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Online college? Good idea, but is it the beginning of the end | Roger Schank

Online college? Good idea; but is it the beginning of the end?

Universities are deciding to go online these days. One has to ask what we lose if they do. Might students actually win?

Twenty years ago I was responsible for creating an online version of Carnegie Mellon University graduate programs which were run out of their Silicon Valley Campus. The courses we created, (100% learn by doing courses in masters degree programs in computer science) which were directed by CMU faculty in Pittsburgh, were only sometimes appreciated by the CMU faculty.

The students were initially surprised by the lack of a classroom and lectures. One of our TA's said at the time that as a graduate student in Pittsburgh he had an easier time in the traditional courses. He could sit back in class and chat with his friends and then he could cram for tests.


The CMU Silicon Valley students actually had to work hard and he felt sorry for them. The students stopped showing up on campus (because there was no need to) and they would meet with each other in Starbucks (because Starbucks had free internet.)

The students went from hating it during the first few weeks (because it was different from what they expected) to loving it (because they were acquiring real job skills and were getting hired by local companies.)



Students were getting jobs and enjoying the experience. Eventually CMU decided to go back to way things always had been in some (but not all) of our offerings. Why?

"The reason academic politics are so vicious is that there is so little at stake." Henry Kissinger

Many of the CMU faculty in Pittsburgh hated what we were doing, and some went out of their way to kill it. (But, many still use our approach to this day.) Typically, faculty want the system to stay the same. I warned CMU that my ideas would not go over well with the faculty when they hired me, and I was right.

So, while we hear every day that universities will be online next year, we need to understand what they mean by online is the closest imitation to what is there now so that faculty will not have to change anything they do or teach.

Why is that?

Outsiders to academics think that faculty at elite research institutions are teachers. If I say I am a professor to someone, they usually ask what do you teach?

But that is a silly question. Professors at elite universities spend a very small part of their lives teaching. (It was three hours a week every other semester for me.)

So when we hear that a top university is going online, we need to think out the implications:

Students will lose out on the main reasons they went to a top college:

  1. no football
  2. no easy access to the opposite sex
  3. no parties
  4. no leaving home

We tend to assume that universities are about education but that is really just a nice story.

For university presidents, universities are about raising money, raising rankings, fame, keeping the faculty happy, and keeping students happy (in that order.)

For faculty, universities are about research, especially for the elite schools. Faculty are judged on how much money they bring in for research, how much fame they achieve, and how many papers they publish - not teaching. They hardly care about teaching. The more time spent on it, the less time for research. The choice is easy.

So, when a university is suddenly going online, I assure you that the faculty are simply thinking about how much more time this will give them for research. (No more students knocking on your door means more time for research.)

Let's imagine we built one really great online college. What would it look like? Professor's lives wouldn't change much. They would teach every now and then, and then go back to research. In this new world, teaching would really mean mentoring. A professor sets out a challenge and the TA's respond to students who need help. No blabbering on to people who aren't really listening, no tests. Just setting up real challenges and providing help.

There would be no need for a "location" in this model. Zoom meetings would become the norm. Who cares where people are physically?

So why take a Harvard course when you could take a Yale course? Those names will mean less and less over time. Why can't a Yale student take a Harvard course now? Because it is to far to travel and because Yale would have to pay money to Harvard. Also, suppose a student at Yale took more Harvard courses than Yale courses. Who would award the degree? Now suppose that Mississippi State offered a great course. Could you get a degree if you took the best online courses available? Why should they be offered by only one school? The University of Alaska decided to stop offering sociology courses recently. Of course there was an outcry. According to Google there are about 5300 colleges and universities in the U.S. Do they all need to teach sociology? Not in an online world.

My company has an online cyber security course. It is offered by the University of Texas, Purdue University, Rutgers University, UC Davis, Vermont Community College, and Spokane Community College. This seems a little silly and out of date. My company offers it under our now name as well, but most students worry about credentials and certification so our name doesn't beat Texas' or Purdue's.

In the physical world of schools, each school needs to offer many courses. This is simply not true in the online world. Why would there ever be a university of Alaska at all except for any other reason that Alaska is far away from the rest of the U.S. and people in Alaska would be at a disadvantage if they could not afford to travel. That world is over.

It is only a matter of time until colleges have to deal with these issues, once they are all online. And, they won't like it.

We have over 5300 colleges in the U.S. All these colleges exist for a variety of reasons. Many of them were started by religions. There was a serious need to teach people agriculture in the U.S. as the Westward expansion began, so many land-grant colleges were started. While many of the big state schools were started as agriculture schools, today they are in competition for rankings by U.S. News and World Report which means that they worry about how their faculty are viewed with respect to research and how well their applicants did on the SAT.

Harvard and Yale are fundamentally research institutions. Faculty are measured by how much money they bring in not by how well they teach. Students for the most part don't care about either. They care about being able to say "I went to Harvard" every chance they get. People will ooh and ah when they say that, this may likely lead to a good job, and is likely to win the approval of future in-laws. These schools were set up as a way of certifying the elite and they have succeeded very well at that.

What does this have to do with online education? Nothing. If the physics course from Harvard is the best available then everyone should get to take it and then Yale needn't bother building one. Is this possible? Certainly. But it won't happen overnight.

I have no problem saying that Harvard and Yale will be around in 50 years and people will still want to go there. (We do need maybe 50 research universities.) Mississippi State and University of Alaska not so much. It would be a fine alternative if the best course designers got together and built really great courses that opened new worlds to students. They could be about research, but on the whole when a student signs up for a psychology course he most likely does not want to learn how to do research. He wants to find out why he is so screwed up and how to get along better with other people. Of course they don't teach that in psych 101. But here and there, there are professors who teach courses like that. So it will not be a competition between name brands but between courses that open new worlds and are exciting to take, giving you real world knowledge and practice applying the knowledge that you will be able to use later in life.

Required courses? Out the window. They exist only to funnel students into research courses that faculty really want to teach so they can get students who will work for them in their field. They also exist so important faculty don't have to teach elementary subjects. Most faculty just want to teach their own research.

In an online world all that will go away. Take what courses you want, built by the best course designers, and delivered by the best teachers. The courses would no longer be 40 hours long. Why does it take 40 hours to learn every single thing? Can't you learn something in 3 hours or in 300?

Certification agencies (which are one of the main problems in education) will go away. They will be replaced by recommendations about how well a course works for students and how much employers want to hire the students who succeeded in that course.

Subjects (and departments) will disappear. Amazon offers things its data indicates that consumers will want. The Amazon of education would do the same. College would become much cheaper and kids would sign up in order to learn rather than to have a good time and get away from their parents (and in the words of a cousin of mine who asked me for advice about college) they will not get the "rah rah."

We can make education work for everyone by making it cheaper and offering thousands of courses. (But these "courses" would really be mentored experiences, not courses. We throw you in the water and help you to swim. No lectures on why flotation works.) They can be built by the experts once they learn to do it properly. For now, let every school go online and let the marketplace decide.

When Amazon became popular people moaned about the disappearance of book stores. Book stores were indeed nice places to hangout and a good place to meet people. But, it is much easier to find a book on Amazon, even though Amazon has yet to figure out how to properly recommend books because its algorithms do not actually understand what a book is really about.

Bookstores have started to die. The same will be true for colleges. Yes, they are fun experiences but they will never offer all the possible options.

It is time for an online college that offers everything to everyone.

©2020 Roger Schank