newspaper as the entry point for news consumption. Already, half of college graduates attend more than one school before graduation. Soon you'll see more Web sites that make it easy to take classes from a blend of different universities.

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. Every major paper once had a bureau in, say, Sarajevo -- now, a few foreign correspondents' pieces are used in dozens of papers. Similarly, at noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States.

When this happens -- be it in 10 years or 20 -- we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

Not all colleges will be similarly affected. Like the New York Times, the elite schools play a unique role in our society, and so they can probably persist with elements of their old revenue model longer than their lesser-known competitors. Schools with state funding will be as immune as their budgets. But within the next 40 years, the majority of brick-and-mortar universities will probably find partnerships with other kinds of services, or close their doors.

So how should we think about this? Students who would never have had access to great courses or minds are already able to find learning online that was unimaginable in the last century. But unless we make a strong commitment to even greater funding of higher education, the institutions that have allowed for academic freedom, communal learning, unpressured research and intellectual risk-taking are themselves at risk.

If the mainstream of "college teaching" becomes a set of atomistic, underpaid adjuncts, we'll lose a precious academic tradition that is not easily replaced.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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