Universities haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages. There is the campus with its lecture halls, dormitories, libraries, and laboratories surrounded by leafy quadrangles. Well, they’ve added giant sports complexes, gyms and swimming pools, and gourmet restaurants, but the basic layout is the same. And the production process hasn’t changed since around 1200. Professors give lectures, students read books and take notes, there are examinations and grades, along with the occasional tutoring session, and a great deal of hanky panky. The professors wear tweed jackets instead of gowns, and the students wear – well, just about anything, including pajamas – but otherwise the university remains one of society’s most conservative institutions.
This has all been challenged, quite radically, in the last decade, as students, parents, taxpayers, and donors have begun to grasp the potential of the internet for revolutionizing the education industry. Distance-learning has been around for a long time (what used to be called “correspondence courses”), but the internet has made it possible for people to educate themselves, independently or in groups large and small, on an unprecedented scale. Startup companies, sometimes unaccredited, are entering the education space as never before. Alternative providers and platforms such as Khan Academy, TED, and the Mises Academy are offering modular, flexible, and specialized alternatives to the medieval model that continues to dominate the establishment universities. And everyone is talking about MOOCs, “Massively Online Open Courses,” offered by standalone firms or in partnerships with established universities.
The early — and predictable — reaction of the traditional universities was to denounce the entrants as cheap, inferior, fly-by-night operations. “They don’t offer real degrees!” “They don’t provide a high-quality education like we do!” Actually, some of the startups offer extremely high-quality products. Others don’t, but so what? Why should “higher education” correspond exactly to a four-year degree from Yale? Why can’t it be better, or worse? A Hyundai isn’t a Mercedes, but that doesn’t mean everybody has to drive a luxury car. And in many cases a shorter, more specialized – not to mention cheaper – curriculum is vastly superior to the bloated, politically correct, and increasingly irrelevant program offered by many of the prestige institutions.
Lately some traditional universities have been trying a new strategy, namely trying to incorporate the best features of the new platforms into the established models, a sort of Borg-like, assimilation strategy. An article Slate describes this trend, focusing on a “flipped” model in which students watch lectures at home, online, and do problems and exercises in class, with the help of instructors and classmates. I personally like the flipped model a lot and often use these techniques in the classroom. Some concepts are better taught using the lecture format, but why should I perform it live, and why should the students get it from me, if there is somebody else out there on the internet who can do it better? I’d rather spend my time working with the students alone or in small groups, after they’ve mastered the fundamentals. But therein lies the rub. The expensive, cumbersome, and rigid university structure is not particularly well suited for the flipped model. Most highly paid, tenure-track faculty aren’t trained to be in-class coaches and problem solvers. They may not be good at it – after all, they were trained to give lectures. Often there is little connection between their research and this kind of classroom activity, at least for undergraduate education. The coaching sessions can themselves be organized by lower-cost entrants, like the MOOC providers or community colleges or other local groups. You don’t need a huge university campus with a library, dorms, and football stadium to organize problem-solving sessions, and you don’t need overpaid professors to do it. There are exceptions – like graduate business schools that specialize in case-based instruction from highly-qualified discussion leaders (typically “clinical” professors who are former executives) – but in general, most scholars with PhDs are superfluous in this model.
If we had a free market for education, we would probably have far fewer schools, institutes, and programs, and we’d have a lot more diversity of structure and content. Sure, there would be some elite academies filled with top scholars who do research and train the next generation of top scholars. But we wouldn’t have thousands of universities copying that same basic structure at high cost and with little benefit.