The current zeitgeist in higher education is to leverage technological solutions—generally some combination of tele-presence hardware and social networking and crowdsourcing applications—to deliver courses online. The motivating question asks society to expand the promise of quality education to the masses that expect its provision. A multitude of entities, some of which grew out of brick-and-mortar institutions of learning, others of which branched out of the ephemera of Silicon Valley, are nobly striving to tackle this problem.
Despite the good intentions, the drive to craft a digital classroom may prove a grave misadventure. Delivering courses online drastically reduces the ever-rising cost of obtaining the fundamental building block of an education: the lecture. Moreover, students in the education marketplace are attracted to a budget Harvard, Yale, or Columbia experience, even if it is constrained to a digital simulacrum. But taken together, these two qualities make the actions of the elite institutions to “democratize” (a term carelessly bandied about) their course offerings troubling for struggling colleges and universities around the country.
Imagine a student evaluating whether to pay for a course load at the hypothetical Blue River College. Slogan: As average as they come. In a world where the best Columbia professors beam their lectures online, where a “world-class” curriculum is no longer tied to admission to a super-selective school, the incentives for the student to choose Blue River are reduced to non-curricular and increasingly expensive considerations like campus life and the development of interpersonal relationships.
Currently, the student wouldn’t be able to get a very marketable degree for their online studies. But forecasts indicate that accredited degrees will soon be available from highly regarded, traditional institutions with a significant degree of online-only coursework. It follows that the provision of online courses by elite institutions will dislocate a significant population of students from traditional educational settings into the virtual netherworld.
Even if this likelihood is empirically tentative, we can still wonder at the philosophical implications. Unfortunately, educational leaders, entrepreneurs in the market, and consumers demanding new products, have failed to see that the problems facing higher education aren’t borne from a lack of offerings outside traditional institutionalisms, but rather a lack of quality and outcomes deriving from a significant subset of those settings.
In countless colleges and universities—the ilk of Blue River—a latent capacity exists for improved educational outcomes. For example, we might ask, what separates Blue River from Columbia in terms of the value of the education? The primary factor is the quality of instruction, and all the learned skills and bragging rights it supposedly provides. But it is not as though the teachers at Blue River are pedagologically clueless. On the contrary, the percentage of excellent (“gold nugget”) teachers as a proportion of the total faculty is probably not drastically different between the schools.
What separates the faculties are relative rates of activity in the intellectual development of specific fields of study. In simpler terms, Columbia professors are more published than their Blue River counterparts. From the student perspective, this difference means that in the classroom, the Columbia professor is better able to navigate the intricacies of the topic literature, to elucidate theoretical debates, to explain the significance and seminality of texts. The average Columbia professor has the luxury of calling upon a deeper resource of personal experience in the scholarship of their field, which amplifies the impact of their teaching.
Given these facts, suggesting that the logical solution is for the Blue River student to resort to a Columbia professor’s online lecture is ludicrous. Even if we concede that the online student and the real-world student might objectively learn the same content, is not the manner in which they learn the material just as worthy of consideration, even if cost comes into account? We ought to be mobilizing the resources currently being thrown at the project of online courses towards a whole different set of priorities.
Namely, how do we provide professors who are less published and less active in their personal research and scholarship the tools to grapple fast moving topic literature? How do we unlock the latent educational capacity of existing institutions rather than trying to spread thin the aura and appeal of schools like Columbia—cheapening and commoditizing the whole promise of a liberal education? How can schools like Columbia help to lead such efforts, lifting their lesser peers rather than cannibalizing or undercutting their legitimacy and threatening their survival?
As we are prone to do, we are marching blindly into the fray, relying on philosophically defunct technocrats to deliver on promises far beyond their current reckoning. Asking a better question is the first step to finding a better answer.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. He contributes regularly to The Canon.