The Residential Online Consensus Builds

A couple good posts from others today that support the future I’ve been calling “Residential Online” — a future where students take a mix of face-to-face and online classes, but do it within the relatively traditional frame of being a residential or commuter student.

First, here’s Tyler Cowen:

You will find two critiques of my views on on-line education here, and here, but neither represents my views correctly.  They all take on-line education to be an all-or-nothing prospect.

At the end of his post Bryan writes:

” When I talk about “online education,” I don’t just mean students at existing brick-and-mortar colleges taking some classes from their dorm rooms.  I mean students enrolling in virtual colleges instead of physical colleges.”

I would say he is defining away the most likely model, namely a hybrid model which has a significant on-line component.

Yglesias cites Cowen and adds:

This seems correct. An awful lot of people who have a kind of ideological dislike of the higher education establishment seem to me to blind themselves to some obviously relevant parallel trends like the kudzu-like spread of yoga studios and 44 percent increase in the number of personal trainers over the past ten years. Obviously it’s not the case that a person needs face-to-face exercise instruction in order to get in shape. On the contrary, the fittest people I see in the gym are clearly highly-motivated folks who are passionate about exercise and probably look at the whole training industry as a laughable waste of time and money. But if you look at the overall shape of American lifestyle it’s clear that those people are a minority. Most of us benefit from the motivational and precommitment aspects of having someone there in the room with you.

That’s not to say there aren’t certain major aspects of the way brick-and-mortar colleges work that are rendered obsolete by digital technology. But the typical person who’d benefit from more exercise is very different from the typical fitness nut, and the typical American in need of more education is very different from the typical supergeek policy writer type.

“But!” people will say — what about Borders? What about the music recording industry? What about newspapers?

Again, these content industry models  are not great predictors for residential education, which makes its living off of interaction and assessment, not content. In fact,  other elements of these industries are more instructive. A good century into sound recordings we still have concerts, and the ability to discuss books online hasn’t killed the face-to-face book club. As Yglesias points out, most people prefer a face-to-face commitment for a subset of stuff that matters to them. You can probably get a Jazzercise DVD for 20 bucks, yet people still want a certified instructor and a set time to do it with others. Prices for summer camps have undergone extreme inflation as a result of Baumol’s Cost Disease —  but people still pay (and pay more than ever) because attention is valuable, and parents are willing to pay for a face-to-face experience for their kids.

The future can be one of purely online education. It’s possible. But, apart from Wall Street and a few auto-didacts, that’s a future that no one actually wants. Or, more precisely, it’s one of those futures that people want for other people’s kids.

The more likely (and far more attractive) future involves four-year colleges constructing coherent, meaningful experiences out of a variety of face-to-face and online options for residential or local students. And to do that we need to stop thinking of online less as a separate, distinct market, and more as a feature that is woven into our core offerings.


2 thoughts on “The Residential Online Consensus Builds

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