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