August 12, 2012

Big Troubles Ahead for Online Learning


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 jmp3r@virginia.edu.

Comments (11)

Bill Reeves:

You are right that most colleges will never make it in distance learning. Just like most live theaters died when movies emerged. A feature motion picture was and is far more expensive to produce than a local play, requiring scarce technical skills.

But it only has to be produced once. And since it can use the best actors (teachers) its quality far exceeds that of the local thespians.

Distance learning will result in a massive consolidation of the 'lecture' and 'exercise' part of education. And just like the live theaters were converted to showing movies, most schools and colleges will convert their role to one of coaching, labs and team interaction.

But there will be a lot fewer 'actor' (aka: professor) jobs.


A University classroom provides a student with a place to be stupid in front of a small audience. An internet course makes one's stupidity instantly public for a wider public. The virtue of University education was that in its best form it provided a safe space for young minds to test ideas through vigorous discussion. Political correctness has wrung much of that intellectual play space from the modern campus. Internet course work will wring the rest. You cannot have meaningful and engaged dialogue with a thousand of your classmates over the space of a continent (or maybe more) with a keyboard and the little camera fixed at the top of your MacBook as your means of communication. Intimacy and trust is lost. Distance learning, when done well, allowed intimacy because communication still took place largely among a small group (who you could number as friends). The internet world is entirely different. Folks who recall the early days of AOL instant messaging will remember (fondly) that anonymity was the liberating element that made the mode of communication so delightful. There can be no anonymity in a classroom. Further, with internet communication a student's young indiscretions and errors will forever be memorialized in some electronic record. What timid young voices will speak up when every word is recorded forever? And when those words are sent everywhere?

Nathan Raye:

The author claims: 'Most faculty in the "useless arts" such as philosophy, art, political science, and abstract mathematics actually produce great work.'

This is obviously false even by the academy's own terms and devalues the idea of greatness.


An article filled with unsupported opinions and philosophical arguments does little to further the premise stated in the title.

Yes, there are costs associated with distance/online education. But what are the numbers? Simple math would tell you that at almost any cost point, it will be profitable for provider once they have enough subscribers. Is it 10/class, 20, or 100? That is the point afterall, isn't it?
At the end of the day, online/distance education will happen once acceptance of the approach reaches a level that well exceeds the cost of providing it.
And this acceptance is growing. You provide nothing to dispute that. Therefore, at some point in the future, distance/online will become profitable enough that more providers will enter the market space. Competition will follow and distance/online higher education will take off like a rocket. That's how every market works. Failing to recognize that is a fatal flaw....just like the geniuses that predicted home computers would never take off.

John C. Gardner:

Seems to me this article bemoans the fact that "on-line" offerings replicate the range of difficulty found in course offered on physical campuses; from "ticket punching" courses such as "How Things Work" for humanities majors to more difficult courses in areas such as engineering and computer science for highly interested students with the requisite foundation knowledge. Seems to me the more relevant question is why various colleges view their students as "customers" whose lack of motivation is the institutions' problem to solve.

As for the business model points made, the author is concerned about how traditional campuses are not making money from on-line courses and "must" continue to make their traditional offerings in the old way. The money issues could be solved by adopting the money making model(s) used by commercial on-line teaching organizations and using on-line offerings in lieu of traditional courses rather than as an option.


What excites me is that every class in the future will be taught by a superstar in their field instead of some bored grad student or professor who really would rather be somewhere else than teaching Economics 102 or American History 201 for the eleventeenth time. Classes will be elaborate productions with CGI effects, interactive course materials, etc., just like a movie can offer infinite possibilities as compared to the local community theatre. I predict that there will be a wholesale substitution of internet education for the traditional professor and students in a classroom. That spells real bad news for the tweedy set.


He writes: "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."

But as the writer probably knows, education is not at all "dissemination of information." Education is training in the use of the mind. Education produces more and more sophisticated skills of thinking, argument and writing--and all of these skills make sense mostly in the context of a small group of real human beings, in the flesh, in the same room with each other.

You attend a college in order to hang out with much more educated people, and to learn what that kind of community is about, what a solid discussion is, and how men and women with trained minds deal with things, and in particular how they deal with YOU. None of that is dissemination of information. It's dissemination of intellectual habits, perhaps, but I can't see how speed of light internet connections will affect that. Dissemination of intellectual habits has to be done collegially; the less-formed mind has to encounter the more formed mind, in person. Mirror neurons are probably involved, I suppose.

Look at all the moronic, not to mention dim and vicious comments disseminated instantly electronically these days. There's the counter to any argument that the speed of dissemination affects anything.


What happens, happens despite our best efforts to guide events to our tastes. The future of higher education will probably look differently than any of us imagines it. But the likelihood that the current model, a last remnant of the Middle Ages, will survive is held by a wide audience to be in doubt. It is both beset by the greatest technological changes since the invention of moveable type and economic unsustainability. It is likely to be altered in some undeniable way. A liberal education will still be possible, and the fact that it is still being acquired by children every day with the aid of a combination of books, media and the internet with only minimal guidance from a few mentors brings into question the probability that it will also continue to require the services of tenured faculty ensconced in scattered ivory towers. The only defense the current establishment has is credentialing and signaling, and soon these monopolies will come under attack because of our darned democraticness.

Walter Sobchak:

This more academic whistling past the graveyard. The one where the Academy buried the humanities under a pile of PC nonsense.

"A biology student cannot do lab work on breeding fruit flies at home, unless she wants to convert her kitchen or basement."

Shows you what you know about modern technology.

"Most faculty in the "useless arts" such as philosophy, art, political science, and abstract mathematics actually produce great work"


At that point I quit. Nobody thinks that a majority of the faculty any of the liberal arts do any work at all, let alone "great work".

If Mr. Patterson is typical of the current crop of PhD's, the academy is in a lot more trouble than I thought it was.

I will also rap the commenters:

"You attend a college in order to hang out with much more educated people ..."

Most of the kids in College today are there to drink and screw. The only topics they want to study are human reproductive biology by braille, and topics in applied zymurgy.


I really don't understand why political science wold be considered a useless science. What other way can our political actors form policy? It seems to be more useful than experimenting in bioengineering or something that won't produce real results for decades!
Philosophy has always been at the forefront of human thought, it might be going through a slump but then again so has its budget.

I always thought that universities were meant to be places to get educated...not to become some engineering lap dog who knows nothing but how to make pretty bridges.

I was going to read this long article when I came across this howler in the second paragraph: " Still required are expensive and dedicated broadcast facilities, trained technicians, and camera operators. ". So I checked the date on the entry - August 16th, 2012. I developed an online learning programme in 2002, that's 10 years ago, using a conferencing system for live classes. Faculty could use the system on their own, from work or home, and give quite effective live classes. Faculty like it, students liked it and it has since grown to 900 students. This leads me to think that Mr. Patterson is not well enough informed to write this article. He may well have made some good points further down the article, but I'm too busy to risk it. I think I'm likely to find more informed sceptical articles elsewhere.

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