August 8, 2012

Higher Ed's Non-Revolution of the 90s


By James M. Patterson

Think back. What was the revolutionary technological advance of the 1990s that we thought pointed the way to the future of higher education?  It was "interactive television," of course!

Interactive television was at the center of the revolution in education called "distance learning."  It would connect classrooms within a city, state, or even (with some delay) across the continent.  Employing satellite technology, it had the potential to change utterly the way students learn. With more students learning at once, one could hire fewer teachers, thus reducing costs. Naturally, schools would have to make substantial technology investments to make distance learning possible, but after the initial cost increases, the savings would kick in.

In 1997, reflecting the heady optimism of the time, James Koch, the president of Old Dominion University, wrote a Washington Times op-ed titled "Revolution in higher education," listing six ways interactive television would change higher education:

1.     Students would want "value added" learning, that is, colleges had to demonstrate that they can "add knowledge."

2.     Students would progress regardless of attending faculty lectures.

3.     Students would become "shoppers" for courses delivered to them, rather than going to the university that deigns to accept them.

4.     Students would break free from the faculty cartel on expertise with recorded lectures, commercial short courses, and courses on video tapes.

5.     Universities and other educational institutions would compete much more with each other over who could offer the cheapest, most relevant education to students. 

6.     Universities would simply become inexpensive credentialing institutions, in which they merely certify that a student has the capacity or training to qualify for that university's degree requirements.

For Koch, these changes were part of a "Schumpeterian 'gale of creative destruction,'" a gale that by the end of the essay became a "tsunami... that is rapidly approaching [higher education] as it sits in a kayak offshore."  Koch said, "Some kayaks are going to capsize; however, others will ride the force of the wave, capture its momentum, and surf to shore in style."

Koch identified Old Dominion University as a potential tsunami survivor, since it already had adopted technology that would enable students and faculty miles apart to "see and talk to each other, participate in the same course, access electronic libraries, utilize remote CD-ROM databases, complete experiments and simulations, hand in homework, talk to their academic advisor, view their academic transcript, register for courses, and pay their tuition--all using technology." Because of these numerous changes, Koch predicted that in twenty years, universities would barely exist.

He was wrong, obviously. But why?

A Promise Unmet

At its best, interactive television proved capable only of supplementing a university's clientele, enabling it to extend instruction to relatively small numbers of students who could not otherwise obtain a degree. A pioneer in this field was the University of Virginia's School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), which -- contra the recent allegation by the university's governing board that the institution had been slow to adopt distance learning -- has offered graduate instruction at the master's degree level since the mid-1980s. Targets for these programs are engineering graduates whose employers are willing to foot the bill for the pricey, televised instruction. To do the job well -- and SEAS indeed does it well -- is neither easy nor cheap.

Required are dedicated classrooms equipped with the necessary broadcast facilities, pricey technicians (including camera operators capable of tracking an instructor's move from the chalkboard to the demonstration table), leased satellite bandwidth, and dedicated remote reception facilities.  Nor was SEAS content to permit distance education to wholly supplant on-site instruction. The School requires all students to complete a minimum of one semester in residence, working closely with their academic advisors. The net result of introducing new technology, in sum, was not to improve economic efficiency but rather to introduce all the costs tied to acquiring, supporting, and replacing the needed technologies -- and even so, at least some on-campus residence was needed to ensure a high-quality program.

Even if universities could offer distance education simply by making full use of artifacts and personnel they already possess, there are good grounds for arguing that interactive television would likely increase costs for students and universities alike, not lower them. As energy scholar David Owens has shown, increased efficiency does not necessarily lead to lower costs; a far more likely outcome is increased consumption, so that costs remain high. To remain competitive and attract quality students, universities need to offer a diverse curriculum. It is no accident that colleges over the centuries have gone from offering three major fields of study (medicine, law, and clergy) to hundreds.  Even if established universities were to learn how to deliver instruction more efficiently, they would likely invest the savings in new degree programs rather than reduced tuition.  

Attempts were made, to be sure, to implement Koch's virtual university, but they ran up against a formidable obstacle that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Students and parents alike see Koch's "inexpensive credentialing institutions" in light of a far less flattering term: diploma mills.  Universities - the good ones, anyway - confer social status as well as knowledge, a feat that requires, it seems, a real rather than virtual campus. Tellingly, ODU, in order to shake its reputation as a "suitcase school," has built up its brick and mortar in recent years, adding a varsity football team, a state-of-the-art wellness center, and a bevy of on-campus entertainment and events. Indeed, ODU's investments in its campus and faculty have paid off in increased respect and ranking among prospective students. If students are indeed "shoppers," as Koch saw them, they're shopping for prestige -- and much more.

As the recent history of ODU has shown, entering students do not see themselves engaging in a transaction in which they fork over some money for a credential. The student also wants the connections, traditions, late night discussions, walks on hallowed ground, athletic event attendance and tailgating, Greek and club life, a network of friends who will move with them and support them as the years go by, and comfortable amenities that provide the first taste of independence from parents. In short, economists define colleges as credential-belching machines; students, on the other hand, see college as a rite of passage and, sometimes, apprenticeship in addition to the credential. To discount the cultural and experiential side of college is to engage in willful ignorance.


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.

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