Cultural Psychology

Revisioning Higher Education: Part 1. The Obsolescence of the Modern University

with 4 comments

Antal Strohmayer - The Philosopher's Garden, Athens (1834)

Modern technology has made the brick-and-mortar university in its present form obsolete.

Consider the following. For any given subject (e.g., Psychology 101), there are, in any semester, hundreds of lecturers delivering the course worldwide. The quality of the lecturers will vary considerably. Some will be outstanding and inspiring; some will be bland, uninformed, and unintelligible. Exactly one of these courses will be the best; the rest will be inferior. This means that only a small proportion of students will receive the best possible course. Some will even pay exorbitant sums for the privilege of getting mediocre or bad instruction.

But video and internet technology make it theoretically possible for every student to view the lectures of the best professor!

This produces a kind of paradox:  it is in the best interests of students to, if possible, watch the lectures of the best professor; yet they have paid money to attend inferior lectures and are usually required to do so.   The student truly desirous of quality education would end up watching both lectures!

A second consideration is the monetary value of lectures. We know that, as supply increases, cost goes down — i.e., a  buyers market benefits consumers more than a sellers market. It is inevitable and certain that more and more courses, and ones of increasingly better quality, will be placed online, at lower and lower cost. Already one can buy world-class lectures from The Teaching Company, used, for $50 or less.  Eventually some philanthropist or enlightened government will place university lectures online for free. For a mere $1 million, high-quality lectures for all courses associated with a basic Humanities or Liberal Arts degree could be produced and placed online for fee-less viewing.

At this point, the monetary value of a college lecture would be $0; this would render it absurd for American universities to continue charging students $50k to $100k for a degree.

Would this render the brick and mortar university completely obsolete?  No — it would change its role.  Professors would be freed from the burden of delivering the same lectures year after year.  They could devote their time more to one-on-one mentoring and other types of activity which they and the students would find more fulfilling.

Thus, the role of the university will change.  But to fully understand the nature of this change, we must consider the educational needs of students and society in the coming decades.  This will be the subject of a subsequent post.

4 Responses

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  1. In discussing this topic, I think it’s important to distinguish the
    different purposes which universities serve. In particular, in addition to
    teaching, they certify that their graduates have demonstrated a certain level
    of competence in their respective specialties. Thus, for instance, if a total
    stranger shows up at your doorstep bearing a master’s degree in civil
    engineering from an accredited institution, you can feel reasonably confident
    that this person has the necessary skills and knowledge to determine the
    thickness of beams necessary to support the weight of a structure.

    This dual function explains the paradox you raised in your post: the students
    are really paying to be certified but have to put up with the inferior lectures
    because the only way to obtain their degree is as part of a package deal which
    includes those lecture courses. I can see this changing in the future as the
    certification function gets decoupled from the teaching function. Already,
    some universities are awarding academic credit for life experience. Should
    this practice expand, we might arrive at a situation where a self-taught
    person might show up at a university and, upon demonstrating mastery of a
    subject by taking tests and the like, walk away with a diploma.

    Standardized tests could complement video lectures. As it stands, advanced
    placement exams were designed for students who learned college material in
    a classroom setting in high school, but I think that they could be put to
    other uses. Already, the college board acknowledges homeschooled students, so
    accommodating autodidacts would not be that much more of a stretch. In particular,
    I imagine someone learning a subject by watching a video course and reading a
    textbook, then taking the exam to obtain official academic credit. Taking this
    approach further, one might obtain credit for several video courses. Since the
    first year of a typical undergraduate education is mostly a matter of attending
    huge lecture courses on introductory subjects, many of which are covered by the
    College Board’s AP exams, it should be possible to skip a year this way providing
    that a university’s policy allows students to obtain advanced placement credit for
    a dozen or so subjects, as opposed to just one or two. Based on your figure
    of $50 for an educational video and the going rate of $87 for an AP exam (which
    can be reduced to $57 in the event of financial hardship), this would amount to
    a total of around $1600 for twelve courses, which is at least a factor of ten
    less than a year of tuition. Should this become common, I could imagine it
    going to the next level, where there would be standardized exams offered for
    more advanced courses and a fair number of students would take care of most of
    their course requirements by taking tests on subjects which they learned from
    video lectures and books.


    January 10, 2012 at 10:28 pm

  2. […] The Obsolescence of the Modern University […]

  3. […] first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern […]

  4. […] Modern technology is rendering the brick-and mortar university obsolete says John Uebersax: […]

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