The always thought-provoking Walter Russell Mead wrote a little ways back about the coming revolution in education. (He also points out the challenge of building a viable economic model around online courses.) His thesis is that the advent of high-quality online courses and the ubiquity of the technology needed to access them will make education cheaper, more readily available, more customizable...just BETTER, for the most part. In his words:
Online ed will accelerate rather than retard the transformation of American higher ed. Education needs to be cheaper and higher quality than most of it now is; there is no way universities can meet that demand without fundamental change.Mead has written about the topic at length, and sees expanding online education as a solution to the problem of the "higher education bubble" pointed out by Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) and others. The absurdity of paying so much for a degree that may not even reliably provide opportunities for well-compensated employment is now undeniable, but so is the reality that moving to online courses may dissolve the business model of bricks-and-mortar higher education, with unpredictable results.
However, the economics of online education is not my primary interest, it's the psychology. How will our perceptions of the value and importance of higher education change if it moves into cyberspace? (And how often do you hear anyone use that term anymore? I miss cyberspace...) A few thoughts:
1) The perceived value of an online education is likely to be lower even if, and maybe especially if, you earn your online degree from a prestigious school. Live attendance is likely to become a status marker, as well as enhancing the social bonds between those who did so while making them resentful of others who took what they will perceive as shortcuts. You can imagine an interviewer probing a candidate who lists MIT on their resume to see if they literally went there.
2) Pretty much every generation after World War II was brought up to function within an institutional setting. The basic model is that the institution (school, corporation, etc.) sets the rules by which success is judged, and the best rule followers succeed. But online education promises to take away the guiding role of institutions. Don't like what Harvard says a well-rounded education entails? Then take just the class or two from Harvard that you really have interest in, and don't worry about their degree. Feel constrained by what you need to do to get a psychology degree? Some university will probably help you design your own curriculum, pulling from a variety of sources, to help you achieve the education you want. This is a variation of the same disaggregation that has devastated newspapers, the music industry, and anyone else who makes money by bundling content. So what's the problem? We'll all be able to get our custom-fitted educations, and be more fulfilled, right? Well, while we might be comfortable mixing news from a bunch of different sources, educational institutions have a much more powerful claim to authority than the media does: their role is to teach us what we need to know. How, then, can we choose what classes we prefer without leaving holes in our education? My prediction is that students and professors will look for new ways to create virtual institutions that still set norms and aggregate classes into coherent programs of study. The alternative turns education into an overly self-centered exercise.
3) In an online educational world, we will see an odd race to the bottom to attract students with money to spend on education but without the wisdom to know what they really need to learn. Get ready for students taking classes on critical television analysis and the like. While many educators will no doubt look to online education as a way to positively influence more young minds, there will be many more who see that creating courses that pander to students' existing knowledge and interests is a quick way to make a buck. After all, a professor probably needs only a few hundred enrollees to make an online course a profitable venture. The division, already so familiar to anyone who goes to college, between people who are determined to push themselves (the minority) and those who navigate the easiest path to their degree, may be exacerbated.
4) The long-term psychological shift that is likely to play out is to greater, but more sporadic, consumption of education, with more value placed on utility and less on the badge value of the institution hosting the course. I'll use myself as an example. I went to a reasonably well-respected Catholic college, majoring in English, with the intent to be a journalist or writer. I'm now a marketer, and while the skills I learned have broad application to my work, I was never formally schooled on the ins and outs of my craft. I have no strong interest in an MBA and no ability to suspend my career to pursue a masters degree in Anthropology, which I'm otherwise interested in. Now, imagine I was living in a world of disaggregated higher ed. I may well have gotten an English degree, and maybe, if I could afford it, would have spent some time physically on campus. But at some point I might well have switched to taking classes online while I took my first steps into marketing. Then, periodically, as my career advanced, I would be likely to seek specific knowledge that might aid my advancement (and I'd feel pressure to take courses because a lot of other people would be doing it). Eventually, I might work with an institution to define a degree program incorporating some of the one-off classes I already took with a more focused course of study. And if I'm interested in pursuing a new career, I could take a course or two to test the water before I really commit. Suddenly your education becomes scalable to the scope of your ambition, because not everything needs to be oriented towards getting a degree.
In short, the short term reaction to disaggregated online education is likely to be mixed, with people's excitement tempered by online being seen as second rate and with a tendency to create courses that are easily marketed rather than rigorous, challenging options. But as we come to accept that the notion of young adults sequestering themselves on a campus for four years is an arbitrary, and maybe not even ideal, way to deliver education, I think we may see a culture that begins to prize relevant, on-demand learning over a lifetime. In response, traditional educational institutions for young people will be joined by new organizations poised to help adults identify and personalize more results-oriented educational programs.
And, if the casualty of this change is that many colleges cease to exist, or offer traditional on-site education, those campuses will be lovely communities to live in, with many amenities for those no longer burdened by massive student loan debts.