Okay, in the headline above, “is” should really be “can be,” and I’ll admit I did some salami-slicing to get the total to 20. My point, though, is to express a bit of skepticism about some recent predictions — by Peter Wood on this blog and by our colleague Jane S. Shaw in the latest issue of our print magazine, among others — that in the next few decades, for-profit online learning will devour most of the market for higher education, leaving the traditional campus-based model as a niche product at best.
I agree that online learning offers many advantages, that its market share will continue to grow, that a central campus is not necessary for many kinds of teaching, and that the present system leads to some unfortunate consequences. But to suggest, as one online business owner told Shaw, that “a complacent higher-education system will not be able to survive competition from hungry entrepreneurs with better operating models,” or to envision (as Wood does, I’m not sure how seriously) a “Great Transition” that “leaves a remnant of residential colleges [that are] marginal to American society,” is way too sweeping. Consider:
1. Not every subject lends itself to online learning — particularly those that require laboratory work, clinical practice, studio learning, musical instruction, live performance, agricultural work, etc.
2. Suppose you grew up in a small town in (say) western Kansas. There will be lots of eye-openers when you get to a college campus, and how would you get all that otherwise? Where else could you meet such a large number of smart people from such varied backgrounds, all concentrated in a small area, and spend all your time among them?
3. Why do people retire to college towns? Because they’re full of intellectual stimulation: music, art, libraries, lectures, sports, etc. College students benefit from these same things, which would not be available in anywhere near such profusion in most other places.
4. Admittedly, college libraries will decline in importance as more materials go online, but it will be many decades before every book in every library is available, and even then there will be collections of ephemera, rare editions, microfilm, etc. that scholars will need to view and handle in person.
5. There is some benefit, in many cases a great one, to isolating people in an academic community where learning is their main purpose, especially if they are unsure of what to study. Highly motivated people could learn in a cave with an Internet connection, but for most students, knowing that learning is their main job is a big motivator.
6. Another benefit is living and interacting with fellow scholars: Think of all those Trotskyists and Stalinists arguing it out in the CCNY cafeteria in the 1930s.
7. There is also value in personal contact with faculty members. Many of us can remember some professor who acted as a mentor, or at least provided advice or inspiration. This sort of thing occurs more often, and is more valuable, in person.
8. It’s rarely made clear, in the various scenarios under which online learning replaces campus learning, where the students would live. Let’s say you have graduated from high school and want to take some online classes. Would you live at home with your parents? In most families, in today’s world, I doubt that either the parents or the kid would enjoy that. That’s why in New York City, for example, places like CCNY, Hunter, NYU, and Fordham that used to cater to commuting students are all madly building dormitories. Our friend the free market shows very strongly that students want, at the very least, a college with a campus, and if at all possible, they want to live there.
9. If, on the other hand, you’re supposed to move out and find a place to live, it’s not clear why that’s better than living in a dormitory. And if you’re supposed to hold a job while taking your classes, that’s just going to make it even harder to keep up. Living on campus lets students spend their time learning without having to worry about punching the clock, furnishing an apartment, cooking meals, etc.
10. Throughout history, with every new communication technology, visionaries have said the same thing: This will revolutionize education and make all our schools and universities obsolete! It happened with printing, the telephone, sound recording, radio, movies, television, and various generations of computers. All these things have proven useful in education, but none has altered its basic form.
11. Online education is not the same product as in-person learning. Seeing and hearing speakers in the flesh, getting one-on-one encouragement, even studying in the library — all these make the experience more intense. Being present at events, interacting physically with others, and choosing the proper surroundings are natural human needs that the simplistic information-transfer model ignores. Otherwise, why would anyone attend a ballgame or a play or musical performance in person? Why hire a personal trainer? Why go to the mountains to paint or write or meditate?
12. The bread-and-circuses aspect of campus learning makes the experience more appealing for many. If you think having fewer college students is a good thing, you’ll want to make learning as dry and severe as possible, but for most students, adjusting to college life (and just to being an adult) is hard, and football, the glee club, visiting lecturers, fraternity parties, and whatever else college kids do today combine to make things a little easier and provide incentive to stay enrolled. Moreover . . .
13. . . . it starts in high school, because the only thing that keeps some kids going is the thought that if they do well, they can go to college. If college is just going to be more of the same, why bother?
14. Classroom discussion can be an important part of learning, and trying to duplicate this experience remotely is at best a poor substitute, as anyone who has ever participated in a conference call knows.
15. It’s also a good idea, for education and personal growth, to get away from the crowd you grew up with and find a new bunch of friends. And if the people you hang out with are the same ones you’re going to college with (which would not be the case online), they’ll be better friends and you’ll learn better too, partly because . . .
16. . . . if you need help with a math problem, say, or you want to see what someone thinks about your interpretation of Twelfth Night, it works a lot better if you know the person you’re talking to: They’ll be more forthcoming and more generous with their time, and you’ll be better able to decide how seriously to take their views.
17. In the unlikely event that someone entering college ever asks me for advice, I will say: Take as many classes as you can, and spend as much time studying as possible. The reason is that being in college is the only time in your life when you can devote yourself full-time to learning about whatever strikes your fancy. College campuses are designed for this sort of thing; most of your needs are taken care of, you live with plenty of people who are going through the same thing and can provide moral support, and plenty of diversions are available when you need a break. This lets students learn with an intensity they would never be able to manage in another setting: If you spend all your time studying while you’re living by yourself, you’ll go crazy.
18. That said, I do think it’s true that you can learn some important things from participating in extracurricular activities (in addition to being amused or diverted by them). And while clubs, musical groups, sports teams, political organizations, and so forth do exist outside of college campuses, once again, a college atmosphere is particularly well suited to sustaining them.
19. The need to teach students in person (and, in many cases, to house them) puts a limit on the number that can be enrolled at a single institution. That’s why there are so many colleges. Online learning would tend to concentrate instruction in a small number of big companies, so students would suffer from the reduced choice.
20. Finally, campus life helps the conservative cause because it forces conservatives to confront liberal thinking and learn how to deal with it. Liberals, by contrast, can spend their whole time on campus without meeting a conservative. This is why they keep messing up and overreaching when they’re in power, as Obama is doing now: They don’t know their enemy, because they’ve never met him.
Admittedly, most of these problems are surmountable. Instructional laboratories, possibly in mobile vans, could serve the needs of science students; alternative venues could be established where online college students would meet each other in the flesh; seminars could be conducted through teleconferencing; students could meet their teachers at specified times and places; and so forth. It’s possible to devise any number of substitutes and analogues, but at some point it gets to be like writing a novel without using the letter e: It can be done, but why?
To be sure, online learning has a place, and it will grow increasingly important. At least since the days of correspondence courses, people have learned at a distance, and the easier and more powerful it gets, the more learning will be done that way. But the college campus is not an expensive anachronism; it’s an institution designed specifically for scholarship that his developed and adapted over the years to become, for many students and many fields of study, the best way to learn. And for all the reasons listed above, I expect it to remain the predominant form of higher education for many decades to come.