“Elite universities…are unlikely to go away in the near future, as even Udacity’s co-founder (and Stanford alum) David Stavens Concedes. “I think the top 50 schools are probably safe,” he says. There a magic that goes on inside a university campus that, if you can afford to live inside that bubble, is wonderful.”…It seems likely that very selective—and very unselective—colleges will continue to thrive…The colleges in the middle, though—especially the for-profit ones that are expensive but not particularly prestigious—will need to work harder to justify their costs. Ideally, Udacity and other MOOC providers will help strip away all their distractions of higher education—the brand, the price and the facilities—and remind all of us that education is about learning. In addition to putting downward pressure on student costs, it would be nice if MOOCs put upward pressure on teaching quality.”

— Amanda Ripley, “Reinventing College,” Time, October 29, 2012 p. 41.

“Be there. Beyond getting there. Being there is to arrive, to achieve.”

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An axiom of business strategy is that the middle of a field is a very dangerous place to be—a year ago, The Economist applied this directly to b-schools (see this). An equally impressive axiom in business strategy is that incumbency is very dangerous in a field that is subject to disruptive innovation, because the incumbents simply can’t (or won’t) change fast enough to deal with the innovation. Conventional wisdom is now taking up these axioms to draw some unfortunate implications, such as the death of bricks-and-mortar schools, the unfair advantage of the elite schools, and so on. This could turn out to be right (no one knows what will happen next in this fast-changing field). But I think that the conventional wisdom remains pretty fuzzy. To see why, consider the question, what can a “destination school” do that online ed can’t?

Regular readers of this blog will probably know where I’m headed (for previous posts, see this, this, this, this, and this) but destination schools offer capabilities that are very hard to replicate anywhere else in the educational universe—and especially online. Consider these:

· Intensive socialization with faculty and students. In graduate school, especially, you probably learn more from the students around you than from the faculty. In founding the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson aspired to establish an “academical village,” not merely a collection of buildings and books, but a genuine intellectual community where students, faculty, and staff would engage one another to promote enlightenment. This kind of engagement and socialization builds a deeper and more loyal social network. Online ed can’t top that.

· High-touch “airtime.” Darden enrolls about 11 students per faculty member. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to be offered in January by my colleague, Ed Hess, has 40,000 students and growing. The student who enrolls at Darden (the place) will simply get more of Ed Hess’s time and attention. And like my other colleagues, he’s pretty generous with his time—the faculty members are known to take students to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, beers and a host of activities in the community. In a setting like this, the faculty not only answer your questions, students and faculty get to know each other as whole people, not just a name on a course registration.

· Builds skills and attributes of character. Didactic knowledge (names, dates, formulas, mechanics, etc.) will almost certainly migrate online. But as I argued in my just-previous post, that still leaves a huge range of “practical skills (the “know how” stuff such as negotiating, selling, organizing and leading teams) and attributes of character (the “know why” stuff such as integrity, empathy, work ethic, emotional intelligence, social intelligence).” Such skills and attributes are vitally important for success in any field and are more effectively learned in face-to-face engagement.

· Fuller communication. Written or spoken words actually say very little about a person. Non-verbal communication constitutes the lion’s share of any human engagement—for this reason, many skills, such as selling and negotiating are essential to learn in person. Learning to process and act on non-verbal communication in a professional setting is a special gift of a great in-person education. Given how little comes across via Skype, email or cell phone, in-person education simply dominates online ed.

· Find like-minded people. If you choose your school carefully and the school is selective, you are bound to find a range of people who share your aspirations, talents, and opportunities for growth. In this sense, your social network inevitably becomes more location-based. The fact that a destination school helps to anchor one’s social network is similar to the role played by coffee shops, fitness centers, night spots, political parties, and religious institutions. A place, and the people it draws, sustains your own sense of identity and purpose.

· Freedom of expression and the right to change your mind. The Internet and social media are censored in many countries—if it hasn’t happened already, the censoring of online ed is not far behind. Many destination schools are in societies with liberal civil rights and where it is understood that ideas may be mooted without prejudice to the speaker. As Thomas Jefferson said about the founding of The University of Virginia, “This institution…will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation… For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Online ed may not be so fortunate. The digital medium is still young and has yet to emplace safeguards against the invasion of privacy and the tracking of one’s thoughts and expressions.

And one could cite other virtues of education at a “place” over pure online education. But you get the picture: David Stavens was right in saying that “magic” occurs in a university campus. Where I part company is with the suggestion that such magic occurs only in the “elite” schools. The virtues I listed above have more to do with intangible culture of the institution rather than with resources. I doubt that all “elite” well-resourced schools have a strong magic-generating culture; and I’ll bet that some less-well-resourced schools have it in spades.

The schools that create magic focus on something entirely different than the mere transmission of knowledge—they deliver a transformation of the student. Darden’s Batten Fellow, Jim Gilmore, co-authored a book with Joseph Pine, The Experience EconomyI recommend this book to educators as one stimulus to thinking about what it will take for destination schools to continue to offer a superior value proposition to students as compared to online education. Gilmore and Pine wrote,

“…with education experiences the [student] absorbs the events unfolding before him. Unlike entertainment, however, education involves the active participation of the individual. To truly inform a person and increase his knowledge and skills, educational events must actively engage the mind (for intellectual education) and/or the body (for physical training.)” (page 32)

Stan Davis and Jim Botkin, authors of the Monster Under the Bed, wrote:

“The industrial approach to education…[made] teachers the actors and students the passive recipients. In contrast, the emerging new model [of business education] takes the market perspective by making students the active players. The active focus will shift from the provider to the user, from educat-ors (teachers) to learn-ors (students), and the educating act will reside increasingly in the active learner, rather than the teacher-managers, be the new learning marketplace, customers, employees, and students are all active learners or, even more accurately, interactive learners.” (page 125)

To produce compelling learning experiences that truly differentiate a destination school from online education requires a culture and mindset of service. In such a culture, students can “be there and achieve” as NetJets might say. At Darden, we have been harnessing online ed to augment our in-person learning experiences, for five years.  And we’ll be launching a series of MOOCs in 2013. Online ed is a useful complement—not substitute—for what a school like Darden delivers.  Educators and students must take seriously the potentially disruptive innovations of online ed. But if the educational culture of an institution is as important as I assert, then what constitutes the “dangerous middle” has yet to be charted. There may well be a shakeout coming in higher ed, but the potential fault-lines seem murkier than the pundits suggest.