Will Online Education Replace College?

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Will great free courses drive down applications to places like Stanford? That's doubtful. It's more likely that these offerings will help build a stronger university brand. 

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Writing about the success of a Stanford online computer science course in the Wall Street Journal, Holly Finn implies that free Web-based education is about to or should replace elite universities:

It's a thrilling collegiate coup. Last fall, a couple of hundred Stanford students registered for Sebastian Thrun's class on artificial intelligence. He offered the course free online, too, through his new company Udacity, and 160,000 students signed up. For the written assignments and exams, both groups got identical questions -- and 210 students got a perfect overall score. They all came from the online group.

I agree that the experiment has been a smashing success, and it's wonderful that people all over the world have been able to benefit from the course and in some cases to excel enrolled Stanford students, already an elite group. But doesn't all this really prove not the obsolescence of the traditional academic model but its newly enhanced value? If there's any newspaper that has stood for the Heinlein principle that there's no free lunch, it's the Journal. Why has so much knowledge been diffused? Because Stanford spent over a century building its programs (especially under Fred Terman), bringing in Federal and corporate dollars, building ties with faculty and student companies, and of course charging a high but widely discounted tuition -- making it a model for other elite and would-be elite institutions.

A well-run university is a machine. And as a saying used to go, attributed to a boss of my native Chicago, "Thank God we're a machine. If we lost, we'd be an organization." The old big-city machines served the interests of the powerful, but they stayed in power by delivering services to the 99 percent. And private universities could indeed share their fate if they're inflexible. But actually they're highly sophisticated and adaptable, or else so many high-school students and their parents wouldn't be going to such great lengths to get into them. It's actually the public universities that have been bureaucratically hidebound, passing up opportunities under their noses. As Bill Breen has written in Fast Company, it was Stanford's chief fundraiser who helped John Sperling launch a new style of education:

In 1972, he was chosen to run a series of workshops at San Jose State that would prepare police officers and teachers to work with juvenile delinquents. He built the program around some of the same pedagogical tools that he would later employ at the University of Phoenix: He brought in teachers who were experts in their fields, divided the class into small groups, and challenged each group to complete a project. He was surprised when the enthusiastic students lobbied him to create degree programs. Which is exactly what he did.

Sperling sketched out a curriculum for working adults and pitched it to the academic vice president at San Jose State, who promptly slapped it down. "My university said they didn't need no more stinkin' students, that they had all they could handle," Sperling acidly recalls. "They told me to go back and behave -- be a professor." Naturally, he ignored that advice. Even though he held business in contempt -- as would any right-thinking, left-leaning humanities professor -- the marketplace intrigued him. And he sensed an enormous market for degree-based programs targeted at working adults who were anxious to take the road to higher education.

Gambling that he could take the adult-education curriculum that San Jose State had rejected and make it succeed elsewhere, Sperling set about putting his ideas to work. He sought out the vice president of development at Stanford University, a man named Frank Newman, who threw a dash of reality onto his ambitions. Newman warned that educational bureaucracies innovate only out of fiscal desperation. In a letter, he advised Sperling to "find a school in financial trouble and convince the people running it that your program will generate a profit." Sperling found the University of San Francisco, a cash-strapped, Jesuit-run institution that became his first client.

And none of this is really new; it goes back to the university extension movement of over a century ago and to project like Harvard President Charles W. Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf of Books, read by Malcolm X in prison.

Will great free online courses like Thrun's drive down applications to places like Stanford? To the contrary, I think they will increase competition to get in, just as electronic music helped live concerts and online art museum galleries make most people more eager to visit and see the actual original, even when (as with the Mona Lisa) security measures mean that they could see it more clearly on line or in a printed book.

Instead of bashing higher education some Journal contributor should study it as an example of an institutional survivor that weathered the crises of 1893 (during which the University of Chicago was founded), 1929, the Vietnam era, 1970s stagflation, and the continuing recession. How many other great organizations have continued to grow? Online courses, far from the beginning of the end, are another validation of a flexible strategy.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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