Do you remember 2010? Like yesterday? Here’s columnist Froma Harrop on September 21, 2010:
Bill Gates recently predicted: “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
It’s the fall semester of 2015: are we there yet? What does Professor Pushbutton have to say about all of this? How ’bout them learning machines, y’all?
I took the p!ss out of Harrop five years ago when she first wrote about the so-called “high cost of higher ed” so the Online Microsoft Fairy will make it so that you can send your kid up to college in hir room with headphones and a Kindle, so I’m not here to bother her. I’m here to laugh at Bill Gates, who’s rumored now to be sending a daughter (his eldest) to Stanford University, not at the University of Your Guest Bedroom, Khan Academy, YouTube U., or even Arizona State Online.
Color me unsurprised, to say the least. Watch what elites do, not what they say, especially when it comes to education. More seriously, I haven’t hosted a conversation about online education for a few years now, since back when I was getting all of those invitations to share my opinions at conferences and the like. What does the future look like to you?
From my perspective, online is here to stay but it’s far from as “disruptive” as some had promised (or hoped, or hyped.) Just as public libraries and university correspondence courses didn’t magically create successive generations of self-educated autodidacts, so online education and the availability of free MOOCs and TED talks hasn’t either.
Most of my students have taken a few online classes. They serve a need, but at this point, they’re precisely no one’s idea of an ideal way to teach or learn. If a face-to-face class opened up that would meet student needs at a time and place they could get to, they’d take it, and if online proffies would be offered a living wage teaching in F2F classrooms, they’d jump too.
As we learned with retail over the internet, bricks-and-mortar stores had a number of built-in advantages that allowed them to build their presence online more slowly and outlast the fly-by-night, online only competition. (Except for Amazon. Amazon ate the lunches of all of those big-box dominant book stores and media empires we loved to hate in the 1990s, such as Borders, Tower Records, and Virgin Megastores, but they’re not putting the Gap, Old Navy, J. Crew, Target, Sears, WalMart, Bed, Bath, & Beyond, or even those old mall favorites Chess King or Spencer’s Gifts out of business.) Good-bye, pets.com; hello PetCo.
The bricks-and-mortar universities have successfully colonized online education, probably for the better in terms of the education for the students, and only for the worse in terms of the work environment for the faculty who teach there, both online and in face-to-face classes.
We learned this from the retail example, too: online is awesome from the perspective of consumers, and potentially catastrophic from the perspective of laborers: If Amazon can sell what you’re selling for less, you’ll either have to take a pay cut or hang up your spurs.