Zephyr Teachout at the Washington Post offers up a disturbing augury of the future of higher education:
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.
Just as other dispensers of information, e.g. newspapers, are fighting an increasingly desperate battle to survive the encroachments of modern communication technologies so, too, will universities be forced to change or perish:
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.
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.
There's more on this sad prognostication at the link. I don't wish to sound like a Luddite, but I think what Teachout envisions would be a terrible development. The classroom is more than just a space in which knowledge is imparted. It's a place where relationships are formed, where students get the chance, if they want it, to ask spontaneous questions and pursue lines of inquiry in ways that are hard to achieve through a computer screen. Teaching is more than just putting a syllabus online and emailing tests to students. It's also communicating a love and enthusiasm for the subject matter and an interest in one's students. Moreover, a campus is more than just a place where students go to attend class, it's a community where dozens of opportunities for growth and development present themselves to young people.
It's not that students can't learn by staring at a monitor for even more hours every day than they already do, it's rather that learning in isolation is one-dimensional and impersonal.
What Teachout is predicting is essentially the dehumanization of education, an impoverishment of the intellectual life that will make us more alienated, estranged, and less human. I hope she's wrong.RLC