Internet and the demise of academe

A recent article in The Big Money (from Slate) rehashes a prediction that many have been making over the past decade.
The growth of online universities, offering courses that can be taken where and when it is convenient, leading toward accredited degrees, at a fraction of the price for the same degree at a conventional university, will soon lead to the disappearance of the traditional college experience. Universities, with their campuses, highly paid deadwood, er, professors, dormitories, schedules, classrooms, fraternities, sororities, partying and football teams, may soon become a relic of a time past.

Incoherent Ponderer (IP) expresses his healthy skepticism toward such prediction of imminent doom for all of us, arguing (quite sensibly) that online courses are really no replacement for face-to-face education. Moreover, how could anyone sensibly reduce the college experience to classroom instruction, when there are so many other valuable aspects to it, first and foremost the interaction with other students ?

I am not as optimistic as IP or others, though. I do see a problem, and I think that IP’s argument is based on a fundamentally flawed premise, namely that students go to college to get an education, when the vast majority, in my view, go to college to get a degree. There is a profound difference.
America is a very different place from the Italy where I grew up, three decades ago. Only about a quarter of all eligible youngsters would take the college route, and even fewer completed a college education. The vast majority opted to go to work, either right at the end of junior high school (i.e., at the age of fourteen in those days), or after completing a technical high school degree, at the end of which they could work as accountants, machine shop workers, electricians, secretaries, etc — they would learn a trade, in essence.
In America, there appears to be no choice but to go to college. I do not know whether this is the result of effective marketing and lobbying on the part of universities, but a college education is widely regarded as indispensable, within most professions. So ingrained is this notion, so many employers and managers are wedded to this belief, that many experienced, mature workers in their thirties and forties, with decades of experience on the job, find themselves compelled to return to college, often sustaining a significant financial and personal effort, in order to get past this career roadblock.

Let us be clear on one thing: there is no question that a college education, the one for which students spend four years at a university campus, makes one a better person, citizen, and in general a more effective professional as well, in the long run. A completely different issue is whether that education has a direct, measurable effect on the job performance of an entry-level worker, much less of one who has been on the job for years. Is a college education really the best way to become a computer programmer, or interior designer ? And what about all those trades for which there is likely going to be an increasing demand in the decades to come — plumber, construction worker, tailor, carver, electrician, landscaper, cook… These are all reasonably to fairly high-paying jobs, and hardly any of them requires that one go to college.
Indeed, this very point was made by economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in a memorable editorial written for the New York Times over a decade ago, as the millennium was coming to a close. Krugman opined that, much like in Andersen‘s Emperor’s new clothes tale, at some point someone would say “Hey, wait a minute — what do I need this for ?”, and suddenly this collective fixation would end [0]. That will be the day many universities, traditional or online close their doors.
For the time being, however, a college degree is widely regarded as a conditio sine qua non in order to get a job, much less move up the professional ladder.

Given the above, it is not surprising that a (significant) fraction of these students see college not as a place to obtain an education, to enrich themselves intellectually, but rather as a diploma mill, where to acquire some formal credentials, that society has come to regard as necessary. It is not surprising that many of them end up displaying little or no interest for their courses, skipping lectures or falling asleep during lecture (or eating, playing with their cell phones, reading the newspaper…), and generally acting as if learning were really not the point of the entire exercise [1].
It is also not surprising that many of them may find online education a better “bang for the buck”, especially if, with time, human resources offices should pay less and less attention to where the degree was obtained, focusing only on whether the applicant has some college degree.
So, until society starts interrogating itself on the purpose and role of college education, re-assessing it and perhaps coming to the conclusion that much smaller a fraction of its population should be college bound, I expect online universities to make an increasingly significant dent in the “customer base” of institutions of higher learning.


[0] In that editorial, Krugman made the point that America’s richest man is a college dropout.

[1] On numerous occasions I have had students take issue with the content of courses I was teaching, arguing (sometimes vehemently) that specific topics were “not needed”, as they would “never have any use for them on the job”. A wannabe Electrical Engineering major once told me that he did not see why magnetism would be included in the syllabus of the introductory physics sequence, since, as an Electrical Engineer, he was only interested in “the electricity part, not the magnetism one”.

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10 Responses to “Internet and the demise of academe”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    I would like to point out that it is EXTREMELY unfair of you to post a post to which I would like to write a well-reasoned and halfway sensible reply, JUST on the day, when I happen to be incapacitated due to, um, some reasons. (Come on, you do not post THAT often, you could time your posts better…..)

  2. Massimo Says:

    incapacitated due to, um, some reasons :-)


  3. El Charro Says:

    So, until society starts interrogating itself on the purpose and role of college education, re-assessing it and perhaps coming to the conclusion that much smaller a fraction of its population should be college bound

    I think that not everyone needs a college education to be good at what they would do, I have many friends who do not use their degrees at all and to a good extent I think they wasted their time going through the same type of thing as a person like me who decided to go all the way (I mean to go for a PhD).

    On the other hand, I kinda feel the “success” universities have had in expanding their student body is mainly because they market the need for a degree. If people realized only a small fraction of them is college bound, wouldn’t some universities also disappear? Maybe causing the same, although in lower scale, effect that online education could have. Also, educated (and by that I mean those who have gone through college) people are a problem in terms of believing science facts. I don’t want to imagine how bad it will get if a good number of them don’t know to college.

  4. JT Says:

    The completion of post-secondary (i.e. post-quasi-automatic) education is clearly not required for most jobs, but it still serves a rudimentary diagnostic purpose for prospective employers. This is the sociological/economic principle of ‘screening’.

    More importantly, whereas other (perhaps better suited) mechanisms exist to probe such (largely personality and aptitude) characteristics, assigning the diagnostic role to a verification of completion of post-secondary studies absolves the employer of any taint of imputed biases which are in contravention of contemporary social expectations. Such is a ‘sanitary’ screening.

    Whether or not non-traditional tertiary education certificates will be found by employers to have the same diagnostic power remains to be seen. It may even be the case that traditional tertiary education will lose its screening utility if academic standards, as related to application acceptance and subsequent student evaluation, diminish in the esteem of employers (fair or not).

    • Massimo Says:

      I agree with most of the points you make, and so I assume that if employers still regard a college education as an important discriminant among applicants, their experience must be that college graduates perform better (would you be willing to bet money on that ? That employers actually do bother checking that ?).
      If that is the case, and if we really believe that on-campus education is superior, then in the long run employers will have to see that themselves, and thus online education will be no threat to “traditional” one…
      It remains somewhat of a mystery that competent professionals having been on the job for 10, 20 years, feel the need to go back to college to acquire a degree whose impact on job performance seems doubtful.

  5. JT Says:

    Whether or not non-traditional tertiary education certificates will be found by employers to have the same diagnostic power…

    should read

    Whether or not non-traditional tertiary education certificates will be found by employers to have the same (supposed) diagnostic power…

  6. Jason Says:

    Wonderful post. I’ve noticed just the kinds of sentiments that you were (rightfully) indicting, expressed in a favorable light by students themselves, particularly undergraduates. That is, they seem to regard university study as only a minor modification of high school study, and something that one is “supposed” to do before entering the job market – any job market. As such, they are primarily interested in COMPLETING the program, and only secondarily (if at all) interested in actually learning from the experience. These are usually the same folks from whom you can hear the following:

    Your post reminded me immediately of a book review by the zoologist Peter Medawar, which Richard Dawkins called “…possibly one of the greatest negative book reviews of all time.” Medawar says:

    “Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.”

    • Massimo Says:

      Jason, thank you for your comment. I am a bit hesitant in endorsing Medawar’s comment, because I see in it elements of much of the current right-wing rhetoric on education, namely that its access ought not be universal but rather restricted to the “meritorious” ones. While the general principle seems almost a no-brainer, the devil is in the details, namely on the definition of “meritorious”, which is not, in my book, equivalent to “offspring of a wealthy family”.

      • Jason Says:

        Absolutely. I certainly did not intend to align with such right-wing bigotry, but you have an interesting point. Even some of the points you originally made are often echoed (though for diametrically opposed reasons) by the right — namely that “university education is not for everyone”. Good intentioned meritocratic ideas can be all too easily misinterpreted and corrupted if those with a bigoted definition of “merit” attempt jump on the bandwagon with those of us who would never dream of suggesting such nonsense.

        Again I’m reminded of a quote in this vein, this time by Nobel Laureate George Wald. He was solicited by a man with the ludicrous Social Darwinist aim of creating a sperm bank exclusively for Nobel Laureates. He replied, “If you want sperm that produces Nobel prize winners you should be contacting people like my father, a poor immigrant tailor!”

        Those who suggest that merit is comes from wealthy upbringing have obviously not looked at an ounce of data. I’d suggest they begin by comparing George Wald and Paris Hilton.
        : )

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