Writing recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey cited the Sloan Consortium’s finding that 3.9 million people—20% of all college students—took courses online in 2007 and that The University of Phoenix now enrolls 200,000 students a year. For-profit Kaplan University shows similar growth, and other college “products” like recorded lectures do brisk business as well.
However, the title of Carey’s column, “What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers’ Decline,” indicates his trepidation about the success of alternative college courses. He sees the struggles of The Tribune company (owners of the Chicago paper and LA Times) and the failure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as harbingers of what awaits universities if they do not adapt to the new business climate. Just as online sources shrink readership, the internet shrinks student bodies, and Cary worries online schools will redirect cash that brick and mortar schools need to survive.
As economic analysis, his thinking is valuable, but it rests on a devastating assumption—that education must make economic sense.
Some aspects of education are marketable. Some are not. It’s true, the end-result—a degree—is an appealing commodity. The promise of better pay and the prestige of new initials often sell consumers on continuing education. But that’s the product and not the process. As long as studying is convenient, as long as students can take classes on their time, as long as assessments like papers and tests are minimal, and as long as classes are not too expensive, too arduous, or too consuming, people who don’t particularly like school can be convinced education is worthwhile.
The trouble is, as a process, getting educated can be uncomfortable and, to sell it, marketers must minimize or ignore its less desirable aspects. For one thing, education is unreliable. Like a drug that may work for some people and not others, schooling may rely more on the patient than the product. True education can’t make any promises about anyone’s capacity to learn or retain information and skills. The success of taking any course of study—at least measured in learning rather than credits—rests on students’ efforts.
This effort often translates as a desire to struggle, a willingness to be tried and tested by the unknown. Grappling with difficult reading and addressing challenging questions are essential elements of face-to-face learning… but how do you sell that?
Some marketers are making a strategy out of telling students, “You will be tried. You will discover thoughts and ideas you never conceived. You will train weak or neglected parts of your brain with difficult and complicated skills and information. You will benefit from these trials.”
But that’s not happening as much as it should.
Instead, online universities promise convenience and getting your money’s worth—in the most craven, materialistic, product-oriented terms, telling consumers they will experience increased earning power or certification when they finish.
And it’s cheaper.
The cost of education seems to be Carey’s chief concern. To be fair, he’s interested in dollars, not in what the growth of virtual education means about what an education should be or do. But he barely musters any defense of real-time teaching,
Some people will argue that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they’re often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that’s far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she’s getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.
If lectures were all there were to schooling, maybe iTunes University would be a suitable substitute to lecture courses. Being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward is handy but won’t matter much if the student has no compulsion to do so. And what’s wrong with being trained to listen the first time around–isn’t that valuable too? A podcast of an Ivy League lecture is appealing because the listener needn’t worry about understanding. You can always come back… if you come back. With these lectures—and some University of Phoenix courses—you can always sidestep personal struggle. Yet these challenges give education much of its value.
Carey laments the economic competition represented by online resources, not the way they may stress education’s convenience and, in the process, fundamentally distort its definition, meaning, and value. He celebrates the forward thinking of Lamar University in Texas for offering a graduate educational administration course (a “cash cow,” he calls it) in coordination with a for-profit online provider and then splitting the profits.
If you can’t beat them, join them? Perhaps it’s naïve to ignore such opportunities—non-profits need money too—but, if colleges are making economic judgments, shouldn’t they examine the cost of that sort of survival? What will survive exactly?
Anyone who’s taken an economics course understands the temptation to see everything in economic terms, as if all value might be charted on a supply-demand graph and every choice resolved through cost-benefit analysis. Educational institutions are certainly not immune to such considerations. They operate in the same world businesses do. But are universities, in the end, purely businesses? If they are and it’s a product their students are buying, why not sell degrees outright?
Maybe you can win the competition with online sources by maximizing the economic advantages of education. Perhaps universities should ask, however, what kind of victory they seek.