The future of the university

My father recently put money in my son’s college fund. My son has more than a decade before he heads to college, but what a decade that might be.
Already, online educational courses, from primary- and secondary-school initiatives like Khan Academy to university-level work, are not just spreading knowledge irrespective of distance and tuition, but inverting the traditional model. Instead of students attending school lectures and doing homework, the future promises home-viewed lectures, and coaching sessions where instructors help students execute what they learn online.
That the model of university education we’ve used for the last half-millenium will be going through some amazing creative destruction in the next decades seems a sure bet. Schools will merge, downsize, specialize. Some will go out of business. But I think the university, as an institution, has more staying power than many believe.
In the early days of online shopping, new Internet grocery ventures failed while older supermarket chains developed successful delivery systems. In hindsight it’s easy to see why — the chains already had warehouses in each neighborhood, stocked, organized and shelved on an ongoing basis, and with customers coming in too.
The university campus is the supermarket here, already stocked with professors, laboratories, libraries, concert halls, theaters. Students can come and enjoy it as they always have. But maybe not all the time.
Imagine if a university went from two semesters and a lighter summer program to three full semesters, twelve weeks each, with a week break between and an extra week for the end-of-year holidays. Each year’s class would have several cohorts — let’s say four. Every three weeks, only one cohort is actually on campus, going to their actual classes, meeting live with their actual teaching assistants. The rest of the time they are home, attending the online broadcast of the same classes at the same time, with the social support of people they know they will see again in person soon.
Some with particular skills or needs — researchers, athletes, performance artists — might stay for longer periods, but most students just won’t need to. Extension campuses become vastly more versatile, as do internships. With quadruple the student body, the university could halve tuition and still earn twice as much — while offering students an even larger, equally prestigious network.
Meanwhile, those same courses could be offered for free to anyone who wants them, creating a market for new kinds of accrediting and aggregating institutions. You can’t afford to go to Yale? Fine. Take a Yale class, an MIT class, a Stanford class, a Sorbonne class, and cryptography from some retired NSA coders who do webcasts from Costa Rica — then go to your local community college, to get coached and graded by professional educators with more experience and better training than the graduate students most current undergrads really get half their grades from.
It’s a model already in use in hospitals in India, where rich and poor get their cataract surgery from the very same doctors — the poor simply recover in great wards, while the rich get air-conditioned private rooms. It’s a model we all take part in on airlines, where a small number of first-class seats pay a much greater part of a plane ride’s gross revenue.
And who knows? In 2070 my grandchildren may tell my surprised son that they’re sick to death of screens — they’re moving out, to spend four whole years at this new thing: a campus.
My thanks to Elizabeth Steinglass, who suggested this post.

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Anthony Dobranski Posted on

Novelist, writer, game designer, skier.


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