Cole points me via email to Tyler Cowen today, who continues to argue that what I’ve been calling “Residential Online” is indeed the future:
A large number of institutions in the top one hundred will move to a hybrid on-line model for a third or so of their classes and they will do so gradually, without seriously disrupting norms of conformity or eliminating campus life.
Agreed, absolutely. But I’m fascinated even more with this line:
Conformity pressures and signaling may militate against the “stay at home all day” forms of on-line education, but not against on-line education more generally, in fact quite the contrary.
Weirdly, almost nobody in the “Education is an MP3 crowd” or the “We’ll all be fine, it’s just churn” crowd gets this. People think the great threat to HE’s current business model is a fully online degree or a fully free degree. And quite rightly, most colleges laugh this off, because the conformity/signalling issues make sure that anyone going outside the normal signalling process takes a huge risk, especially relative to the time and opportunity cost of a degree.
Except a war with completely online outfits is not what’s coming. In reality the threat (if you want to call it a “threat”) is a cheaper, mostly online education. An education like that can be built out within months, plugs into the existing structure, and is indistinguishable (in terms of signalling) from a “normal” degree. For state schools, such change will likely be mandated by state legislatures and administration, either directly, or indirectly through trustee appointments and conditional funding. Such actions will only become more attractive to legislators as state budgets buckle under the weight of providing adequate medical care to the retiring Baby Boomers.
The real debate, then, will not be online vs. residential institutions, but over what sort of hybrid model residential institutions adopt. For example, I believe a model that allows for openness and cross-institutional collaboration is preferable to vendor-driven models, and that face-to-face extracurricular activities are central to our mission. Others disagree. I think that the model we move to has to support a wide variety parallel social missions universities have adopted over the years — others think these things should be unbundled. And these are not subtle differences, but ones that affect who we are as a larger society, what our capabilities will be, and what sort of experiences we value for our children.
My advice to anyone making decisions in higher education is to ignore the “Coming Tsunami” side of things, and build your own hybrid/blended model. One that stays true to what you think your mission is, and what you think is essential in education. Because those that don’t build credible models now will have models built elsewhere imposed on them in the near future, most probably by people with very different aims.
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