A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges

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.

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.

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 … Online degrees are already relatively inexpensive. And the price will only dive in coming decades, as more universities compete.

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.

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. … 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. … 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.

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Christopher Wofford is Digital Media Producer and host of WebSeries at eCornell.
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