How Online Education Can Save Our Universities
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Peter Wood
Minding the Campus
December 10, 2013

The wolf at the door of American higher education is online instruction. Traditional residential colleges hear it snuffling at the threshold. They know they are vulnerable. They cannot compete on price. Online is intrinsically cheaper. They compete awkwardly on utility. Online instruction is a more efficient way to convey knowledge and skills in a lot of fields.

Pushing back against the wolf is, of course, not the only option. Plenty of lycanophiles would like to see wolves roam freely in the groves of academe. Creative destruction is their abiding vision, and they see our older forms of colleges and universities as a herd of superannuated antelopes in need of a good culling. 

Related:  Why Colleges Are Flunking Cost Control

Then there are those, like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who have vigorously argued that colleges should make friends with and domesticate the wolf. They argue the future of higher education lies in making online learning an integral part of the traditional college curriculum. The wolf will happily take its place on the hearth and play tenderly with the children. 

Christensen's argument gains force from the many colleges and universities that have already created their own online programs or accepted online courses elsewhere for academic credit.

I have mixed sympathies. The peril in which American colleges and universities find themselves is a result of decades of complacency mixed with a willingness to exploit students financially and an eagerness to ensnare students in leftist ideology. Weak academic programs have been oversold; students who lacked ability and motivation have been shuffled through; and the public has awakened to the reality that many families have paid way too much for way too little. The catchphrase is "the higher education bubble."

But let's stick with the wolfish metaphor. Higher education has made itself the overfed prey of a ravenous predator.

Related:  6 Steps to Ease the Student Debt Crisis

I'd like to see colleges and universities recover their proper selves after decades of misdirection. If the rise of online education promotes that spirit of self-reform, all the better. But I also see merit in most of the forms of online education taken on their own terms. They do some things extraordinarily well. As it happens, liberal education in the traditional sense is probably not destined to be among those things, but that simply means we should prepare for a "disaggregation" of higher education. 

Not everyone is happy with the prospect of that disaggregation. In my experience a great many academics have fierce loyalty to the notion that residential colleges and universities are first-tier institutions and online learning preys on those who don't know better and gives them an inferior education. In any case, a new genre of academic writing has begun to emerge, exemplified by Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, in which scholars create a new apologetics for residential liberal arts education.

Professor Stan Altman in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York City has launched another venture along these lines. Altman is director of "The Higher Education Innovations Project" that looks for "inexpensive and effective approaches in public higher education." The project's programmatic statement voices "doubt about the value of MOOCs as stand-alone solutions for the problems troubling us" but allows that "net-based resources" may "enlarge faculty capacities and expand classroom time." 

Altman's diagnosis of what ails higher ed goes beyond the online wolf at the door, but it isn't hard to see its breath behind the project's focus on rising tuition, student debt, teaching values and creativity, reduced enrollments in the humanities, and commitment to excellent teaching.

Related:  In Higher Education, a Low Tolerance for MOOCs

These are all elements in the new effort to create a wolf-exclusion zone around traditional forms of higher education. Values are back in; gradgrindian calculations of utility are out. I applaud Altman's initiative, supported by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation.  One of the project's realizations is a series of symposia on Higher Education Innovations. I attended one of these in which the guest speaker was Thomas Rochon, the president of Ithaca College.

President Rochon explained what Ithaca College is doing to combat the wolf menace. It was a pitch-perfect talk in balancing peril with measured confidence. I went because the announcement mentioned that Rochon would be talking about his college's new "core curriculum," a topic of abiding concern to the National Association of Scholars. 

Ithaca College is an expensive undergraduate college in upstate New York, originally founded in 1892 as a music conservatory. Its most popular degree program (18.5 percent of degrees) is communications. Business, Health Sciences, and "Humanities and Science" covers the rest. The enrollment is 6,723. The college makes the Dept. of Education's list of the top 50 colleges for highest net prices. The net price (tuition minus discounts) for 2011-2012 was $31,811, which made Ithaca the 48th most expensive college in the nation.