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By Jack Ganssle

On Higher Education

Summary: Should web-based delivery replace the university classroom?

An EE professor reacted to one of my rants with a complaint that at his university, in a scramble to cut costs, there is a move to put all of the courses on-line. Degree by iPod. It's reasonable to assume that other schools will make a similar move. I'm sure that ultimately factories will crank out the course material, at the lowest possible price, sold to the widest possible audience, eliminating any sort of differentiation between schools. The inevitable forces of competition means those factories will move to the lowest-cost countries. The role of the school will be to merely host the servers, run a sports program, and print diplomas.

Are professors an endangered species?

After 30 years of orgiastic deficits Congress is now pretending to think about a balanced budget. Members want to eliminate the Department of Education, a situation rife with irony. In their zeal to slash it's clear they need more education as they are apparently bewildered by the math: $61B is just 4% of the deficit. If they instead spent that money on booze and vice the outcome for the nation would be unchanged.

To further the irony politicians respond to the loss of industries with the mantra "we'll retrain the workers," when there is no demand for retrained workers.

It appears need-based grants will be slashed, at least at the Federal level.

States, too, have come to their day of reckoning. Public universities are seeing their budgets slashed, and reasonably want to control costs as well.

I think that we're in a new economy, one where many middle class jobs will be in declining demand as work is automated or shipped overseas. The implication is that students will be ill-advised to assume the massive loans that have enabled so many to complete a degree. And parents will have a harder time making tuition payments. The effect is that, once again, a college degree will be a prize available to the select few.

Fewer paying students and less aid all suggest that the universities will face an ever-tougher economic crunch. So it's logical for them also to automate the delivery of their product.

Or is it?

In my opinion, the role of a school is to teach. Teaching is a uniquely personal affair, one where a teacher interacts with students. Sure, there are plenty of lousy educators, but the good ones can reshape a young person's life in powerful ways.

Teaching is a real-time, interactive endeavor. The best teachers shape their delivery to challenge students, while constantly readjusting the lessons to ensure they're not too far ahead of the eager minds. Some automation is a good thing, but I think some schools are going too far. Would we automate the confessional? Technically that's easy, but it's probably a bad idea.

Sure, the universities are broken. Too few professors are in the classroom, which is often instead lead by a TA who can't speak the local language. In many cases in higher education teaching is like management: one gets promoted into it without any training in the unique skills that are required. Those problems need to be fixed. But not by replacing the classroom with the web.

I spent 12 years in Catholic schools. They had essentially no overhead since nearly every employee was a teacher. That is inverted today. And as the schools go more to web-based delivery the inversion will become so perverse that every university employee will be overhead.

Two of our children have completed college, and both were profoundly influenced by their professors. Our youngest is in her sophomore year at a cost that's more than twice our mortgage. But I only have to look back over two generations to see how education has influenced my family. Both of my grandfathers never made it past the 4th grade, and both raised my parents in relative poverty. A teacher cajoled and finally, with great effort, convinced my dad to take a scholarship exam, even though he was determined to finish high school, go to war, and then work in a diner for the rest of his life. He got the grant, served in WWII, and became an engineer. He helped invent Apollo. And he sent his 5 kids to college.

Save money by firing the administrators. Not the teachers.

Published March 9, 2011