Yesterday someone in my department’s main office got a request from a student to receive credit for taking the now-infamous free online AI course from Stanford. It is routine for a university to award transfer credit for a course taken at a different school, but this case is trickier since a student taking the AI course isn’t enrolled at Stanford and doesn’t get credit there. This post — which will be disorganized because my thinking on this subject is not yet organized — looks at what the Stanford course, the Khan academy, MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, and related efforts might mean for the future of college education.
Will there be a single, best course filling every niche, and everyone just takes that course? The analogy I’d like to make is between online courses and textbooks. Most subject areas are not dominated by a single textbook, but there is usually a small collection of textbooks that, together, are used as a basis for probably 80% of the courses. Personally I’d much rather learn from a textbook than from an online course — listening to someone talk is exceptionally inefficient. Why didn’t mass-market textbooks wipe out universities sometime during the 20th century? Because, of course, taking a class adds value beyond what can be found in the book. This value takes many forms:
- A course comes as part of a broader “college experience” that many people want.
- A course is part of an eventual degree that serves as a kind of certification.
- Instructors are available to provide additional help.
- Putting classmates in close proximity creates a sense of community and at least in some cases promotes learning.
- A course is often part of a curriculum that has been designed in an integrated way.
- A course serves as a forcing function, making it more difficult to put off learning the material.
I think we have to accept the conclusion that universities as we understand them today will be destroyed more or less to the extent that these sources of value can be provided by online education.
Let’s look at a couple of extremes. First, a course like Calculus I — a big lecture course at most universities. The experience of trying to learn integration while sitting in a big, crowded lecture is so bad that watching the lecture online almost seems attractive. It’s not hard to imagine these courses going away over the next 20 years. There seem to be various possibilities for how this will play out. First, a big university could offer an online version of Calc I, but this is very inefficient because only a few hundred or thousand people take it each year. Rather, courses like this will be handled by a few large organizations (companies or forward-thinking universities) and most institutions will simply contract out Calc I by giving some fraction of the tuition to the course provider. Course providers will make money by scaling — first through outsourcing and increasingly through AI-based techniques for assisting and assessing students. My fear is that these online courses will suck very badly, in the same way that so many web applications suck today. However, realistically, the not-online Calc I course I took 20 years ago sucked too: lectures were boring and recitation was at 7:30am with a TA I truly could not understand.
At the other extreme from big service courses, we have things like the “Senior Software Project” course offered by many departments or the Android Projects class that I’m teaching now. These have a large amount of instructor involvement, a large amount of in-person interaction between students, grading cannot easily be automated, etc. I don’t want to say that online versions of these classes are impossible, but certainly they would have a very different character than the current versions. These courses represent the part of a college education that directly descends from the old apprenticeship system and it would — in the long run — be a big problem if this part of the college experience went away. Of course the most serious students would still apprentice themselves through hackerspaces, internships, and such — but people in for example the 50th through 80th percentiles would likely be left poorly prepared for their future careers by an online-only education.
The picture I am painting is that at least in the near term, universities and traditional college degrees survive, but some of their bread and butter gets eaten by highly scalable providers of low-level courses. There will be fierce competition among providers — similar to the current competition between textbook providers, but the stakes will be higher. As we move forward, some fraction of students — in particular, non-traditional students and those who otherwise don’t want the traditional college experience — will move towards online-only degree programs. At first these will provide an inferior education and therefore they will be sought out by students who just cannot make regular classes work, or who are primarily interested in a degree for its own sake. Perhaps, as time passes, telepresence and related technologies will manage to become solid enough that a real education can be attained online.