Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Experiences Can't Be eReplicated

I have befriended a creative intellectual who has recently questioned the future of higher education with a pair of online posts ...

"Am I the only person amazed that higher education model hasn't imploded? See the Washington Post article: "

... followed by ...

"Viva la revolution! College for $99/month. Google to enter soon."

And though I respect his visionary abilities and this post will paint me as an old man devoted to the way things were when I was young, I disagree with the postulation that traditional collegiate education is soon to be no more.

I'm old enough to remember back when futurists said the internet would eliminate books, kill bookstores, and antiquate libraries. Certainly, some have perished and perhaps the online revolution has changed them all -- but their widespread demise has never materialized. In truth, only the weak failed to adapt. The nimble have thrived. Such will be the way of the the undergraduate experience -- and that's a that's a saving grace, as its intangibles are too precious to be extinct.

The St. Michael's College viewbook speaks towards such speculation, saying "There is nothing virtual about life on campus, where nearly 100 percent of students make their home. Sure, you'll find high-speed internet, good cell phone reception, and all the necessary technologies that keep you plugged in. But here, you will also discover a genuine community of students where students walk, talk, study, eat, work and play together. You'll feel at home at Saint Michael's."

Meh, you say? Brochure-speak? In truth, if anything, it's an understatement.

I remember the dark night of my sophomore year at SMC, awakened in the wee hours of the pre-dawn to find the RA had let my mother into my room as she carried news that my father had died a couple hours earlier. I remember being hugged by our dorm's elderly janitor while my roommate packed me some clothes he thought I'd need ... I remember the murmur at the funeral home a couple days later when a giant purple bus rolled into little Bristol, VT, and 60 Purple Knights filed off to pay their respects to the fallen father of a classmate. I remember each of my professors helping me find creative ways to maintain my academic standing as I struggled to bounce back from devestation. I remember the Edmundites and the Financial Aid Staff stepping forward with additional scholarships to help keep me in college when the family finances essentially collapsed with the loss of the primary wage earner.

Now I'm a Dad. Two in college (GO SMC! GO NHIA!). That's two at the same time, mind you! Room, Board, and Tuition? Dang. Even with a pair of impressive academic/artistic scholarships, it's not inexpensive. And yet, for my daughters to experience -- first hand -- the kind of in-person, multi-dimensional, awe-inspiring, delicious undergraduate experience that I was blessed to have? Worth it.

Couldn't we eliminate all that brick-based overhead? Why have dorms? Why bother with classrooms? Couldn't we give the registrants a link and let them learn it online? Can't we make it sexy with a Googley-oogley Facebook-esque simulation of eCommunity for the apparent cyberlearners? Sure - it's technically possible - but so is kissing an android. As for me? I'll take a hug from a teary-eyed janitor over the taste of polycarbonate lips any day.

There. As I climb off this particular soapbox, I think I'll send another donation to SMC and my first to NHIA to help keep their doors open so they'll be there not only for my daughters, but for their nex-gens as well.


Anonymous said...

a well constructed defense out of your heart hope many take time to read it

Dodger said...

Congratulations. You've constructed a straw dog argument to defeat. [SIGH...] No one is saying that electronic learning will wholesale replace the academic institution as we know it [If only!]. A sea change will, however, challenge the bloated, change-averse and inefficient delivery system that education represents today. So let's be fair. For some forms of education, such as rocket science and high end chemistry, institutions of higher learning provide a useful role; their size and scale allows them to purchase labs, and invest in equipment that would otherwise be unattainable. Bravo. That's not the problem. The problem is that Universities don't modulate the pricing dependent on the delivery mechanism. Let's ask a fundamental question: how many of the courses available today in a standard University require these forms of infrastructure? Generously, 12%? I might even give you 20% at the outside. What the revolution will do is not supplant the chemistry labs. The revolution will come as non-education players move into the education field, filling a role that institutions of higher learning have failed to embrace. And let's state the obvious here; academic administration, for anyone who has had any exposure, is rife with the politics of professorships (read: unions). They have taken the last decade to do this; nothing. I'll give MIT and Berkely some credit here, as they post free classes online. They are the exception. This puts on notice 75% to 85% of curriculum that doesn't need this bloated overhead of dorms, pseudo police forces and $20,000,000 dining halls. I quote from this WSJ article ( here:

"The standard explanation is that colleges are spending to improve the quality of their educations to remain competitive. Yet an article by Penelope Wang in Money magazine explains that while tuition prices have soared 459% since 1982, a large chunk of the money is going to building luxury dorms, hot tubs, fancy gyms, climbing walls and gourmet dining halls. The schools are, she writes, “engaging in a luxury arms race, fueled by the wealth of such elite institutions as Harvard and Yale.”

Change [long overdue] will come as the most egregious forms of academic inefficiencies come under attack. The winners: underprivileged children who are priced out of the current academic model, local colleges (think Champlain), and internet based learning providers (Kindle, Google, Amazon). The losers: non-ivy colleges that charge near ivy prices without an equivalent quality education (think UVM vs. Middlebury), people who just spent $40,000 a year for four years for an education that could and should have cost one third that sum, and tenured professors. Viva la revolution!

Dick Harper said...

I had the "we don't need bricks and mortar(boards)" discussion a couple of decades ago with a bright, articulate, home schooled, high school senior who thought college was a waste of time because you can learn more in less time reading. I had the same argument with myself twice as far back.

In one sense, I still agree with my (younger) self but college is far more and far more important than the few facts and little bit of knowledge some fuddy duddy professor shovels into your open brain pan.

It's all about the secret handshake.

Jonathan said...

Everything changes. Usually very slowly.

Anyone looking for a revolution in education is not likely to get one. Look at the prospect of free worldwide education online. Now there's probably a way to do it where those that current make money, can make a living to some extend. But anytime you take away something such as 80k degrees someone has to feel it. This is not the issue in my mind.

Those that still want a prime college name on their cv will still pay $80k.

Mostly, a Google Platform would be doing is providing education to a whole range of people that would not otherwise have it. There are those that currently learn online for free. They're just not given degrees unless they go pay money to a college, with the exception of Canada and other countries.

Eventually, such an open online system could become not only accredited but also respected. That is when it think traditional colleges would worry about losing income. But I would suspect that they'll find ways to have both and colleges have already begun to modernize.

I'm most impressed with Kapland as a new education model for online Universities

Also, when you start seeing super smart lawyers, engineers, and others coming from India and other places around the world where opportunity is more valued, that will also effect the way a "good" education is viewed.

Jonathan said...

I didn't mention it but I also think this idea of prime colleges goes to their branding. Self-taught individuals or those from lesser known universities need a well branded and respected educational platform. I can only think that Google could be that platform were to move forward with an accredited degree provided for free. I also think they're going to have some flak and some criticism, but they're used to that. From search to Google Books. Google University seems like the next logical step.

Please goto project 100 and vote for the free education idea. My suggestion was #2.

Heather said...

Cost of one year tuition to attend Lynchburg College, VA - approx $36,000

Amount earned in grants and scholarships - approx $21,000

Amount for student/family to come up with - at least $15,000

Worth of the experience so far in confidence level, friendships made and improvement of his gift - priceless!