11/16/2012 06:26 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Online Education: The Margarine of the 21st Century

As Margaret Visser makes clear in her classic work, Much Depends on Dinner, margarine has always battled negative perceptions as it has tried to unseat butter from its epicurean throne as the spread of distinction. She recounts that the magnificent Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral was built with money which the Church received from people who preferred to pay rather forgo butter during the Lenten season when butter was banned as a luxury. No surprise then, that after a devastating cattle plague, French Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize for the invention of something cheap to take the place of butter.

The substance, (much) later called margarine, was invented on the Imperial Farm at Vincennes, outside Paris, in 1869.

Holland, already a world leader in butter production, first developed the French invention, and soon found that margarine was more durable than butter and therefore simpler to hold for
sale and to transport. Despite these advantages, the butter industry had in the beginning two main advantages over margarine. One was that it was already in place, not struggling for a
foothold. The other was that butter is "bathed in tradition, in prestige, in folklore."

The historic combat between butter and margarine is now being played out in a new theater, as online faces off against on-campus higher education. Just as margarine struggled to be accepted by 19th century palates, online education continues to be seen as "less than" its traditional, face-to-face rival. The advantages that butter initially held over margarine are remarkably similar to traditional education's perceived benefits: it is already in place, and is also held in a place of "prestige and folklore" in an industry that is driven by rank and student perception.

Yet, online education has its advantages as well, ones it shares with, that's right: margarine. Margarine is factory-made and longer lasting than butter, and was one of the earliest examples of a food artificially formulated for city living, mass production, long shelf life and nationwide distribution. Very few people need to be employed in the manufacture of margarine. All these characteristics made it impossible for butter to compete in price.

Similarly, online education provides nearly limitless access to higher education, reduces the number (and the need for particularly impressive credentials) of faculty needed, and is easily scaled for "mass production." In addition, it holds the promise of lower cost and a variety of "flavors" like margarine currently offers -- in its desire to respond to consumer demand, unlike higher education's traditional ivory tower mentality.

Visser's description of the struggle between butter and margarine offers a striking parallel for online and on-campus higher ed. She comments that people resisted margarine simply because of "the anxiety we experience as we watch ways of life we have loved being killed off, apparently inexorably." I am often surprised by the angst some parents and students express as they worry that education they love is now on a path of technological automation that will reduce a highly relational enterprise to a transactional function of indifferent machines. Most higher ed experts agree that there will always be a place for the unique nature of the on-campus experience, and it may always enjoy its current, heightened status.

Visser notes that, "The butter-margarine struggle represents the great oppositions articulated in our culture, oppositions that online and on-campus share: independent versus corporately-controlled business, tradition versus not-necessarily-preferable novelty, nature versus human manipulation, labor-intensive versus machine-operated industry, uniqueness versus interchangeability.

In 1883, when Mark Twain, travelling down the Mississippi, overheard two "oily villains" plotting to kill butter with margarine and sell the world "cottonseed olive oil." "'You can't tell it from butter,' said the margarine man, 'by George, an expert can't... Butter's had its day -- and from this out, butter goes to the wall.'" Twain described the two as "brisk men, energetic of movement and speech; the dollar their god, how to get it their religion." Visser comments, "We are afraid of the irreparable damage constantly being wrought by 'brisk, energetic' go-getters with narrow self-interest their only concern and the lowering of standards never entering their calculations.

Higher education should have a healthy 'fear' of certain institutions offering online degrees; those institutions willing to put "narrow self-interest" above our high calling to educate students, and lowering standards to improve profit margins.

Traditional higher education and the "synthetic" newcomer online education -- like butter and margarine -- will likely coexist for decades, but the rich flavor of tradition and reputation is likely to ensure that traditional higher education will be seen as the butter of academia.