Wishful Thinking

Peter Wood

Over on Phi Beta Cons, Fred Schwartz ("20 Reasons Why Campus Learning Is Better Than Online") cites my predictions about a “Great Transition” in which higher education will move from in-person campus-based institutions to mostly online instruction in the coming decades.  He dislikes the prospect and disagrees with how likely it is.  I don’t especially like the prospect either, but that’s neither here nor there.  The important question is whether something like the “Great Transition” could happen.  My answer is yes, it could.  That’s because, though our current institutional basis of higher education looks robust, it is highly vulnerable to small shifts in public esteem.   My article, The Shape of (Academic) Things to Come, wore its satirical colors openly.  I described people, places, and events twenty years into the future and attributed my detailed foresight to scientifically-enhanced precognition.  It says something about the level of fear that online education strikes in today’s academics that a fair number wrote to me to protest this leap of imagination, as if, like Prospero, I could conjure it out of thin air.   Don’t blame me.  If something like the Great Transition were to happen, it won’t be because I set it in motion.  Nor do I think that my fellow seer, Jane Shaw, can be blamed.  Fred Schwartz provides 20 reasons why campus learning is (or “can be”) better than online college education.  Most of his reasons sound right to me.  He starts out, “Not every subject lends itself to online learning.”  Entirely true, at least with current technology.  Looking at the last twenty years, I wouldn’t exactly rule out the possibility of dramatic improvements in the years ahead, but the more important point is that the subjects Fred cites as better learnt in person—“those that require laboratory work, clinical practice, studio learning, musical instruction, live performance, agricultural work, etc.”— do not require a university.  Historically, each of them was taught in a non-university setting.  Music conservatories and independent art schools still thrive.  Science grew up outside the university and has a vigorous life in independent institutes to this day.  Moreover, the decoupling of undergraduate education from more advanced studies already has models such as the Rockefeller University.  I won’t go through all twenty of Fred’s reasons, but most of them fall into this pattern.  He makes a valid point about the attraction of or benefit to be had from residential colleges, but the point has no real bearing on the larger economic and social forces at work.  Yes, it is nice to retire to a college town (point 3), but are we going to keep colleges going in order to provide enhanced retirement options?  It seems unlikely.  At the end of his post Fred allows that “most of these problems are surmountable,” but sees no positive reason why American society would want to surmount them.  In his view, “the college campus is not an expensive anachronism.” I wish that were true, and, even if it isn’t, I wish Americans would continue to believe it true.  But as my article suggested, it is a fragile hope.  For some fifty years, Americans have had drilled into them that higher education is mainly about getting the credentials to get a well-paying job.  If a technology comes along that offers much the same thing at a fraction of the cost, many people will choose that option (there’s “our friend the free market” for you). Online education is that technology, and it is late in the game for higher education to turn around and say, “Residential education is worth a premium price because college, after all, is really about the intangible aspects of shared culture, access to civilization, moral elevation, personal associations, and the richness of life.”   I think such claims happen to be true, but I don’t expect them to outweigh career ambition for the great majority of students or their parents.  To the contrary, the American public has drunk in the utilitarian calculus that college is a launching pad for lucrative careers.  And that public has also grown canny about the undergraduate degree becoming a merely intermediary step on the path to the credentials that really count.  To this we have to add the widespread recognition that in-person higher education is an enormously expensive and vainglorious enterprise that frequently produces meager results. This adds up to vulnerability.  Fred believes the risk is an illusion.  He cites (point #10) earlier claims that “printing, the telephone, sound recording, radio, movies, television, and various generations of computers,” would “revolutionize education and make all our schools and universities obsolete!”   That’s a pretty misleading “and.”  Most would say that printing, at least, did revolutionize higher education.  The other technologies on the list have had considerable consequences for higher education too.  It might be useful to think of online education as the synthesis of all of them, perhaps as the gasoline-powered automobile combined and synthesized a host of technologies that had already been invented, and spurred the invention of still more.  We can visit Lancaster, Pennsylvania for reassurance that automotive technology did not render horse-powered agriculture and transportation “obsolete,” but the equine economy isn’t what it once was.  I repeat, I am not eager for the rise of an online dominated form of higher education.  The cultural losses would include some that matter to me profoundly.  But I have yet to see a solid argument why the Great Transition won’t happen.  “I’d regret it” isn’t an argument.

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