All I could do was laugh. In the turmoil of the past three weeks at UVA, someone said that online higher education is motivated by greed. It is certain that entrepreneurs will try to make a profit in this space. But I laughed because online is more likely to spawn losses for the traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities—this stems from the cost of creating digital content and reinventing programs. I see a new arms race in the making: there is no nirvana in the new technology.
Why, then, should universities mess around with digital instruction? The only motive should be the better fulfillment of our educational mission. It might afford improvements in the quality of the learning experience. And it should enable broader access. This is the gist of an argument eloquently presented in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring—whether or not you like the concept of disruptive innovation in higher ed, I recommend that you read this book.
Some schools and some students will have an appetite for none of this. And it is not clear what will be the consequences of doing nothing. But it’s possible that what iTunes did for music and Netflix did for films will be what online education will do to traditional colleges and universities—not a pretty prospect.
If standing still is not an option, colleges and universities will require new funding to generate digital content and gear up for online education. Donors, who give out of gratitude for the learning experiences they had years ago, may not understand the push to go online. This will require a compelling new vision about higher education and the convincing leadership to sell that vision. But as a philanthropic proposition, online education must surmount at least five objections:
1. This is a cash drain now; when will it ever become self-sustaining for higher education? No one can say; no one has a lock on the best learning platforms. Schools and companies are experimenting at a rapid rate. Some of these experiments are succeeding. Most won’t; all will grow obsolete before long, requiring ongoing investments through time. Professorial learning-by-doing will be expensive.
2. Is this a cost saving or just cost-shifting? A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I called on Professor Daphne Koller, a professor in computer science at Stanford. She is one of the founders of Coursera, a not-for-profit organization that is putting courses online. Professor Koller is an articulate advocate of “inverting the classroom:” students watch digital lectures at home and then come to class for high-engagement learning with instructors. This might be a more effective learning experience for students. But it is hard to see how this model affords improvements in faculty productivity, one of the vaunted pitches for online education.
3. In the high-quality segment of higher education, economies of scale are likely to be elusive. The economic dream of online education is large-scale operation. If one instructor can reach hundreds or thousands of students, it ought to be possible to make serious money—this improvement in productivity is the dream of the for-profit providers. But the “high touch” kind of instruction at which liberal arts colleges and universities excel is the enemy of large scale.
4. As with music and films, isn’t the real determinant of success the talent? One can envision the rise of a “star system” of well-known instructors. Celebrity is sometimes mistaken for quality; and schools with well-known instructors are likely to exploit that. At first glance, which instructor is likely to attract more enrollments: an unknown teacher or a Nobel Laureate? It seems possible that online education will amplify the arms race for talent that already exists among colleges and universities. The race for celebrities will not be cheap.
5. Isn’t this really about other people exploiting the inflexibility of colleges and universities? Even if a not-for-profit college or university were able to satisfy the other questions in some way, path dependency remains a daunting obstacle. Universities get committed to a path or strategy by virtue of decisions they have made in the past—such as where to locate, what kinds of programs to offer, and whom to hire. Tenure grants lifetime employment to some instructors—to abrogate those commitments is morally wrong and legally challenging. But the supposed economic appeal of online instruction is rising faculty productivity. What happens if a school takes the plunge and makes a substantial investment to go online, and then doesn’t need all the faculty members it has hired? It could take expensive buyouts or years to wait for downsizing through retirements.
To digitize the curricula of a major research university would be very expensive. Given the parlous state of finances in higher education today, declining state support, and the deflationary pressures on tuition, one foresees a major capital call on donors coming just over the horizon. Will the generous public respond? Capital mobility is the great advantage of the for-profit schools, especially those that are publicly-listed or owned by public corporations. In the absence of a Great Transformation through private philanthropy, it is not implausible that the for-profits will not merely disrupt but will displace the not-for-profit educators.
Will donors respond? I hope so.