College on the cheap

Lughnasa                                                                  College Moon

If you read articles about higher education, you will have noticed an ongoing debate about its future. Will there be brick and mortar campuses? This is the same debate that retailers have as online sellers, especially Amazon, but many others, too, among them Walmart, batter the solid walls of American shopkeepers. Will there be brick and mortar businesses at all?

In both cases a process called disintermediation is at work, that is, removing the intermediary between the deliverer of goods and the end customer. In the case of retail businesses economies of scale, snappy delivery and vastly increased inventory (or at least access to inventory) tilt the momentum right now toward the online seller.

In higher education the internet seems to provide the same threat. The MOOC, the massive open online course, threatens to broadcast the best teachers to a wide audience, free. Even inversion, a variation on online education where professors lecture online and then classes meet to discuss assignments and raise questions, could, in theory be used to teach massive numbers of students at the same time.

Rather than elimination of the state university, the less prestigious private schools and community colleges the more likely result is a new paradigm altogether, one that uses the advantage of the best educators broadcast widely and cheaply and the advantage of the brick and mortar campus in delivering the moratorium years.

Education is not, for most, a solo affair. It involves rubbing up against others, their ideas, their prejudices, their spark. And the moratorium years-that time between the teens and full adulthood (which seems to be stretching out longer now)-in our culture need to take place away from home.

The best content offered at the most reasonable price should be a boon to all institutions of higher learning. Maybe the brick and mortar experience is shorter or taken in more discrete chunks. What’s magical about three quarters or two semesters? Why does it all have to be in the same location? Why not two years here, one there? Or two months in the city, two in the country. Or a season abroad, then a season back home. Why not mixtures of all this for the stay at home learner, the adult for whom education is, or at least can be, a solo affair?


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