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On the Internet, Will Anyone Know You’re An Ivy?

On the Internet, Will Anyone Know You’re An Ivy?
As digitization grips the higher education marketplace, the differences between prestigious institutions and the rest of the market are becoming less pronounced.

Peter Steiner’s now-iconic 1993 New Yorker cartoon made us all vividly aware none of us really knows what lurks at the other end of that bitstream we call an Internet transaction … or relationship.  Notwithstanding our ignorance, we plow ahead. In fact, the University of Chicago reported this month that, today, one in three marriages began through some kind of online introduction!

The question of identity and the Internet takes on new meaning as the texture of our online lives becomes richer and richer. We apparently love online, shop online, increasingly prefer our news online and, apparently, more than 3 million of us took university courses online last year in the United States alone! This raises important questions.

For learners and educators, the first and most daunting question is raised with increasing frequency: what is college or university education? For those of us lucky enough to have been raised in relative affluence and shipped off to be variously “finished” — socially, intellectually, professionally or otherwise — the college or university experience assumed a transcendent importance. Our university became our nourishing mother, the wellspring of a new life. We were inducted with pomp and ceremony into this foundry and, four years later, we commenced new lives — with equal pomp. In many cases, we made friends for life, opened real and virtual doors, and we were issued the neckties, decoder rings and secret handshakes of an intellectual and social elite.

Of course, all of this finishing came at a price, and we have all seen the charts that describe how this price has risen faster in this than nearly all other sectors of the world economy. I wonder sometimes what the chart might look like that compared the cost rise of this form of collegiate experience with that of country club memberships. Hmm.

The bucolic and expensive idealization of postsecondary education ended with World War II. This war, among so many things, set in motion the process of globalization that continues today. A truly global economy depends in the end on human talent — so-called intellectual capital. And the War signaled the repositioning of our universities’ missions from one of finishing elites for comfortable sinecures to that of preparing the masses to work with their brains instead of their backs or hands. Modern education is the calling card for success in the global economy and, for a calling card to be successful, it must be practical. And, so, while we may rightly bemoan the erosion of the ivory tower, we must also celebrate the capacity of Internet-based learning to penetrate mud walls from northern India to inner-city Detroit.

So, as higher education moves increasingly online, what will become of the cost of this education, and what will become of our institutions? This is a complex question. In my view, we are moving from a millennium-old age of institutions to an age of education. For 1,000 years, the institution and the educations transmitted therein could not be separated. We could not (and still cannot) separate the idea of an education from the idea of the schoolhouse in which it is delivered.  The Internet is changing this.

That being said, will institutions go away? Yes and no. Like Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker before him, I think the decades ahead will be exceptionally hard on many colleges and universities.  The cost structures of most of these institutions has long been unsound, but protected by their quasi-monopoly standing and public subsidies. As modern transport, the Internet and government insolvency erode these historical supports, the shortcomings of our historical institutional cost structures — dominated by land and labor — become increasingly dire. And we are not investing in classroom instruction at the same rate as we (and others) are investing online or in new modes like adaptive learning. So, over time, the quality of learning inside institutions is likely to lag compared to that offered over the Internet or otherwise in digital form.

Will universities fade way? For now, it would be wise to recall that institutions today meet students’ social and developmental, as well as their educational, needs. Moreover, some educational pathways have social components that will be hard to divorce from places (though, ironically, nursing and teaching have gone online with a vengeance!).  So, yes and no.

Likely, many of today’s institutions will struggle under new competitive pressures and either adapt or disappear. Those with great financial endowments and global brands will continue to flourish, taking more care than ever to keep a bright sheen on their brands. Some, like Georgia Tech University, will take the risky position of extending their brand online and lowering their prices. Most will remain content to participate online as forms of noblesse and as a means of uncovering academic talent (raw intellectual capital) everywhere in the world.

For the rest of us, the Internet revolution will lower the cost of education. In the end, no one does know if there is a dog at the other end of a network connection, and so we will rely on formal and standard assessments to help ourselves and our employers assign value to our course work with Professors Wolf, Fox or Katz! And because coursework is likely to become merely a pathway to an assessment, it is likely to become commoditized and its prices will drop. Already, a great many wonderful university courses can be had online at a variety of prices.

While it is easy, perhaps, to imagine elite universities surviving intact and struggling universities disappearing, what is most challenging for us is to imagine new forms of blending that will combine the social and educational benefits of today’s residential universities with cost structures that invite the rest of us. Now that’s a challenge worth thinking about!

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