On September 12, Inside Higher Education carried an article by Doug Lederman on a new company called 2Tor. Its principal founder is John Katzman, the founder of The Princeton Review. 2Tor’s aim is to use the Internet and digital technology to expand selected programs at elite colleges and universities. Distance education, of course, has been around for some time. What is new and important about 2Tor is that it aims to apply what has worked for online universities like the University of Phoenix to certain programs at highly selective colleges and universities, and then to expand these. 2Tor’s motto is: “Changing the way great students and great universities think about online higher education.”
It’s a good motto, and a good idea. A couple of years ago, I had an idea for an even more ambitious and revolutionary university I dubbed the SICVU—an acronym for what I called The Super Invisible College Virtual University. The name was inspired by the Invisible College of 17th Century England, a precursor of the Royal Society. My idea was to begin at the very top of the higher education heap, by creating something like an all digital Princeton Institute for Advanced Study—truly, a modern day Invisible College. Once this was established, the SICVU could expand by stages, taking on more programs, then graduate students, and eventually undergraduates. This is a very strong version of a top-down approach to developing online education. The SICVU would advance distance education like nothing else, because one of the principal obstacles to the more rapid development of online higher education is that institutions like the University of Phoenix are perceived by many (and most importantly, by most employers) as inferior, bottom-feeder institutions. As Katzman has seen, there is nothing in principle about online education that justifies this low opinion, and he has decided there is money to be made in offering elite online education now.
I wish him well. In business and marketing, though, timing is everything, and it might prove to be a bit early to launch such a challenge at the upper tiers of higher education. In any case, it is important to keep in mind that 2Tor, like other online programs that are already available, gives a pretty feeble impression of what is going to be technologically available in the not-so-distant future. If elite colleges feel they can be dismissive about 2Tor today, they have a lot of reasons to worry about the competition that is going to hit them in the near future.
It’s All About Bandwidth
The Inside Higher Ed article has a link to a sample page of the 2Tor program. It looks very similar to other virtual classroom software programs that have been available for some time: Elluminate, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Google’s Marratech, WebEx, and others. (For an evaluation and comparison of such programs, see Network Computing’s Tech U: The World Is Our Campus, and its interactive report card on them.)
I have used some of these programs on a trial basis, and I have spoken with a number of faculty members who have used them to teach perfectly successful online courses in a variety of fields. However, working with this kind of software makes one aware of the critical importance of bandwidth, and the problem today is that bandwidth is quite severely limited.
All the above-mentioned “virtual classroom” software programs are designed to accommodate end users who have low-bandwidth Internet connections—in many cases, nothing more than what engineers call POTS—Plain Old Telephone Service, the old copper telephone lines and their switches that still support most residential landline phones in the U.S. Download dial-up modem speeds using POTS clock in at 56Kb/s (kilobits/second). DSL, a different technology that also runs over POTS lines, supports download speeds that range from 256 Kb/s to 24,000 Kb/s, or 2.4 Mb/s (Megabits/second). (Most DSL technologies involve significantly lower upload speeds than download speeds.) Cable internet service, which uses coaxial cable, supports speeds as high as 50 Mb/s for downloading, and 20 Mb/s for uploading (though such offerings are rare).
If you want digital nirvana, you and everyone you want to communicate with must move to optical fiber. It is this technology, built entirely with dedicated fiber optic cables and switches, that is going to change everything—and very soon. Call it the Superfast Internet.
Verizon FiOS is based on this technology, and it gives an inkling of what is to come. FiOS is already available as a fiber-to-the-home or fiber-to-the-premises technology in a small number of localities in the U.S., and the number is growing. (Information on FiOS fiber-to-the-home can be found here and here.) Users of Verizon FiOS report typical download speeds of 12-15 Mbps, and upload speeds of about 2 Mbps. In some localities in Massachusetts, however, Verizon is offering FiOS with guaranteed speeds of 50 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream, starting at $139.95 a month. While these speeds are comparable to Comcast cable internet offerings, coaxial cable transmission is an inferior technology, and the speed race is bound to be won eventually by fiber. When Comcast raises its speeds to remain competitive, it must split nodes to chop up the neighborhoods it services into smaller pieces, whereas to increase its speeds, Verizon simply has to remove its speed caps. Over the long term, coaxial cable cannot be competitive with fiber even in the high definition home entertainment market where the competition currently is. Beyond that market, fiber has no competition at all. The upper limit in systems that are totally fiber optic from beginning to end is almost boundless. Gigabits of bandwidth and even Terabits of data transmission lie not too far in the future.
To see what the world is like with gigabits of bandwidth availability, and why elite universities have to be worried about the new technology, consider the Access Grid, which is built on Internet2, a 100Gb/s network backbone.
The Access Grid site has a node locator, with photos of virtual classrooms at many of the nodes. The following photos that I have selected are typical (note also that some of the photos can be enlarged): Argonne National Laboratory (U Chicago), Penn State, Purdue, Boston University, and CQ University, Australia. It is important to take a look at some of the photos of these virtual classrooms, because they are pictures of the future of higher education.
These photos might look like pictures of PowerPoint presentations displayed on walls, but they aren’t. What they show is live, real time, interactive, high-quality audiovisual communications among different nodes on the Access Grid network. For example, in the photo of the virtual classroom at Penn State, each of the 36 (4x9) screens to the left shows one of the nodes or sites that is interactively communicating with the classroom at Penn State. Penn State itself would be one of the 36 screens on the grid at the other nodes.
Have you taken the time to view the photos?
Now that’s something for Harvard to worry about.
Academic Life Outside the Classroom and the All-digital University
As important and interesting as 2Tor is, the IHE article about it underestimates the likely impact of online elite education in a couple of important respects.
First, Katzman’s idea is to extend the scope of a selection of programs at existing, elite brick and mortar institutions via the Internet. As Lederman points out, this approach has been tried many times before (though mostly at lower-tier colleges and universities) without resounding success. It is also a model that does not represent the threat to traditional higher education in its strongest form. That threat will come when someone with the wherewithal to do it successfully applies the SICVU concept to higher education. The SICVU does much more than simply extend a physical campus through the use of the Internet: it bypasses the brick and mortar institution altogether.
For an institution like SICVU that is designed to exploit the advantages of the new technology in its entirety, a physical campus is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters is the servers that create and support the virtual classrooms, and these can be anywhere: even at the North Pole, provided that it had the requisite fiber optic connection. The servers connect faculty and students wherever they are. Students don’t have to leave their residences to attend class, and faculty don’t need to commute across town in order to teach their classes. The college or university itself, as an institution, continues to provide the usual and expected institutional support for the academic programs. The SICVU handles the servers and the electronic technology that provides all the instructional support, the class scheduling, student loans, payroll, and grades and transcripts; dispenses the all-important pieces of paper called diplomas; provides career and counseling services, works with faculty in setting up majors and degree programs, monitors compliance with state and federal laws, and so on. It will also handle the purchases and lending for the university’s electronic library. (I will have more to say about this important function in a future posting.) But the SICVU has no need for physical classrooms and physical offices. They become irrelevant.
In the digital university of the near future, there will be another thing missing, besides the faculty office spaces and classrooms: Student Life, Residence Life, and all the other aspects of campus life called the extracurriculum. This is an important issue—perhaps every bit as important as the quality of instruction and teaching in the virtual classroom. What happens to student life when the physical classroom and campus is abandoned and the university goes wholly digital and virtual? We have a preliminary answer at the commuter colleges and distance learning institutions like the University of Phoenix: student life simply becomes a non-issue and dies. If this continues to be the case when even elite higher education goes digital and online, the consequences will be serious, for every study of what matters in college has emphasized the importance of student peer-to-peer interaction in the traditional, four-year residential (and usually elite) college or university.
Katzman, the founder of 2Tor, has also stressed the importance of student peer-to-peer interaction in college, but (at least in the IHE article) fails to address the real issue head on:
More fundamentally, says Katzman, the technology platform that 2Tor is building … aims to recreate to the fullest extent possible the educational experience found on-ground at the sorts of selective institutions he wants to work with. “If you ask a student at one of those schools what percentage they learned from other kids, some say half, some say a quarter,” Katzman says. In building the learning software USC’s students will use, which incorporates video, whiteboard, chat and other ideas from multiple sources into an underlying Moodle platform, “we’ve tried to build a Web 2.0 experience that puts all the discussions going on — between teacher and student, between groups of students — front and center. Those all-important conversations are an organizing principle in a way.”
Katzman addresses the issue only in terms of student interaction in the classroom. This is, of course, an important element of elite higher education, which is why it is crucial that digital technology in the near future will support it adequately (as in fact it does to some extent now). But the studies that I have seen have also emphasized the importance of student peer-to-peer interaction outside the classroom setting—in the residence and dining halls, in clubs and activist organizations—and Katzman says nothing about this.
Student Affairs and Res Life professionals, however, have noted the importance of the activities that the extracurricular sector of the university supports, and have started claiming that this is the main thing that distinguishes the traditional college or university from online education. It has even been suggested that it is this sector of higher education and the professionals who work in it that will provide the enduring bulwark against the rising tide of the new technologies that threaten to overwhelm the traditional college.
One interesting example of this came as a response to the National Association of Scholars’ recent statement “Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative.” Jacob K. Tingle sees the issue this way:
Finally, I’d like to close with a thought about the future of learning. Like it or not, on-line universities (e.g. Phoenix, Regis) are making a real dent into the number of students deciding to pursue higher education. Like it or not, the major distinguishing characteristic between the bricks and mortar and the on-line educational world is the very thing the NAS decries. Whether it’s right or not, without dedicated student affairs professionals, working their tails off to help students grow and develop, the only difference between University of Phoenix and Almost Any University is the quality of the faculty. … Again – without that distinguishing characteristic, without EMBRACING IT, the bricks and mortar will someday go the way of the horse and buggy.
Tingle is right to emphasize, as Katzman did not, the importance in college of student peer-to-peer interactions outside the classroom: in res halls, rec centers, clubs and student governments, and campus committees. Tingle also believes, however, that it is necessary to have the officialdom of the college organize and support these activities. In this, I believe, he is mistaken. In the digital university of the near future, the academics (students and faculty) will not need an extracurriculum provided by brick and mortar traditional colleges at all. That doesn’t mean that in the all-digital future there won’t be any student life: it just means that it will not be organized or supported in any way by the university. The social networking of academics (faculty and students) will continue in the digital future, but it will exist outside any physical campus.
The traditional four-year residential colleges have been pouring more and more of their financial resources into the extracurricular sector for decades. This has seriously diminished and distorted higher education’s highest priority—teaching and research—and even from a marketing viewpoint, the results have been disappointing. As I have pointed out in a previous posting (citing Inside the Top Colleges by Howard and Matthew Greene) it is typically the extracurricular aspects of college life on the leading campuses—the food, residence halls, and social life—that receive the lowest marks.
From the perspective of the emerging digital future, these costly efforts are mistaken and unnecessary. What the digital university calls into question is not the importance of student peer-to-peer interactions; what it calls into question is whether it makes sense for the university as an institution to take responsibility for these and to aim at supporting and organizing them. The digital future that is rapidly approaching promises a university that can concentrate its energies, as it should, entirely on academic matters—research and instruction—and leaves the students and faculty on their own to organize their social and personal lives. This, of course, is happening already at commuter campuses and at the existing distance learning institutions.
Taking a very broad view of the matter, we can say that the residential college, dating from the earliest European universities in the late middle ages like Bologna, the Sorbonne, Oxford, and Cambridge, was an historical accident, occasioned by the abysmally low level of technology that forced students and faculty together into a single physical location. In the imminent all-fiber digital future, this will no longer be true. Of course, humans being what they are, most students and faculty will continue to congregate and associate together in physical spaces as well as in the virtual spaces. But the new technology will liberate both students and faculty from having to locate at particular campuses, because academics can locate anywhere, and the academics in any one physical location can belong to any number of virtual universities. Indeed, since the Internet is already global, the universities with which they affiliate need not even be American universities.
As the all-fiber digital university emerges and matures, we will likely see the emergence of academic communities, consisting of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, which develop independently of any particular college town or university. It is likely that some of these new academic communities will emerge in urban centers that are already magnets for academics, like Boston and Cambridge Mass, New York City, Chicago, the Bay Area (Palo Alto and Berkeley), Raleigh-Durham, and so on. But the new academic communities need not be located there, since any location, rural or urban, with the requisite fiber optic connections will do. Superinternet-based academic communities can develop in locations that are regarded as desirable living areas quite independently of any existing academic affiliations. How about Sedona or Aspen or Maui, for example? For that matter, how about a beach in Thailand?
Of course, references to Aspen and Sedona and beaches in Thailand will conjure up visions of Club Meds for academics, where social life is an endless carnival of sensual delight, balanced with an absolute minimum of intellectual engagement. While this could certainly happen (indeed it approaches the picture of student life at many traditional brick and mortar campuses today), it wouldn’t necessarily happen, or even be common. The point is that the all-digital, fiber-based university of the future is liberating because it multiplies options and opportunities. The academic communities of the future that are built around digital, SICVU-type universities can be as academic or non-academic as the student or teacher wants. Unlike the limited options available to students and faculty who are presently tied to the traditional brick and mortar institutions, the living options can also be as expensive or as cheap as the individual wants it to be or can afford. Students and faculty who are concerned (as many are and should be) with crime, will also have the option of avoiding campuses located in high crime communities, like New Haven or parts of Chicago, Cambridge, Philadelphia, and New York City.
These digitally oriented academic communities of the near future, by concentrating academic talent in a smaller number of locations than they are at present, could be equal partners with the virtual classrooms in synergizing academic life, having the same liberating effect on social networking that the virtual university will have on the classroom. Real, non-virtual people will continue to talk and socialize together in parties, meeting halls and auditoriums, homes, apartments, restaurants, and Internet cafés. Bodies will continue to meet, and even join. Social and community service will also continue, but these do not need any university affiliation to exist and be effective, and any locality where students locate will have NGO organizations that will be delighted to have student volunteers work for them. In the digital future, all these associations, personal and social, will be based on the entirely free choices of individuals, both faculty and students. The university itself will not be involved in those decisions in any way.
Academic life outside the classroom will sever itself—one might almost say, free itself —from the extracurriculum organized by any college bureaucracy. In the traditional brick and mortar model, a student’s circle of friends (close peer group) is decided in the first instance by the undergraduate admissions committee, and even more narrowly after that by the Res Life staff, who make roommate decisions in the residence halls. This is particularly true for entering freshmen, but studies show that undergraduate friendships and relationships in the later years are largely shaped by the relationships formed in the first two years—particularly the freshman year. This seems to be a very poor way of going about arranging these vitally important matters for students.
Such decisions, even when they are made with the best of intentions, are bound to be relatively uninformed and arbitrary, and there are already better options. Millions of college-age students are already using social networking websites like Facebook and Myspace to network together and form friendships and relationships for themselves. Facebook in fact, was created originally to give incoming students at Harvard a way to get to know other people on campus. It was originally limited to Harvard students, but was later extended to other Ivy League colleges and then eventually to any university student. It is now open to anyone aged 13 or over. As of August 26, 2008, 100 million people worldwide are now using Facebook. The same technology can be used as the social networking backbone to develop entirely new academic communities anywhere.
Community real estate developers will of course see the money making potential of developing such communities, catering to very different tastes, but all tied with all-fiber connectivity to the academic superinternet backbone. Any offering in the marketplace that provides more personal freedom and more options has a tremendous competitive advantage, and the competitive advantages of such communities would be as great as the competitive advantages of the all-digital university itself.
So Jacob K. Tingle is probably wrong to think that Res Life and Student Affairs will prove to be the salvation of the traditional brick and mortar college. Teaching and research, the essential core functions of the university, are likely to fare quite well in the digital future. Indeed, they could thrive there as never before. It is instead the extracurricular sector of the university, and the Res Life and Student Affairs professionals who work in it, that are the most threatened. That threat has already materialized at the commuter campuses and at online universities, which to date have made significant inroads only at the lower tiers of the higher education pile. What is happening there will only accelerate when elite higher education goes all digital. Res Life and Student Affairs—in fact, the whole extracurricular sector of the university—are destined to become just so much road kill on the super highway to the digital university of the near future.