Who Needs A College Campus

This seems to be the week for prognostication in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education devotes quite a few pages to an exploration of what higher education could be like in 2015 – with positive and negative predictions for each topic covered. While that’s worth while reading I think another article that will get far less attention is also worth consideration. It’s titled “Who Needs a College Campus?”, authored by David Gelernter, and it appears in the current issue of Forbes magazine. I cannot provide a link because this article is available only to those who wish to register for Forbes online. I imagine that many of your libraries carry the print edition (Nov. 28) where it can be found on page 42.

Gelernter provides a vision of higher education in which an online free market rules. He predicts that scholars will create and market online courses available for individual purchase. Students could access courses from wherever they wish; there will be no need to affiliate with a single institution. Students will own the course and access the content as often as they wish. He sees the development of degree-granting institutions that will inspect a student’s credentials, administer tests, and determine if one is worthy of a B.A. or other degree. Of course, his escape clause is that there will always be top tier universities for those who can afford them. But for the rest of us he sees an electronic marketplace with affordable, convenient access to higher education. He doesn’t reflect on the fact that for many students higher education is a social and cultural rite of passage and learning experience as much as it is about earning a degree.

But if trends are pointing to an increasingly unaffordable higher education it suggests that an electronic marketplace – which technology certainly makes possible – is not completely out of the question. His model suggests you could also have a few, free-floating electronic academic libraries to serve the needs of those who pursue totally online education. While it doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of all physical libraries attached to traditional insititutions, who is to say that a significantly transformed online higher education marketplace couldn’t eliminate many of our institutions as well as our libraries. Will many of us end up working as toll-free support operators for some global online library? What do you see in your crystal ball?

4 thoughts on “Who Needs A College Campus”

  1. “Gelernter provides a vision of higher education in which an online free market rules.”

    This strikes me as naive because it completely disregards the very real value of the intetgrated institution as a trusted brand. Never mind the necessity of labs, access to instructors, and the need for an academic community for the professors that a locality provides. The real issue here is the preceived (and hence, in this context, real) value of the logo at the top of a diploma.

    Schools are able to exist soley because “the marketplace” (employers) finds value in their diplomas. Some are more valuable than other, and will open more doors even when you taking into account cronyism and bias. This is always going to be true unless there’s a radical, mind-blowing shift in our understanding of — wait for it — assessment.

    Our assessment stinks. Standardized tests account for a depressingly small amount of variance in actual performance, and there are strong arguments that the scholastic culture has changed in such a way that the abbreviated test is no longer an acceptable stand-in for the larger conceptual skills it purports to represent. The civil service exam tells us…not much. No one who has spent any time dealing with education would equate a student who sat down one afternoon and passed all the tests needed for an undergradate major with one who actually went and got the education at a good school (and *also* passed all the tests, of course). I’m not saying they’re not both “good” — just that they’re surely not “the same.”

    There’s no market for people who have cobbled together education in this fashion preceisely because there’s no good way (cheap, fast, accurate, repeatable) to assess what a person knows, especially as you move further away from mechanical/heuristic skills to conceptual skills (knowledge workers, buzzword buzzword buzzword). Just as education exists as an attempt to short-circuit experience, the diploma exists as an expression of educational exposure combined with the-stuff-we-can’t-test.

    Of course, a group of schools could form a consortium that provides assurances of quality and long-term tracking of success as a way to convince people to hire their graduates, but hiring these graduates is still inherently going to involve more risk than hiring someone with a good “brand” on their transcript.

  2. I’m also loathe to register for “Forbes online” just to read this, and so rely on your account of Gelernter’s argument. Assuming he doesn’t address this point, Gelernter’s vision seems to fail to take account of the close binding of teaching and research (at least in the R1 institutions) in the current model. If instruction is unbundled, virtualized, monetized, and de-institutionalized, it’s not at all clear where “big research” would take place. Readers of the Chronicle series you mentioned may have taken note of one of the component articles, “Research, Inc.” (). If we combine the de-institutionalization of Gelernter’s vision with the dystopian scenario set out in the Chronicle article, I think we’d be forced to conclude that university research would inevitably be driven into the private sector, with the resulting loss of whatever synergies (and I believe they are many and substantial) currently exist between teaching and research, as well as of support for research that lacks short-term commercial value (the arts and humanities, many social sciences…..). Perhaps the most significant loss would be the (sometimes threatened) culture of openness that now characterizes university-based research. On the other hand, it would neatly dispose of the journal pricing crisis (as well as most research libraries….).

  3. Also totally ignores the wider social benefits that were envisioned when land grant institutions were founded. Higher education has multiple roles to play, training and credentialing being only one of them.

    And what we know about student learning preferences at the moment (see our earlier discussion here and here of the Educause report) doesn’t paint so rosey a picture of online learning preferences.

    For a much more positive capitalist analysis of what’s right with American higher education, see what The Economist had to say back in September.

  4. PS: I suspect in terms of readership, this Forbes article will get a lot more attention than the Chronicle series – at least by those who aren’t intimately involved in higher ed. Our donors, our parents and alumns … I’m not sure they’ll buy the argument but quite a few people are likely to read it. It could be that some who think libraries are no longer necessary now that we have the Internet may add colleges and universities to the list.

    The whole entrepreneurial cast to this piece is troubling – the idea that academics should strike out on their own and make big bucks selling their own courses betrays a lack of commitment to public service. It also is about as likely to revolutionize education as self-publishing is likely to topple traditional publishing. Remember that Xerox commercial? Old fogey in a classroom is told by a brash youngster anyone can publish a book! Hurray! Viva la revolucion! Brash youngster fills his trunk with his self-published books, travels the country flogging them, finds out writing is a piece of cake compared to persuading people to buy it.

    Read David Kirp’s book “Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line for a good exploration of marketing in higher ed – I believe one chapter is focused on unsuccessful efforts to sell courses, and MIT’s amazing give-away of course materials.

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