Will Colleges

Become Obsolete?

In my general education classes I encourage students to form study groups. I asked one student recently about his group.

"Oh, my group isn't on this campus."

I was puzzled, so I pressed him for details.

"I study on the Internet with a couple students in Canada who are taking the same basic course."

"Wouldn't it be easier just to meet with some people in the class?"

He shrugged. "I don't know, they seem to take things more seriously there, and, anyway, it's kind of fun with the avatars and all."

"Avatars?"

He looked at me, seemingly bothered about having to explain something as basic as this.

"They are people on the computer screen that represent the people involved. You can move them around and make them talk. You can look like anybody you want, and you use a virtual reality setting to meet any place you want; inside a neat house, or even on another planet. And, of course, we talk about stuff in the course."

I guess I understand—assuming there's no quiz on it.

At about the same time I had this conversation I read about a group of students in California who took a course on the Internet and did better—far better, in fact—than those who took the same course in the classroom. (The results of an extensive study on this by the Department of Education released in in 2009 can be found here.)

Before anyone brings up the issue of a lack of social interaction with the Internet group, let me add that one of the keys to the Internet group's success appeared to be the electronic (chat room-type) discussion that took place between the Internet students.

Although more study needs to be done before we can make any assumptions about this approach, this report jolted a lot of education-type people into taking the Internet much more seriously.

As we move from today's primitive state of Internet education to the more sophisticated levels, the question arises, will we ever reach a point when colleges (the ones with campuses, dormitories and cafeteria food) become obsolete?

In talking about the coming revolution in higher education, Fay Gale, the President of the Academy of Social Sciences, said, "The bulk of a student's work in the future would be done at home and they would only visit campus to socialize or for occasional intensive face-to-face work with tutors."

What kind of students are we talking about?

  • Those who won't be able to afford the ever-increasing costs of a college education. (If spiraling costs in higher education continue, by the year 2020 the cost of just one year of college at a top private college may reach $100,000.) By comparison, a stay-at-home, eat-at-home, electronic "four-year" degree may only cost a few thousand dollars.
  • Next, are the students who need to quickly prepare themselves for a particular specialized job or profession and don't want to "be bothered by unrelated" general education courses. "Electronic students" can progress as fast as their capabilities allow. Depending on abilities, this pace might be far beyond the pace in a classroom setting. Plus, eliminating the to-and-from-campus commute time will add extra study time
  • Finally, the students whose life style does not lend itself to the class schedule of a campus. This includes those who must hold a full-time or part-time job to survive, and mothers (or fathers) who must stay home and care for children.

There is evidence to suggest that each of these groups will be growing in number in the next decade.

Compared to traditional college students, what would these students be missing?

Assuming that traditional colleges take full advantage of the greater efficiency that electronic studies can provide, students of the electronic classroom will, among other things, miss out on:

  • the social interaction that living away from home on a college campus can provide. (There are those who say that most of what students get from a college education has nothing to do with what they learn in a classroom.)
  • experiencing the benefits of a kind of "halfway house" between home and the world of work
  • encountering a wider and possibly more suitable pool of marriage prospects
  • the ability to do hands-on training in a laboratory setting, or to work with professors on specialized research projects
  • developing skill in competitive athletic events, including an understanding of teamwork

With the exception of the last item, there are those argue that most of these things can to some degree be addressed in cyberschools.

Some of these same people also argue that since most work in the future will be done electronically, either by telecommuting or by computer, the best way to prepare students for this is by developing maximum computer literacy.

Given all of this, and the additional fact that we're bound to see electronic, distance learning developments that we haven't even dreamed of yet, I think we'll soon conclude that cybercolleges can effectively deliver 75 percent of the typical undergraduate curriculum.

What about the other 25 percent?

Possibly it's here, during a senior year, that we should require in-residence course work. Through comprehensive testing similar to master's comps, we could insure that the online work attributed to each student was confirmed in person.

During this year we could subject students to the rigors of in-class discussion, interaction, and what we might call public speaking assignments and presentations.

This "finishing year" would only be offered at institutions with accredited, specialized programs. They would also need to be accredited and monitored for solid testing and evaluation procedures.

Does all this sound pretty radical? Yes.

Would it be vigorously opposed by traditionalists? Yes.

What it may well come down to, however, is basic economics, the very thing that drives and governs change in almost every other area of our lives.



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