WASHINGTON – Yes, it is official. Traditional universities are about to become extinct. This revolution in higher education is the recent cover story in The Economist: “Creative Destruction, Reinventing the University”, (June 28th – July 4th, 2014). And why are established universities about to disappear? Simply because they follow an obsolete (and super expensive) model that now can be successfully replaced by a new –equally effective but much cheaper– format delivered via the internet.
Displaced by the internet
Indeed, just as old-fashioned media companies have been displaced by the internet, many, if not most, traditional universities in which professors teach a few students gathered in a classroom will be displaced by high quality education delivered to millions through the internet at a fraction of the cost.
Expensive and inefficient model
Here is the situation. A university education, still a coveted goal for millions who aspire to professional careers, has become fantastically expensive –especially in America, where most universities are private– and therefore accessible only to a relatively small minority. In countries where higher education is free, the tax payers bear its total cost.
But what if you could “attend” the very best lectures by watching them on your computer, this way receiving from top-notch professors the same high quality content that you would get by enrolling in the prestigious (and super expensive) university where they teach? Well, you would get the benefit of the same high quality instruction, minus the prohibitive tuition cost.
Best material made available via the internet
Today, this is becoming possible. Yes, we can “bottle” and distribute via the internet the best lectures and related exercises that the best academics now deliver only to the negligible number of students who have the money to enroll in the prestigious universities where they teach.
This being the case, it is obvious that the days of the traditional campus, with all its added costs represented by administrators, financial aid people, athletics departments, cooks, janitors, security staff and landscaping crews, are numbered.
Of course, much needs to be done to ensure quality and to ensure that those who enrolled on-line have actually fulfilled the course obligations and have indeed mastered the material provided via on-line courses. And, of course, in some fields, (engineering, medicine, biology, architecture), there will still be a need for a certain amount of “hands on”, practical training.
Still, even taking all this into account, we are now entering a new era –an era in which millions of people, regardless of country, will be able to access, at a fraction of the old-fashioned college tuition cost, excellent material delivered by first class professors.
Value of interaction
While one should not discount the value of the personal interaction with academics and class mates that occurs within the traditional campus experience, this aspect of a college education can be reduced significantly. For instance, one could envisage a 4 year degree in which you do at least half (or more) of your work on-line, and the rest by attending a university. I assume that experience will dictate the most valuable and cost-effective models.
Affordable bridge to modernity
We may still be years away from the actual mainstreaming of this new way of delivering higher education. But it is coming. Sophisticated pilots are already available. And experimentation is underway all over, from Stanford to MIT.
Imagine the effect of this revolution. In developed countries students and their families will save tens of thousands of dollars. In developing countries that do not even have universities, on-line education will become a powerful bridge to a better future.
Indeed, this new higher education format will allow younger generations to lead these societies into modernity without having to bear the (mostly unaffordable) cost of a traditional, super expensive university education available now to few truly wealthy students who can afford the cost of moving to a developed country.