Data Creep

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

Advancing technology has brought about dramatic change in many industries. The transportation industry today looks nothing like the transportation industry of a century ago. The same is true of medical science, communications, the production of food, and so on. But what about higher education?

For the most part, college teaching today is done in pretty much the same way it was done a century ago. Indeed, it’s done in pretty much the same way as in the day when Socrates taught. Sure, technology has made some inroads at the margins – professors today are apt to use power point presentations rather than blackboards, and if a student loses his syllabus, he can get the information online – but nothing essential has changed.

If Yale computer science professor David Gelernter is correct, however, a technological revolution is just around the corner, a revolution that may bring about a sea change in the way the higher education industry works. Writing in the November 28 issue of Forbes Professor Gelernter entitles his piece “Who Needs a College Campus?” It is a thought-provoking piece that everyone concerned with education should read.

Gelernter begins,

Software and the Internet can already deliver a course in chemistry or
Christianity, Shakespeare or videogame design to your home computer.
Soon someone will standardize the software and the structure of college-
level courses delivered electronically. When that happens, the world of
online teaching will blow wide open. The wide-ranging choices, the
convenience and the cost savings will make the difference. The result
will be a true free market in higher education that will turn the world of
colleges and universities upside down.

Choice, convenience, cost – higher education certainly lags behind other markets in those respects. Today, students enroll at a particular institution and then have to select among the course offerings there, and still often can’t get the exact course or professor they want. They have to take courses at the times when they meet. And the cost – suffice it to note that parents frequently have to take out second mortgages to pay for college degrees for their children. While we never know ahead of time exactly how markets develop under competition, it’s fascinating to contemplate Gelernter’s vision of the future.

“The big change,” he writes, “will happen when all teachers and scholars have direct access to the market. Educational entrepreneurs will patch together courses from many contributors….A market will liberate all sorts of neglected educational assets.” A student might at one time take courses from a chemistry prof at MIT, an historian at Penn, an expert in music theory at Juilliard and an independent Shakespeare scholar. It would be like shopping online for books as opposed to being limited just to the inventory in a particular store.

Well, how would students know what courses are good and which a complete waste? They don’t necessarily know that now – just because Professor Jones teaches a class in an accredited university doesn’t guarantee anything about its intellectual worth – but Gelernter is surely right in forecasting the emergence of online rating services for courses that will help to separate the wheat from the chaff. In fact, as more and more information accumulates about available courses, the tendency will be for the better to drive the poor ones out of business. That’s how competition works.

Students might use online courses to enhance the education they can get at the schools where they are enrolled, or they might not actually enroll anywhere. The idea that a college education has to be attested by a degree from a particular institution may give way to the idea that knowledge doesn’t have to come packaged as a degree from a specific school. Again, Gelernter speculates on the future: “A thriving electronic-course market will encourage the rise of degree-granting organizations independent of universities They’ll inspect a student’s credentials, administer thorough tests and issue (or refuse) a new-style B.A.”

A serious objection to the rise of online education is that students can’t interact nearly as well with the professor. True. “Computerized courses will never be as good as small seminars with first-rate teachers,” Gelernter acknowledges, “but they might be better than big lectures with mediocre teachers.”

Competition always has beneficial results and if Professor Gelernter is right, higher education is about to get a big dose of it.

George Leef is the executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.