Friday, September 11, 2009

The Future of Education

Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham, predicts in Slate today that the Internet will tear apart education much the same way it has affected newspapers. In the future, says Professor Teachout, most classes will be offered online, students will pay by the class, a few big star teachers will get all the money, and the rest of us will be glorified TAs. “Within a generation, college will be a mostly virtual experience for the average student,” Professor Teachout says, and degrees will come from education “aggregators” rather than traditional colleges.

Professor Teachout may be one of the big stars in the new order (well, her webpage at Fordham does say that she is “an immensely talented and creative scholar”) but I’m not buying her theory just yet. If universities just sold educations, there’d be more to it. As Professor Teachout observes, universities incur big expenses that may prove unnecessary in the digital age. If we ran universities on a business basis, employed technology to the fullest degree, and got rid of a few bits of archaic nonsense such as tenure and scholarly research, I’m sure we could deliver education much more cheaply.

But universities also sell their students something else: the reputational value of the degree. An Internet “aggregator” of education services can’t duplicate that easily. Part of the reputational value of a degree comes from just those aspects of a university that the Internet would shed: having faculty who are research stars, not letting just anyone take classes, etc. Face it: if you were making hiring decisions, would your first choice be someone who graduated from a virtual school?

I think the reputational value of the degree is a big part of what universities sell, and I don’t think the Internet is going to erode that so quickly as Professor Teachout seems to believe. And that’s before we get to other things that real colleges offer, such as enjoyment, friendships, networking, and other things that come from actually being in the same place as your classmates.

Well, it’s always dangerous to say that the Internet won’t accomplish something. And in fairness, Professor Teachout does say that the more elite, “brand name” universities will be less affected by the developments she foresees than smaller, less known institutions. And that makes sense: the less reputational value your degree has, the more you really are selling education. But I don’t think my job is going to be outsourced to the Internet just yet.

No comments: