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?