Beware the Doyens of Disruption
They’re back, telling us again that the age of online education is here. Don’t believe the hype.
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Or is it? The prediction that campus life is over has been made before. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the doyens of disruption were certain that the cost structure of higher education, combined with the ubiquity of technology, would quickly lead to the replacement of the campus quad by the computer screen; the idiosyncrasies of university cultures would be flattened into more affordable and more standardized fare. In The Innovative University, Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring foresaw that colleges would go online or disappear; Kevin Carey predicted the “end of college” in a book with that title. One thing is certain, announced the blurb for Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)bound:“the Class of 2020 will have a radically different college experience than their parents.” (Selingo is a former editor of The Chronicle.)
Now we’re being told that the age of online education envisioned by the technophiles of the previous decade has finally arrived. Online has come into its own. Coursera reportedly added 10 million new users from March to May. Skill-based classes that provide a badge to show to a prospective employer are increasingly popular (again). But enthusiasts overlook the fact that this online innovation is being driven not by a desire for distance learning, but by fear of a contagion, which will pass.
I am not a reflexive online-learning skeptic. Indeed, I was an early adopter, pushing years ago to develop online classes at Wesleyan University for Coursera. I’ve had more than 100,000 students in my Coursera classes, and during the pandemic about 1,000 new students have enrolled each week.
There are important advantages to allowing students to follow lectures at their own pace and enabling them to interact with classmates from around the world. So, when we sent most students home from Wesleyan, in March, I knew I could reach them despite the fact that they were dispersed. But over the past few months, I missed being in the same room with them. The routine opportunities for spontaneous interactions on campus just didn’t happen on Coursera, and they weren’t going to happen via Zoom. My Wesleyan students were doing the work (remotely), and their work was good, but they were feeling deprived of something fundamental.
And that’s what students have been feeling across the country. They are clamoring to get back to campus, and many are saying that if their colleges are fully online in the fall, they will take a break and find something else to do. Meanwhile, pundits are predicting that college will never be the same, and that after hundreds of colleges fail for financial reasons, the ones that remain will, for example, team up with big tech companies and be fully remote. Having failed to predict the impact of the great dislocation after 2008, higher-ed watchers are now convinced more than ever that the future belongs to online learning.
The desire of bright young people for an on-campus education remains strong.
It is true that students in search of more-affordable education have already chosen online itineraries. And some have chosen hybrid or low-residency models that combine online and in-person experiences. Such models can offer flexibility as well as a more economical path toward a diploma. For decades now, experiments in access and price points have enabled millions more students to take courses from classics to calculus, creative writing to computer science. I expect that when colleges reopen their campuses (in the fall, I hope), they will have hybrid models so that online education can supplement what happens on campus. In some cases, these models may reduce the time to completion, allowing colleges to lower their tuition charges.
But to the frustration of some of those who populate think tanks, technology centers, and business schools, these experiments have not proved fundamentally “disruptive.” The desire of bright young people from all over the world for an on-campus education remains strong. Unless you have been drinking the disruptors’ Kool-Aid (or is it now hydroxychloroquine?), it should be clear that the disappointment of students this spring isn’t because the features of Zoom aren’t cool enough. It’s because they recognize that carving out a space and time for learning together in a setting that amplifies understanding and inquiry is deeply satisfying. It’s because the bundling of research and teaching, athletics and the arts, classes and social life makes learning deeper and more fulfilling. It’s because the connectivity among people and practices that takes place in person intensifies the learning experience. And it’s because they look at alumni and trust that this intensification on campus empowers lives beyond it.
Colleges and universities, notwithstanding their traditions and rituals, have been environments of change for hundreds of years. When the pandemic recedes, they will continue to evolve. But they will do so while recognizing the abiding advantages that come from being on campus in the company of mentors and fellow students.