By James M. Patterson
I recently wrote here about the unwarranted optimism that the dawn of distance learning brought to higher education in the 1990s. That trip down memory lane might--and probably should--throw cold water on the enthusiasm about online education today. Arguably, the troubles with online education now are no different from those of the old distance learning approach, beginning with the fact that virtual instruction is still a far more costly proposition than most people suppose.
To be sure, employing the Internet as a transmission medium eliminates a bevy of costs associated with 1990s-style distance education, but these were just the tip of the iceberg. Still required are expensive and dedicated broadcast facilities, trained technicians, and camera operators. To the former costs, we must add those of programming, maintaining, and securing a school's online presence at a level comparable to a leading e-commerce site. Worse, today's "customers" are the product of an entertainment media explosion that has heightened their expectations of hypermedia quality. Most universities do not possess the needed expertise - and it doesn't come cheap.
Yet the very fact that dissemination is now possible via the Internet can be seen, surprisingly, as a factor in the steadily mounting cost of university education, online or otherwise. As Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman explain in their 2010 book Why Does College Cost So Much?, advances in technology have made many manufacturing and agricultural products cheaper and easier to produce, ship, and store. However, these very same changes have made college education more expensive because, to learn how these technologies work, students must have access to sophisticated equipment and software, most of which is costly and not particularly user friendly. Requiring an entering class of 500 engineering freshmen to learn MATLAB is a formidable challenge for a university's support staff; to provide adequate support for an entering class of 5,000, and remotely to boot, is a challenge that would stretch the resources and talent of today's best private-sector firms. And every one of these students would need not only an up-to-date home computer, but one capable of running advanced, processor-intensive applications, as well as a speedy Internet connection. It doesn't help that the U.S. lags far behind in the international broadband sweepstakes.
The Medieval Model
The technology factor helps to explain why the most successful experiments in online instruction involve computer science courses, in which most of the tech-savvy students already possess the needed at-home horsepower, much of the software they will need, and the skills needed to solve hardware and software problems without the university's assistance. It's as if they bring their own laboratories with them. The same cannot be said, however, for students in most other majors. A biology student cannot do lab work on breeding fruit flies at home, unless she wants to convert her kitchen or basement. An architecture student cannot have her scale models adequately graded through a grainy webcam built into a laptop. As a result, the university cannot discard the campus or the expensive buildings; to add online instruction means adding to existing expenses, not replacing them. And the expenses will keep on coming, given technology's rapid evolution.
According to its proponents, the challenges facing online education will be swept aside by an online university tsunami that is well underway, as evidenced by a raft of new offerings involving some of the nation's top universities, a new type of course (called the massive open online course or "MOOC") and a new genre of mediating, for-profit services, including Coursera, Udacity, and Khan University. Because the likes of MIT, Stanford, and (soon) Virginia are offering such courses, proponents say, these new ventures will solve the "diploma mill" problem.
Money Won't Go to Universities
What's more, these mediating ventures will supply the technological and content-creation expertise that universities lack, removing the barriers to success. But seldom acknowledged is that offering these courses does absolutely nothing for the involved institutions' bottom line -- nor, indeed, does it lower tuition costs for on-campus students. The business model is still developing, but it appears likely that the course-providing services will make the money, not the universities, which not only provide the content for free but pay substantial service fees to boot.
Do these courses represent the beginning of a genuine revolution, one that is destined to lower the costs of a university education? There is little in the evolving business model to suggest such an outcome. On the contrary, it is far more likely that leading universities conceptualize their involvement with the likes of Coursera as a means of increasing their "brand" as on the cutting edge, as well as showcase their best teaching talent by painting the mill in varsity colors.
There is a crying need to come to grips with the astonishing fact that, amidst all the achievements of American democracy and egalitarianism, a fundamentally aristocratic institution -- the research university -- has not only survived, but flourished. As with all puzzles involving contradictions between American democracy and the persistence of aristocratic values, one makes a good start by turning, not to Turing, but to Alexis de Tocqueville.
The Uses of Uselessness
Fueling the online education movement proponents is not only a drive to lower the costs of instruction, but far more profoundly, a mission to pry knowledge away from elitist institutions and make it directly available to the American people. The problem with universities, they say, is the faculty - the "higher education cartel" who are much given to reflection on utterly useless matters, even as they maintain a stranglehold on the curriculum, blocking innovations capable of producing more useful knowledge and making it more broadly available.
Film, television, and literature provide many characters that personify the faculty's uselessness, such as Dr. Talc from John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, Dave Jennings (played by Donald Sutherland) in National Lampoon's Animal House, and nearly every Oxford University professor found in the novels of Colin Dexter. These characters serve as butts for jokes (or, in Dexter's case, murderers and the murdered) even as they console the consciences of those who root for the demise of the university. As Megan McArdle at the Atlantic Monthly speculates, if online education takes off, then nearly all tenure-track professors will lose their jobs, and, eventually, all non-elite universities will close, since only MOOCs from elite universities will be worth taking. If McArdle is right and an entire workforce disappears from the marketplace, then one can take consolation that at least those tweedy, scotch-soaked Lotharios of campus freshmen naifs had it coming.
None of this would have surprised Tocqueville. In spite of his evident sympathy for American democracy, he saw signs of a coming cultural conflict, one that would inevitably arise from Americans' preference for practical, useful knowledge capable of benefitting the People, as against the useless, elitist, and time-wasting "meditations" upon "first causes" of university dons, who could not be bothered with real-world applications. To be sure, Tocqueville concedes that the knowledge produced by universities is "haughty" and "sterile."
Such seemingly harmless activities might be tolerated in Europe, Tocqueville believed, but they ran up against the grain of American practicality. Abetting the early nineteenth century American distaste for such "meditations" is not only that they seemed utterly useless, but also because they were fundamentally aristocratic. They were produced by the "few," Tocqueville observed, and comprehensible to even fewer. In place of the theoretical meditations and quests for "first causes" characteristic of English and European thought, the American intellectual agenda might be set by a "crowd" characterized by a "selfish, mercenary taste for the discoveries of the mind" - a very different matter indeed from the "disinterested passion that lights up the hearts of the few."
The Conflict Tocqueville Foresaw
Yet there would be a price to pay, Tocqueville believed, if Americans rejected forms of knowledge that ran so strongly against their egalitarian, practical values. However useless and "haughty" theoretical meditations might appear to those of a practical and egalitarian mind, the social origins of such ideas imbues them with a kind of back-handed virtue. Mindful of their own greatness, aristocrats could hardly help but to conceive of "very vast ideas" concerning the "dignity, power, and greatness of man" - and what is more, they had the leisure time to ponder the underlying causes of the phenomena surrounding us. Such ideas "facilitate the natural spark of the mind toward the highest regions of thought and naturally dispose it to conceive a sublime and almost divine love of truth." A society's governors must never forget these ideas, nor the habits of mind that produced them, lest they open the floodgates to ruin. Tocqueville reminds the reader that empires do not always fall the way Rome did; he looks to early 19th Century China as an example of an empire that fell by ceasing to innovate. The Chinese developed new ideas but made them traditional and inviolable, so that meaning to honor them meant to repeat them rather than improve on them. The democratic impulse in America demanded the same thing--to produce on the basis of existing ideas rather than do the hard, slow work of the few to innovate on them. And if Americans wished to be their own governors, it follows that, despite their commitment to democracy and egalitarian values, their bold experiment's survival might well depend on their capacity to think like aristocrats.
The cultural conflict Tocqueville foresaw did not happen in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, thanks to a development that reconciled the aristocratic values of universities with America's practical, egalitarian values: the rise of the professions in the mid- to late nineteenth century, a period which saw the founding of nearly all existing professional societies. Professionals could lay claim to high social status and monetary compensation on the strength not only of their prolonged, arduous education, but also their preliminary studies in the liberal arts - studies that "detain the mind in theory," as Tocqueville put it, producing a "disinterested passion" for the truth as well as the capacity to deal ethically with a client.
What the Campus Layout Tells Us
The layout of today's research universities attests to the success of this development. At their center is a small section characterized by quaint, older buildings - the remnant of the university as it stood in the early nineteenth century - in which one is likely to find liberal arts departments. But ringed round this architectural and philosophical survival are the professional schools, inhabiting much newer (and, at most universities, far more luxurious) facilities. It is no accident that the products of these schools--engineers, MBAs, nurses--see in their fields the greatest benefits of new technologies (yet, as students, see little of the costs). With the rise of the professional schools, we now see the larger cultural conflict Tocqueville anticipated on a small scale: the old aristocratic schools, armed with prestige, tradition, and legitimacy against the new democratic schools, armed with patents, profit, and donors.
The result is not war but a stable, mutually beneficial detente. The benefits are obvious. Most faculty in the "useless arts" such as philosophy, art, political science, and abstract mathematics actually produce great work. The application of their work, however, is not immediate and always subject to long, tedious, and often inscrutable debate. Successful ideas diffuse from specialists into the general academic world, where business schools pick up on the works of Friedman, Keynes, and Hayek. Computer science and engineering can take advantage of advanced mathematics and physics. Law schools, leadership schools, and public policy professionals benefit from discussions coming out of philosophy, political science, and sociology.
Critics of American universities look at the aristocratic schools through eyes of the democratic ones, imagining that the realm of liberal arts professors - the likes of Talc and Jennings - characterizes the lot. However quaint, inefficient, aristocratic, impractical schools of liberal studies might appear to their critics, they are by no means perpetuated by the tenure system, mindless custom, radical politics, or the self-interest of liberal studies faculty themselves. At most universities, the reality is simply this: the professional schools call the shots because they have the money. And because the professions rely upon intact schools of liberal studies for their societal legitimacy, these schools are likely to survive the coming "tsunami" unscathed - and quite likely, unaltered. The arrangement is much like the one the Founders wanted between the Senate and the House, which is a sufficient reason alone to support it.
The Future of More of the Same
Throughout the 1990s, distance learning served one purpose very well--providing education over long distances to people who had no access to it otherwise. Today, these courses still help teachers and professionals acquire advanced degrees, police officers pick up required college credits, and for others to take particular courses that piqued their interest. Professional schools succeeded with distance learning because of high student motivation. Law enforcement and continuing education succeeded, when it succeeded, because of the high accessibility and low intensity of the coursework. In either case, the courses added another purpose to the university in America rather than replace the university altogether.
Online education will do the same. Universities will offer online courses, MOOCs and more conventional varieties. They will serve the existing purpose of marketing the university "brand" as tech-savvy, relevant, and engaged in student learning. It is no accident that "How Things Work" is one of the three courses the University of Virginia has opted to include in its Coursera package. Lou Bloomfield, the course instructor, has a gift from dramatizing scientific principles behind technology. His course is sure to be a hit, but "How Things Work" is also known at UVA as "Science for Humanities Majors" because of its relatively simple concepts and light workload. "How Things Work" will fall into a "continuing education" model for courses. The more advanced computer science courses already coming out of Stanford and MIT fall into the "highly motivated professionals" category, as most who take the course are already students, instructors, or working in the field.
These courses, and other like them, are great for serving the purposes they already serve. However, we should be careful not to become too consumed with their novelty, or, to paraphrase Tocqueville, the spark of a superficial idea. These sparks are too dim to keep civilization enlightened, but they may ignite a few new flames on the way. They will do so with a financial cost to protect existing prestige.
More fundamentally, Americans cannot mistake new technology as a replacement for slow, hard work of thinking about the fundamental principles of meaning and matter, and they cannot give in to the resentement for university professors as an undifferentiated class of latte-sucking, Chablis-guzzling, Prius-driving, Diane Rehm-praising, "you-did-not-build-that" nodding academic types. As a democratic people, Americans are most prone to running roughshod over useless ideas and those who think them; and, because we are a democratic people, Americans have the most to lose if they do.
James M. Patterson finished his dissertation at the University of Virginia in May and. will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University in the fall. In addition to writing about higher education, he does research on religion and American politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.