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You Say You Want a Virtual Revolution?

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In a provocative commentary published in Sunday’s Washington Post, frequent Huffington Post blogger Zephyr Teachout predicts that “a virtual revolution is brewing for colleges.” What digital technology has done to the newspaper business, it will soon do to higher education, she argues.

Increasingly, notes Teachout, college students are assembling courses and credits in much the same way that they assemble the news, stitching together bits and pieces from around the Web. Just as The New York Times and The Economist will have their niche subscribers, a handful of elite schools will continue to attract young people who want the traditional, four-year campus experience, complete with dorm rooms, dining halls, and 8:00 AM seminars. Sooner or later, though—within a generation, Teachout predicts—consumer demand will force the majority of colleges to replace live classroom instruction with videotaped lectures, self-guided Web sites, and on-line chats moderated by adjuncts.

For the most part, Teachout gets the story right. When it comes to providing students with low-cost courses, credits, and credentials, virtual institutions have a tremendous advantage. Traditional colleges can’t hope to compete with them unless they become more like them, cutting back on facilities and tenured faculty and taking other major steps to reduce and reallocate expenses.

But there are a couple of important caveats to add to Teachout’s argument. 

While it’s true that the Web-based economy poses tough new challenges for higher education, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too sentimental about the way things were in the old days.

For example, Teachout concludes her piece by lamenting that if tenured faculty go the way of the dinosaurs, so too will “academic freedom, unpressured research and intellectual risk-taking,” and all of us will “lose a precious academic tradition that is not easily replaced.” Let’s remember, though, that this is the same precious tradition that has given us canned lectures that remain unchanged year after year, delivered to 800 students at a time, with discussion sections led by untrained graduate students. It has also given us inflexible class schedules that make it difficult for parents and people with full-time jobs to attend. It has given us nonsensical policies on credit transfer, incoherent curricular requirements, and student advising and support services unaligned with academic needs. It has rewarded faculty for publishing in seldom read journals but not for their teaching and service. And it has prized institutional rankings, departmental reputations, and athletic victories over and above public needs.

In short, let’s not assume that the University of Phoenix and other for-profit and virtual institutions are putting the screws on a grand academic tradition. Colleges and universities did that all on their own, long before the Internet came along.

On-line higher education isn’t replacing good academic practices with bad ones. It’s just providing certain kinds of cookie-cutter instruction more efficiently, offering students more convenient and affordable ways to pursue specific kinds of training, certificates, and degrees.  

My takeaway from Teachout’s article isn’t that we should be saddened and alarmed by the impending decline of higher education. Rather, I think that the moment is a hopeful one for the type of learning that could take place in academe.

Teachout assumes that if virtual institutions seize the market for delivering particular sorts of courses and credentials, then traditional colleges will have no choice but to become more like them. However, they do in fact have another choice—they can cede that part of the market to the competition, and they can make it a priority to differentiate themselves by investing in the kind of high-quality undergraduate education that should have been their focus all along.

Moreover, if colleges make that choice, they’ll find digital technology to be more friend than foe. On-line, videotaped lectures don’t have to replace faculty—they can free up those faculty to do more valuable work, such as providing students with individualized instruction, personally engaging them in discussion, and giving them intensive help with their writing, research projects, and lab work.

Likewise, open-source curricular materials don’t have to undermine professors’ autonomy—they can save them the time and energy they used to spend re-inventing courses, re-designing assignments and exams, and tracking down materials. And electronic record-keeping doesn’t have to become yet another means of squeezing profit out of students—rather, it can be used to measure their progress and improve their advising and support services.

In discussions about the intersection of technology and education, it’s always tempting to imagine that technology has the upper hand, deciding the fate of the teachers and students who use it. But in truth, the conflict is not between the Web and academic tradition. Today, as always, it’s real people who must figure out which sorts of teaching and learning they value, who should provide what kinds of higher education to whom, and how education can be made relevant by using the best technology at hand.