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College for $99 a month
September 7, 2009 8:38 PM   Subscribe

Will universities go the way of newspapers and the music industry? Says so right here. ITTET will students continue to pay huge tuition for college when they can get the same education on-line at a fraction of the cost?

Quality inexpensive on-line courses are here (previously 1, 2, 3 and others). A learner can pay the big tuition bucks and take Psych 101 in a classroom with 300 other people and an overworked contract lecturer, or DIY on-line. Article argues that on-line courses will undermine the business model for universities, with potentially "catastrophic" results. Virtual beer pong extra.
posted by cogneuro (72 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
ITTET = "In these tough economic times", according to Urbandictionary.
posted by Clandestine Outlawry at 8:40 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


The elite universities will be fine. Their main purpose is to network the future Masters of the Universe.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:44 PM on September 7, 2009


My understanding is that one does not pay for an education, but rather for the social sanction that comes with a degree from an accredited institution.

Also the free pass to party all night, be flagrantly promiscuous, and do every sort of drug, with the understanding that you are just in college and will grow out of it, so you are not considered an irredeemable degenerate.
posted by idiopath at 8:46 PM on September 7, 2009 [8 favorites]


Interesting piece.

On the one hand, private colleges are totally over-priced and out-of-whack in terms relative to inflation. I really loved my private college experience, but if I knew now what I knew then the money would have been much better spent on a solid state BA or BS and then a year of two of travel around the world. (I did have a partial scholarship, which helped out.)

But some families are always going to want the prestige of Princeton or Stanford. And those schools will be fine.

It's the second-tier institutions like my own alma mater that I worry about. Honestly, it just isn't worth the cost any longer. Employers these days are more interested in where you've interned than the name of your college, IMO.

But having said all this, I remember hearing about the imminent death of private colleges two decades ago as well. Who knows.
posted by bardic at 8:47 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


(not that I personally have any problem with partying, promiscuity, or drugs, just saying people use college to avoid the harshest judgment of those who do disapprove)
posted by idiopath at 8:48 PM on September 7, 2009


There's much more to college life than classes, and the campus experience is rather ingrained into American culture.

I can see online classes catching on more and more with nontraditional students, but lots of students don't have the huge tuition issue due to scholarships, wealth, or the fact that their school is simply inexpensive. Not to mention the people who hold that an education at an elite school is worth the expense.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:49 PM on September 7, 2009


ITTET = "In these tough economic times", according to Urbandictionary.

Urban? Try that acronym on a panhandler sometime.
posted by rokusan at 8:50 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


College is not about job-training or trade-learning. It is about status-signalling. Why buy a 100k Lexus when a 10K Toyota does the same thing?

Actually college as an institution is a lot of things, but financially currently operates as a buy-in for young people into the middle (or upper-middle, depending on your SAT score) class. You promise us 10% or so of your income for the next 10 years, we give you legitimacy as a prospective employee in our fine corporate institutions.

What will kill the university is society is no longer capable of fulfilling its part of the bargain to the youth. Our fine corporate institutions can't employ shit.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 8:53 PM on September 7, 2009 [6 favorites]


Affordable education?

Help me out Americans, is this socialism too?
posted by pompomtom at 8:53 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I happen to have taught, in the past two years, at an R1 research university, two community colleges, a prestigious private 4-year liberal arts, and at *the* major online university and I can tell you without a single reservation that students in my online classes do not get the same quality of education that my students do in brick-and-mortar classes. You can put a big giant period after that. Now, whether students at the CCs get a better-or-worse education than the students at the 4-year private school that charges 25x the tuition...that's another story.
posted by mrmojoflying at 8:54 PM on September 7, 2009 [26 favorites]


Marketplace recently had a segment arguing that the real value of education isn't the education, but as a rite of passage that allows the person to shed their old identity and recreate themselves.

I find that argument plausible. If you look at college in the same light as life coaches, psychologists, and the various other identities that give a person the chance, and excuse, to change their behavior, I doubt they'll fall out of style anytime soon. Reinvention is an American obsession right up there with eternal youth.
posted by bswinburn at 8:55 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I doubt that universities are going away but they are going to have to figure out how to provide affordable educations again. I went to Penn State in the early eighties for $2500 a year which was reasonably affordable for a working class family with some help from grants and loans. If you account for inflation, that would be little over $5k now. But a year's tuition at that same middle-of-the-road state school costs around $15,000 a year now. That's $60,000 for a four year degree before you pay for room and board and books at a public university What the hell happened? Why did the cost of tuition go up so much faster than inflation? I have friends who are professors and it's not like they're making huge salaries and I know that the staff aren't getting paid all that well.
posted by octothorpe at 8:55 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Universities have nothing to worry about until someone invents a USB-compatible beer funnel.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:00 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


mrmojoflying: "I happen to have taught, in the past two years, at an R1 research university, two community colleges, a prestigious private 4-year liberal arts, and at *the* major online university and I can tell you without a single reservation that students in my online classes do not get the same quality of education that my students do in brick-and-mortar classes. You can put a big giant period after that. Now, whether students at the CCs get a better-or-worse education than the students at the 4-year private school that charges 25x the tuition...that's another story."

In which ways?

Please expand on why you know this to be true.
posted by Gravitus at 9:01 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have been a graduate assistant for online classes, and I'd like to second what mrmojoflying said. The quality of education is simply not there with online classes. Perhaps they'll iron that out in the next few years, but as it stands there is no substitute for being there in person.
posted by winna at 9:03 PM on September 7, 2009


we have so few truly transformative rite of passage events nowadays, seems like most things are just milestones (D-license, voting, drinking, smoking, check check check check). I'm not saying college should be the only option, things like AmeriCore, PeaceCore and national service (not just armed services) should be party of it too. College is about so much more than just a selected education, it is about being exposed to ideas you haven't heard or disagree with in a safe environment to do so (we need more of this not less). It is a place to grow up and change.

I think online learning is fine, for what it is, but it is a pale imitation of face to face interaction.

College needs to be more affordable... period.
posted by edgeways at 9:06 PM on September 7, 2009


If I had to learn everything I learned as an undergrad on my own, it would have taken me at least twice as long. How do you do office hours? Group studying? Robotics courses?

Also, there's also the recreation classes. For something like $50 a quarter, you can do sailing, tennis, rock climbing, SCUBA diving... You go to a university to access to affordable resources that you just can't get anywhere else.
posted by spiderskull at 9:07 PM on September 7, 2009


Help me out Americans, is this socialism too?

Yes. The Calfornia Master Plan for Higher Education, developed and implemented in 1960 by that noted socialist governor Pat Brown, called for higher education to be available to anyone regardless of economic means. Bits and pieces of the plan have been getting chipped off for some time now, but it is now rapidly going the way of the dinosaur.
posted by blucevalo at 9:09 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Reinvention is an American obsession right up there with eternal youth.

Insofar as they're both obsessions... thankfully the former is actually doable, while the latter is overrated (not that you were stating otherwise, just adding to what you said).

Wisdom > Youth
posted by spiderskull at 9:10 PM on September 7, 2009


College isn't about learning, but about credentialing.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:10 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Er, isn't it about credentialling learning?
posted by bicyclefish at 9:12 PM on September 7, 2009


I went to Penn State in the early eighties for $2500 a year which was reasonably affordable for a working class family with some help from grants and loans. If you account for inflation, that would be little over $5k now. But a year's tuition at that same middle-of-the-road state school costs around $15,000 a year now.

That extreme is more Penn State being weird than anything else, though costs are going up quickly pretty much everywhere. The average tuition cost at 4-year public universities last year was $6585.

Why did the cost of tuition go up so much faster than inflation?

Vast new layers of administration, declining support from the state, more demand from students for varieties of services and amenities.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:14 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


octothorpe, it's sorta the same problem as health care. Since most people, as undergrads, qualify for one or more discount or subsidy, (Pell Grants, scholarships, what have you), the consumer-purchaser thing is obviated, and the institutions at fault (hospitals, universities) cranked up the billing to what the trade will bear. Given our lack of probable success at undermining and reforming this problem as it relates to health care, don't look for continued American dominance in higher education either.

IMHO, obv.

Beyond the specific mechanism for the absurd jacking of tuition, there has been a structural bias toward re-implementing an explicitly classist educational system since the elections of FDR and of Ronald Reagan. American higher-ed was always bifurcated between the OLD-old-school institutions and the state and land-grant schools, and as some schools moved to embrace an anti-classist mission and ethos, on a regional basis, other schools came into being to reinforce the classist structure that had been in place previously (I am specifically thinking of UNC and Duke, but they are by no means unique).

So, to summarize: rich folk want to keep you a) stoopit b) outta their biz and offa their daughters, so public policy which has been influenced by said rich folk has enabled a) deceptive and opaque billing and pricing practices across most higher educational institutions and b) class-segregated educational institutions.

In short, wealth has sabotaged education, and we are fucked.
posted by mwhybark at 9:16 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The quality of education is simply not there with online classes. "

I've taken both types of classes, plus some that were hybrid - and when the quality of education wasn't there for online classes, it was because the professor refused to respond to queries, failed to follow their stated syllabus, would not specify designated office hours ("Just email/call, we'll set something up"), and generally seemed to treat the class like it was a joke.
posted by HopperFan at 9:16 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


Er, isn't it about credentialling learning?

no, it's about credentialling presentability to h r departments

note that nowhere in the article or here has the phrase "liberal education" occured
posted by pyramid termite at 9:21 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


The problem with this prediction of the imminent demise of "old style" universities is that it has been made many times in the past, always to prove untrue. If you're only talking about the lectures and classwork, there's no reason that much of an undergraduate education could be replaced with lessons from video recordings i.e. this could have happened a long time ago. Supplement this with the occasional phone or in-person consultation, and you've eliminated the need for a campus, right?

Modern universities are much more than factories that produce hordes of bachelor's of communications degrees. The best of them are unparalleled centers of research and academics. The theory is that when you throw together so many intellectual activities, you create a culture of the mind, with plenty of cross-pollination between researchers, educators and students. The best institutions of higher education live up to this goal, and they cannot in any way be replaced by online correspondence schools. This is not to say that such schools cannot have their own valuable niche, but career training is only one function of the modern university.
posted by Edgewise at 9:21 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]


"If I had to learn everything I learned as an undergrad on my own"

See, what's funny is that there were times as an undergrad where I felt like the classes got in the way of what I was trying to learn. Granted, I was at a liberal arts college where that was a feature, not a bug.

But again, I can't help but come back to the fact that second-tier private colleges are just as, or almost, as expensive as your Ivies and your Stanford, but you aren't getting the immediate prestige. You might be getting a quality education (I know I did), but how in the hell is four years cloistered in academia for over 100 Grand a better deal than a four-year degree from State U., and then buy some plane tickets and a back-pack?

(Not to mention the fact that there are a number of really great state universities to begin with, and they tend to offer a wider variety of courses out of sheer volume?)
posted by bardic at 9:22 PM on September 7, 2009


... and I should note that the explosive growth of community colleges over the past 30 years is nothing to sneeze at.

These institutions generally deliver on the ideal of basic higher-ed for working people at affordable rates.

What they often do not deliver is good networking for the students or decent working conditions for the staff, but in neither case are these structurally predicated.

If we chose to fund community colleges more generously, they would provide more reasonable working benefits to instructors, which would improve the quality of instruction, and further benefits would flow from that.
posted by mwhybark at 9:23 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm not convinced that students actually choose between on-line and brick and mortar classes. I work at a big public university, and I'm seeing a lot of students who do both. They take three classes in a classroom and then a fourth online, because the brick-and-mortar class didn't fit in their schedule. Or they take the on-line class at their parents' house over the summer. It's the same with community colleges, actually: lots of students do a few community college classes scattered throughout their college careers.

It seems to me that most students really enjoy and value many aspects of college life, and they won't give those things up if they can help it. They still might take a bunch of on-line classes, though.
posted by craichead at 9:27 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


"They take three classes in a classroom and then a fourth online, because the brick-and-mortar class didn't fit in their schedule."

Yep, this is what I had to do.
posted by HopperFan at 9:32 PM on September 7, 2009


Yes- college is all about Certification (sometimes to the exclusion of Education), but the most important things about an undergraduate education often take place outside of the classroom- i.e. the late night discussions about anything and everything in the universe between young intelligent interested & interesting people. This is where the private colleges and universities have the advantage- it's all about the milieu. I've sent children to both private & state schools, and sometimes I think it's yet another case of You Get What You Pay For.
posted by squalor at 9:33 PM on September 7, 2009


Almost none of the reasons I enjoyed college (workshops, art classes, those after-class theory arguments that continue for hours over a pint at a nearby bar, music, the ability to meet people from a wide variety of backgrounds who identified themselves with a wide variety of social groups/subcultures/cliques without prior baggage, watching the much-beloved professor of your Shakespeare seminar literally receive a standing ovation on the last day of class, hanging out in a pool hall on the last day of exams with your writing class and the lit department faculty getting shitfaced on cheap beer and talking about James Joyce, reading all thirty-five assigned novels in a semester and talking about them, having a professor you respect tell you that you did a really good job and knowing that they meant it, pulling an all-nighter and finding yourself running outside to scream at five in the morning and running into sixteen other screamers) would be difficult to be accomplished online. Of course, I was the kind of student who darkened the door of career services and never believed that getting a well-paid job was the real purpose of an education. Which, ironically, accounts for all the things about college that disappointed me. I wanted the bucolic, ivy covered experience, in which I'd sit around drinking wine and talking about Greek tragedy. Unfortunately, the schools that seemed mostly likely to provide such an experience were pretty stingy with the financial aid and I ended up spending all but my freshman year between mid-grade state universities. I made the best of things and got out with a degree I knew going in would utterly useless. And if I were to go back and do it all over again I can't imagine studying anything else.

If a university education is absolutely necessary for a reasonable income and some degree of upward mobility, the idea of affordable, online courses for accredited institutions make sense for a lot of people. But I don't think the job on the back side is the only valid reason to go to college. And the idea that college is either a job-training program or a place where rich kids go to get drunk and establish a new generation of Old Boy Network leaves out a lot. Higher Education should be affordable. For people who are serious about the education part, I think it should be pretty damn close to free. And on a very personal level, I would hate to see all the wonderful faculty members I know that happen to teach at a non-Ivy level schools lose their rostra to a bunch of TAs in headsets at a glorified customer service desk accepting all major credit cards for a print-at-home diploma.
posted by thivaia at 9:33 PM on September 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


But again, I can't help but come back to the fact that second-tier private colleges are just as, or almost, as expensive as your Ivies and your Stanford, but you aren't getting the immediate prestige. You might be getting a quality education (I know I did), but how in the hell is four years cloistered in academia for over 100 Grand a better deal than a four-year degree from State U., and then buy some plane tickets and a back-pack?

Well, to some people any private school offers more prestige than their local public. If someone's (or their family's) ego is bruised after they can't get into Stanford, they might have a next-best mentality, thinking: Ivies/Prestigious whatevers > second-tier privates/prestigious publics > normal publics.

And I think some people convince themselves that they can only be happy at an (x) school. X being small, or liberal arts, or party, or whatever. The mantra in college-decision land is to go where you will feel most comfortable - which is great advice, except for the fact that most 17-year-olds don't know yet what it is they want, and so get married to the frequently tossed-around idea of a private liberal arts education.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:35 PM on September 7, 2009


I can tell you without a single reservation that students in my online classes do not get the same quality of education that my students do in brick-and-mortar classes.

Well mine do.

I am surprised how little attention has been attracted by Obama's plan to funnel $500 million into free online college courses for common core subjects. This will be catastrophic for the kind of smaller regional universities where I have spent my teaching career. The cash cows for us are the 101 and 110 classes with big enrollments and lot of cheap adjunct labor. The 100 level courses subsidize the 300 and 400 level courses.

The community colleges already give us a hell of a run for our money. If students can pick up the first couple years of credits at home, for free--we're screwed.

And yet, free accredited online classes are going to happen. If not via the Department of Education then through the textbook companies ("Buy our book and take a free web course!) or some other means. It is inevitable. As several posters have said, this is not going to change Harvard a bit. But further down the academic food chain it will be huge.
posted by LarryC at 9:42 PM on September 7, 2009 [7 favorites]


If not via the Department of Education then through the textbook companies ("Buy our book and take a free web course!) or some other means.
I think that the universities themselves are trying hard to get in on this market early, because they would rather that they get the money than that it go to some for-profit company like the University of Phoenix or whatever.
posted by craichead at 9:44 PM on September 7, 2009


A bit less glibly than my previous comment, as I have mentioned elsewhere in the blue recently, I never enrolled in a college class, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into right now.

What I did do was live in college towns, have conversations with people in college classes, read the books they were reading in class, befriend a professor and get one on one lessons in algorithmic composition and computer music, audit a graduate seminar in experimental composition, compose / rehearse / perform with student groups in projects they were doing for college classes, hang out in campus bars and argue about philosophy and music with drunken students, take part in an unaccredited leftist thinktank/performance collective/school, date girls for their brains and learn from them, and generally hold myself to a high intellectual standard.

If I combined all of the previous, with some cheap online school which gave a degree that an employer would respect, what have I missed that a college would have given me?
posted by idiopath at 9:47 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Assuming that college towns retain their current character and that employers respect online degrees, then I don't think you would miss out on much, idiopath. But I also think you took a lot more responsibility for your intellectual development than most college students are willing to do.
posted by craichead at 9:55 PM on September 7, 2009


I dropped out of university because the opportunities mentioned above just weren't available to me at a price I was willing to pay--namely, I wasn't driven to both work full-time and go to school full-time. I had to work to pay rent and while I was able to get by in school for two years I dropped out the minute I hit 300 level courses which wanted me to put in 20-40 hours apiece per week. Working 40 hours and commuting for another 10 left me made that unrealistic.

I might eventually try to earn my degree, lo these 20+ years later, but it will be online, as I still cannot afford to give up work to go to school. Wish online courses had existed back then, I would have taken one on-campus course per quarter and two online from the "comfort" of my crappy rented basement room.
posted by maxwelton at 9:59 PM on September 7, 2009


Pedigreed dogs: There is status in having that pedigree, and there is a chance that you'll be treated well because there's such a large investment in you, though of course this does not always work out -- all you need do is go to the local 'pound' and you'll find lots of purebred dogs there. To purchase dogs which have this pedigree or that one, you'll spend a lot of money, but, again, there is a lot of status in having one of these dogs, and it's often viewed as money well spent. These breeds were bred for specific purposes in the distant past but mostly that's all lost now, they aren't put to much use, other than to be shown, during which time they are all polished up and groomed just so, they don't bark unless they are supposed to, they jump around on command and stop jumping around on command. Sadly, there is often lots of inbreeding involved, which has the potential to produce animals which are genetically screwed.

Pound dogs: Dogs. Absolutely just as good and often much, much better than pedigreed dogs, and usually really, really grateful to have been rescued from the 'pound' -- though they've some way or another ended up in a hard place, they aren't stupid, and they see other dogs just as good as any other being led behind door number three, and not coming out again -- whoops! You can get pound dogs lots cheaper, next to nothing, really, but they serve as well as any other dog, they're as willing to serve in whatever capacity. And they can be trained to jump up and down if you want them to, same as a pedigreed dog, though having some street smarts they can usually see right through it, they can clearly see that most of it is just a bunch of jive. Still, you've got the food, they'll play the game, throw the stick, they'll chase it.

Myself, I'm a pound dog, not real well groomed, sortof funny looking, mostly willing, often able.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:06 PM on September 7, 2009 [3 favorites]


Octothorpe: I went to Penn State in the early eighties for $2500 a year.... But a year's tuition at that same middle-of-the-road state school costs around $15,000 a year now.

ROU-Xenophobe: That extreme is more Penn State being weird than anything else.

Hmm, I don't think it's just Penn State. I went to Northwestern from 1987-1991, and the tuition for four years, all-inclusive (room & board, books, etc.) was $60,000. This year, it's approaching $250,000.
posted by tzikeh at 10:14 PM on September 7, 2009


People often ask, "Why has tuition gone up so rapidly?" I think the answer is obvious: Because it could. Combine the motivation to get a college degree at any (financial) cost and the ready availability of enormous student loans and there was no reason for tuition to NOT go up. However, just like housing, credit isn't so readily available now and, frankly, there must be some upper limit. Right now, people seem willing to go into debt to the order of $30-$50k per year for the most prestigious schools but, as of today, I doubt that anywhere near the same number of people would be willing to pay $100k per year, and even fewer $200k per year. Want to know why things happen? Follow the money and ask who profits.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:43 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fact is that I had over thirty hours of mainframe programming courses behind me, and an internship at Pennzoil behind me, and years of 'prior' (read -- blue collar) work experience to draw upon, I was willing and, well, somewhat able. I wore a suit as well as anyone, don't look close and you'll not see the scars on my hands. I shined my shoes, combed my hair, etc and etc.

No one would even give me a look.

And of course the HR depts of any organization would tell me that they weren't hiring, or that I wasn't a fit for whatever reason, but fact is that they'd hire any mope with a degree and even six hours of programming courses behind him/her.

I talked to lots of head-hunters, and of course they were the ones willing to tell me the truth, to give me the story, which I of course pretty much knew anyways. Not one of them was willing to help me -- not one. But one guy I did get on with, and he told me what I should do, should I decide not to jump off the roof. I listened, and did what he said. As follows:

Stay completely away from HR; you will not get through them, their job is to keep you out. Call the main number of organization large enough to have a computer room and ask the main operator to "Give me the computer room, please." and they sometimes will. Mostly won't but sometimes will. If they don't, call back later, and/or tomorrow. When you do get through to the computer room, level with the computer operator, the guy running the tapes for the jobs, running the puter, tell this person my story, and ask them who they would talk to. Ask for the persons name and number. Call and call and call and call, spend your whole days (daze) on the phone, take notes of anyone you've spoken with, blah blah blah.

I got lucky. A new manager for the check processing team at First Interstate bank (Hey, Mike Noble -- you out there? Thanks!) had just moved to Houston from California, I got through to him, he listened, gave me an interview, hired my ass. So, not impossible, regardless what I'd been told. But I am very persistent sometimes, it took a few months but I got a gig.

I told you that to tell you this -- I was more prepared than any other new hire, I'd taken almost every mainframe puter course offered at Houston Community College (and yeah, not only the same level of instruction but often the same instructors that taught at UH) and I'd had an internship behind me to boot. And I was a programmer, and not going out to meet and greet, no one other than our users and they were as geeky as we were, so it was not about that. But no one wanted to give me a shake without that bit of rag.

It's a club; you play the game that we played and we'll let you come play with us. It had nothing to do with ability or training, it's the US caste system. I'd love to see it come down.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:54 PM on September 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


This article misses a few key points. It also sets up some analogies that are somewhat misleading and not entirely apt.

First off, everybody has their own learning style. Part of college is figuring out what that is. In my last 10 years of post-high school education, I've learned from experience that I need to drag myself out of the house, with my notebook and pens, and engage with others face to face, regardless of the class level. That's what it takes for me to take it seriously and to be successful. I've taken several online courses. I learned all the facts they taught me, and participated in all the online 'discussions'. I didn't make eye contact with others, hear the anecdotes and personal stories, get the jokes, or write down the answers to the questions I was hoping somebody would ask. They simply weren't there. I also never left my comfort zone, argued at study groups, got challenged by the material, competed with others, or otherwise stretched my brain beyond the absorption and recycling of facts.

Which leads me to my second point. Part of what's learned in lower level college courses is how to be a college student. It's a long socialization process, where you acquire the pragmatics of the academic domain by trail, error, and observation. A student who doesn't have access to this knowledge will be horribly unprepared when he or she gets into higher level courses and the proper behavior and attitude are expected. Mistakes are not forgiven at this point in the game, because to get this far you have to have demonstrated some hoop-jumping skill. And the desire to be there. That's how a group of people can end up in a deep theoretical discussion about a minor detail of a sub-sub field of one's subfield. Everybody can have that discussion because they're all more or less on the same page. And they got there by understanding the whole M.O. of the school thing thus far. You just don't get that experience, on any level, through an online course.

The school-will-go-by-the-wayside-like-newspapers is a really silly analogy. At best, I think that school is more akin to the books-will-one-day-be-obsolete argument. Which I personally think is ridiculous. Maybe I missed the memo, but I am convinced that books will always be there, even the remedial, basic ones. I need a book in my hand for the same reason I need to sit in a classroom and interact with others and write things on paper. There will be books and there will be college classes. Also, it's not like there's going to be some huge black hole between your weekend cooking class and your grad level biochem course. Especially not because of the Great Online Offering of Web 2.0 and StraighterLine.

The cheap car analogy is a bit disingenuous too. There are a whole lot of factors and events that were conveniently omitted in the 'decline of the classic American car and the rise of Honda and Toyota' narrative illustrated in the article. The fate of the American car is not a lesson to us to watch out for what will inevitably happen to the American college. Seriously.

Frankly, that whole article is infuriating. It's a thinly veiled ad for the new bigger, faster, cheaper option. You get what you put into it. College campuses, and especially the buildings themselves, are big, bureaucratic messes, somewhat by design. After navigating that, the administration, the politics, fellow students and their problems, financial aid, parking, and 4.3 billion forms, I was spit out of the system feeling prepared for just about anything. I don't think a online-only student would have a clue about that. But we could talk about the shit we learned in the same textbook I'm sure.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:56 PM on September 7, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'll never hire someone with an online only degree. I've experienced first hand how terrible in the lab a new graduate is even with a good masters degree (which includes a year of practical research), trying to train someone who has never been in a lab just isn't doable. It's certainly not safe, labs out in the world are much more dangerous than the ones we allow the first years into and those classes are scary enough. Maybe science is weird that way, being a mix of both very practical and strongly academic skills, but there's no online substitute for holding that pippette in your hand and using it again and again as you get the feel for it. Lab classes start the second week of University in NZ (for science students of course) and continue your whole degree, which is as it should be and can't be replaced.

Being taught, and interacting daily with, actual researchers and workers in my field is the bonus and is why I got an actual education during my undergrad degree rather than just the credentials that so many of you are brushing off.
posted by shelleycat at 10:56 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reinvention is an American obsession right up there with eternal youth.

And yet so is the Dream of bucking the system and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. The idea of self-directed online learning away from ivory towers smells very, very American Romantic to me.

I agree it's not there yet, but remember: twenty years ago you'd never imagine bookstores being replaced in such large part by what is essentially mail order, would you? And even just ten years ago it was preposterous to cite something on the Internet as a source for any news story.

One by one, old institutions are indeed augmented and eventually overtaken by hardscrabble online efforts. Education will also go this way, though I'll guess it's going to take more than another decade. Maybe three.

I'll never hire someone with an online only degree.

Yes, you will. Just not yet.
posted by rokusan at 11:27 PM on September 7, 2009


Also the free pass to party all night, be flagrantly promiscuous, and do every sort of drug, with the understanding that you are just in college and will grow out of it, so you are not considered an irredeemable degenerate.

Well, even the Amish have Rumspringa, although they're more straightforward about the purpose.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:30 PM on September 7, 2009


The interaction with other students, both directly related to coursework and incidentally, is pretty key to college IMO. I don't see this easily replicated online. Having hundreds or thousands of other people at similar stages of life in an institution where the focus is on education is just not the same as learning by yourself online.

Obviously if the students only want the degree and the parties, they're not getting much out of it, but not all colleges are the same. Pretty much all the people I went to school with were interested in learning (specifically science, since this was Caltech and we all had a pretty similar set of interests) and there's no way I could have replicated this environment in most places.

That being said, not everyone has that opportunity, and there is a lot you CAN do online. However, if someone has the choice to do either, the standard experience has a lot to be said for it, even if it is an incredibly high-stress environment. In my industry (programming) I work with plenty of good people with and without degrees [admittedly it's probably the least degree-focused of the science & engineering disciplines], so it's not about getting a better job (although it doesn't hurt) so much as the intellectual and social experience.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:37 PM on September 7, 2009


US caste system

Are you Tier 1, 2 or 3?
posted by peppito at 11:45 PM on September 7, 2009


As a grad student, I teach a microbiology lab at a big fancy private research university. Last week my students learned how to use a compound microscope effectively and this week they're learning how to isolate a single colony of bacteria and how to identify gram positive/negative and motile/non-motile bacteria. With my very smart, very driven students this requires a tremendous amount of one on one attention. By the end of the semester, they will be identifying unknown bacteria using a range of tests and techniques, and then running PCR and sequencing the DNA to confirm their answer.

There is no way someone could complete this lab in their kitchen alone. And I sure as hell wouldn't want a doctor who couldn't do all of the things in this lab. Nor do I see how someone could work in a lab or go to grad school in biology without these skills.

(And, as a Johnnie I am of course quite biased in saying that there is something unique and amazing about being in an intensive academic community where people live, breathe, and eat every moment of intensive pursuit of the great questions of the world. If Metafilter is having some of the best discussions on the web, and I think that's true, then it will be a long time before the web offers anything like the discussions I had in a single morning of my undergraduate degree.)

Could more vocational classes be taught online for people who just need a piece of paper to get a job in a field where hands-on training can be attained on a computer? Absolutely. Is the web going to replace universities? Of course not.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:58 AM on September 8, 2009


US caste system

Are you Tier 1, 2 or 3?
posted by peppito at 1:45 AM on September 8


I'm not certain; being untouchable and all, they just won't tell me this stuff. But I bet someone here can tell us...
posted by dancestoblue at 1:25 AM on September 8, 2009


Aside from the fact that my particular education would be in no way feasible in this medium (as it involved labs, experiential courses, classmates with arms to use in learning how to administer vaccinations, more labs, &c), the most important things I learned in college had nothing to do with what I was supposed to be learning and everything to do with interacting with other human beings.
posted by little e at 1:35 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I spend most of my working hours in front of some form of a screen or the other, and since I regularly work with teams who are in different locations. I also "attended" most of my lectures in uni online; we had this intranet page where they used stream and archive lectures. The utility of online-lectures cannot be understated; you can pause, rewind, forward and re-visit material until you get it right. This is especially if you're trying to follow an accent you are not familiar with. Asking questions IRL is over-rated; there's always this time-factor where people try to summarize their responses. I've generally gotten much more thoughtful replies from lecturers and TA's on class discussion-fora and in email.

In short, online classes aren't the future; they are the present. My iphone has some 2 gigs of lectures from Stanford and MIT on topics I've always wanted to learn about. I find it quite relaxing to wind down a busy day, listening to the Stanford lectures on US civics and politics, for example (and for sure, I'm doing this without concentrating on it too much, so if I'm required to listen to them in expectation of a reward, like a better grade for example, I perhaps would be less enthusiastic) :-)

That said, online-only degrees are inherently a bad idea. The critical factor here is semi-formal communication; email and discussion-fora and blogs are either very formal and are restricted to the business at hand, or are superfluous and completely informal. There's nothing in the middle. This is crucial because the way you build connections and relationships is by extending formal-communication to informal (an appointment with a lecturer leading on to banter over drinks or lunch or something) or informal to formal (a cuppa with that attractive someone leading to a formalized exchange of vows, at its exaggerated maximum). It's quite hard to do this evolution over cyber-space; we just don't do formal-informal talk well online, certainly not at a level where it can compete with formal-informal talk in meatspace.

Thought about this a fair bit as I was considering an online degree over the past two weeks
posted by the cydonian at 4:10 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Entire elementary schools and high schools have moved to web based classes, so while it definitely will have drawbacks, I thinks it pretty likely that there will be some good online colleges. I'm not sure how cheap they'll be though.
posted by drezdn at 4:36 AM on September 8, 2009


Entire elementary schools and high schools have moved to web based classes...

Which speaks to the exact utility of online learning...rote regurgitation of set data. The exact thing that, time-after-time, gets pilloried here as the great failing of US education. But, it's cost-effective. So, as long as the bottom line continues to be the only metric, online probably will be the future for more and more fields of study. The Wal-Martification of education.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:19 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Online is just another distribution channel for Universities; bricks and mortar won't go away soon, any more than Amazon successfully closed down all physical book stores.

So one way or another Universities will adapt.

One thing I'm curious about that I didn't see addressed is payment of staff: I'm associated with a University that films our lectures, and then plays then online to students who can't physically attend lectures.

When these videos are used I get paid, albeit not as much as I would earn lecturing physically to a room full of students.

Is this the exception or the norm? Clearly I'm filming as many lectures as I can, simply because this provides a passive income stream (and there is nothing I like so much as talking finance).

Anyone else got any experience with online distribution of lectures?
posted by Mutant at 6:34 AM on September 8, 2009


I got a lot of value from my college education. Sure, I could have learned all that crap on my own, but the question is -- would I have? There was something about "being in college" that gave me the motivation to stay in and commit. Like, I was making measurable progress toward a goal, I got rewarded along the way with grades and completed projects, and there was a clear "finish line" at the end of it all. Had I been going about it in a more "a la carte" fashion, there's a good chance it would have taken me a lot longer to finish, and also a greater likelihood that somewhere along the way I would have just chucked the whole thing and gone for a real job.

So yaaaay! Three cheers for college! Of course, I did go to a relatively inexpensive state school, and I did study something 'practical.' I'd probably have a different point of view if I went to one of those $20K/year private colleges and came out of it with, like, a degree in Anthro or English or Sociology or something.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:53 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


The elite universities will be fine. Their main purpose is to network the future Masters of the Universe.

I guess I don't have to ask which secret society Skeletor was in at Yale.
posted by oaf at 7:38 AM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think iamkimiam has it. Certainly the research on online learning shows that students can be successful, but there is often also a high drop-out rate, because many students, particularly the "traditional" undergraduates, do not have the intense motivation and the self-and-time-management skills needed to be successful in online courses. Some people do, and maybe these systems are good for them (although again, they are disconnected from the other intangibles that the college experience offers).

And also, I'm not sure about the price being a factor. My large, public university currently offers some online degrees, and we are being pushed to offer more as a reaction to the financial crisis. We actually charge students *more* for online courses, but then they still get the cache of a degree with the university's name on it. I'm not sure how many more students who want the flexibility of an online degree want to give up the "name brand" university.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:45 AM on September 8, 2009


and then running PCR and sequencing the DNA to confirm their answer.
There is no way someone could complete this lab in their kitchen alone. And I sure as hell wouldn't want a doctor who couldn't do all of the things in this lab.


PCR was invented in 1984. Sanger invented chain-terminator sequencing in '75, but you're probably using a newer technique and maybe one of the automated versions. In all likelihood your physician has never used PCR or sequenced anything. I'm in a medical program at an R1 and have never PCRed or sequenced anything, nor will I.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:50 AM on September 8, 2009


I'm doing my Masters online, however I have to fly to the campus (across the pond) three times for a week or so for in-person classes. Canada really has not embraced online post-secondary education (despite our geography and dispersed population). For myself, my only option for getting this Masters was to either quit my job and move closer to a university offering my programme or going the online route from another country. And yeah, it IS basically a socially-approved piece of paper but I know how to play the game now.
posted by saucysault at 7:53 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


In all likelihood your physician has never used PCR or sequenced anything. I'm in a medical program at an R1 and have never PCRed or sequenced anything, nor will I.

I think it's important for doctors to study microbiology, and I think it's important for pre-meds to begin to learn about it. I can't imagine a doctor exists who doesn't understand what the difference between Gram-positive and Gram-negative is. It's vital information for prescribing antibiotics. It's not necessarily vital that they know how to do PCR and sequencing themselves, but they should understand what that means (and you obviously do, since you're quoting dates and inventors at me).

I know that the medical school here has a microbiology component that all students take that is not unlike the course I'm TAing (just more compact and stressful, like most of medical school). Our medical school is also fairly unique in that it requires all students to spend a year doing research, because they think lab and research skills are critical skills for doctors to master, even if they will never be doing research in their professional practice.

And I was using Micro only as an example. There are hundreds of lab skills vital for doctors that they will learn no other way but by being in a lab, and I don't think it's ridiculous to expect them to begin learning those skills as undergrads.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:42 AM on September 8, 2009


I can't imagine learning Pragmatics in Speech (one of my specialties) in an online setting. Or just for fun, how about Public Speaking, Music or Fine Art (copyright issues), Dance, or Gross Anatomy?
posted by iamkimiam at 8:49 AM on September 8, 2009


Or, in my case, The Golden Age of Spain, a class I never would have taken if it hadn't been raved about by my fellow students, with whom I interacted in classrooms, lunch lines, while checking our mailboxes, etc.

I'm glad that online classes exist, and that they seem to serve a need, and that many people feel good about their online learning experiences. I'm less glad about the "paying for college is stupid just read everything yourself" or "cheap schools are cheaper" attitudes that often rear their heads in threads like these. Not all of us learn as well just by reading a text - we do much better by listening and taking notes and asking questions in class; not all of us who might have gone to Expensive Private Liberal Arts College had the money to go there, and going there was actually less expensive than going to State U, which could offer no financial aid, while Private College could offer boatloads.

Just because I got a lot out of a traditional four-year college education doesn't mean it will work that way for everyone; likewise, those who do best learning online or independently would do well to remember that not everyone will do well in those environments either.
posted by rtha at 9:21 AM on September 8, 2009


I can tell you without a single reservation that students in my online classes do not get the same quality of education that my students do in brick-and-mortar classes. You can put a big giant period after that.

i'm sorry to be blunt, but this is due to either your skill/training as an instructor or the learning management system you are using. (or possibly the time you are devoting to developing and maintaining the course and contacting your students.)

now, that's not necessarily entirely your fault, because over and over again studies have shown that the training for instructors has been woeful. however, the chief issues have been the involvement and attitude both instructors and students have toward the online medium. instructors need to be prompt in their responses, and students need to not expect their teachers to be automatons who respond 24/7. students need to keep up and work hard on time management. (this is why most students fail.) students need to involve themselves in all aspects of the online course (chats, forums, etc.) and instructors need to do so as well.

people throwing out examples of stuff that obviously won't work online are just being obtuse. *obviously* a speech class or art classes or labs are not going to be online courses. however, some students, especially those who are not apt to ask questions in a large lecture course, do far better (and it's been proven so) given an online option. blended classes are best, but online classes can be just as intellectually rigorous, provided the school and their instructors give it the attention it deserves, instead of relegating it to a secondary role with poorly paid lesser-than-adjunct professors doing the classes.

no, universities and campuses will not disappear, but student demand and the rising costs of transportation and campus maintenance will lead to more and more utility toward online courses for many of the classroom tasks that *can best* be done online.

the best scenario would be that students have the choice of driving to a campus and going to a lecture *or* watching it online, and that there be equal effort devoted to making those choices equal in value. many question and answer sessions can be best done online, and instructors could then devote their on-campus time to small discussion groups, labs and all the things that are *best* done in person, with smaller classrooms. large lecture halls don't really serve anyone well, and pretty much everyone knows that.
posted by RedEmma at 11:35 AM on September 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


Those that claim University is simply about prestige miss the point entirely. Much of the groundbreaking scientific and engineering research in the US and worldwide is done in University labs, which bring brilliant people together in one place to work out the world's problems. This simply cannot be done online.

Sure, some of the "programs" at a typical University are glorified day camp, but I contend that a quality engineering or science education is impossible to get online, simply due to the inaccessibility of the necessary lab equipment and lack of access to diverse academic support.
posted by I_am_jesus at 2:18 PM on September 8, 2009


i'm sorry to be blunt, but this is due to either your skill/training as an instructor or the learning management system you are using.

RedEmma, I have logged 125 verified hours of professional development in online instruction in the last six months alone and I consistently receive the highest possible evaluation in a multi-tiered system of instructor oversight. I am a strong proponent of on-line education and my teaching, research, and publication/conference record all demonstrate this. While my degree of preparedness and my instruction certainly factors into the equation, I don't think it's in the manner you suggest.

What I can tell you, though, is that "online institution" varies wildly from course-to-course and institution-to-institution. The one I'm speaking about, particularly, is for-profit and has a marketing machine second to none. Students are sold on the equivalency of the education they receive in their courses to a good on-the-ground institution. Comparing the learning materials they are exposed to, the instructional method I am mandated to use, the clunkly and overly simple LMS, and other factors over 4 different institutions (one other of which I also teach online courses that I design myself), I've come to the conclusion that in my own personal experience, they aren't equivalent. I don't take this personally as I have absolutely zero input or control over my online courses at this institution.

Students in one of these online courses cover, on average about 1/4 of the material I would cover in a face-to-face course of my own design (or one that one of my colleagues teach). I teach various writing courses, and these students produce 1/5 to 1/6 of the amount of text compared to an "equivalent" ground course at another institution. I'd also like to note that these course do not transfer to any of the other institutions I teach at and this is not a political decision, but an accreditation decision. At least this was the case at the one other university where I was making these transfer decisions myself and on disciplinary list-serves where people discuss this very issue.

The assignments in these online courses are primarily in "skill-and-drill" format and while there is ample requirements for course "discussion" few of the students are prepared to engage in this discussion. I spend the greatest portion of my contact time in these online classes counseling students on how to be a student, which is fine, because that is what they need. Of course, I'm mandated to deliver this facile instruction letter-for-letter as it is presented to me. That's fine, because I'm not trained in modifying basic-level or skills-based curricula. I do have to backtrack quite a bit and explain why the curricula is wrong (e.g. I know you created your thesis with the "thesis generator" that you were mandated to use, but here is why it is a nonsense sentence and here is how to fix that.")

My role is to present the material, answer questions, and offer "experience from the field." Anytime I present "experience from the field" as an academic (rather than as a tech writer/consultant, which is why I was hired) I get multiple responses in each section that my class is different than any of the other classes the student has had. They simply are never, ever given the greater intellectual contexts for the work that they do. They are not given the opportunity to explore the "why" of their work as well as the most basic version of "how"? Why is that?

I think this thread has covered the situations in which an online education is a good thing, and when it falls short. I love my students, particularly the ones that are served in an online environment (cancer patients, paraplegics, active duty military, successful business owners, etc.) and make it work for them. But this proprietary online solution is being billed as the way of the future, but it is expensive, it is not equivalent to a brick-and-mortar education in terms of the (choose one: work done, resources offered, contact time), and I am constantly amazed at the willful level of "looking the other way" that my colleagues exhibit because we are told bluntly that if we aren't a "good fit" (read "disagree") with the organization we will be terminated.

Obviously, your mileage has varied.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:12 PM on September 8, 2009 [10 favorites]


I work at an online, for-profit university. I am not an instructor, but I see a lot of the same kinds of issues that mrmojoflying mentions. I don't see any way to reconcile the goals of shareholders with the best interests of students. McDonald's doesn't give a rat's ass about your health - they want to get you in the door and they want your money. They will do what is necessary to stay within the law and health codes, but their primary objective is making a profit, not watching out for your nutritional health. Same thing with for-profit online universities - they have to do certain things to stay on the accreditor's good side - but education of the student is not and can never be the real goal.
posted by desjardins at 4:14 PM on September 8, 2009


Many American institutions are radically overpriced. I work at what is surely the most expensive university in Canada, and current undergraduate tuition is about 7K a year. We have public support as well, of course.

I don't thing online education threatens reasonably-priced universities at all. If anything, they are the ones who will reap the most benefit from it.

This might seem old-fashioned, but the point of higher ed is to sit at the feet of an expert in a field and learn from him/her. You get to sit there with other people who are doing the same thing, and you get to learn from their questions too. You read things the expert in the field thinks is important to getting a grasp on a small piece of that field and the critical thought that built it, and discuss them in a guided manner. Whenever this expertise and guided thought isn't at the core of the higher ed, there's something critical missing. The degree you get of it this process is supposed to be evidence that you have been changed and bettered by the experience, not that you've put in your time in the tower.

If you tried to run an institution on the cheap, could you afford to hire those experts? Could you afford to pay them to teach hundreds (or thousands) of students online? Online courses take significantly more time to run well. Could you afford the millions of dollars a year you'd be required to pay to grant your students access to all that material they need to read? The majority of academic text is behind firewalls. If your cheap institution has poor instructors teaching too many students and inadequate library resources, you don't have a very good degree, and shouldn't be accredited.

Thinking that higher education is all about a piece of paper that any schmo can get, without any particular relationships, resources, or support from experts in the field, is pretty tragic. I wish people who just want a piece of paper could find a way to do it outside of academia. Maybe that's what we're talking about? A new class of degree? (But if you got one, you'd still be second tier to all those people who got the more prestigious degree, the ones who learned from real experts and developed the capacity for critical thought.)

Online education has lots of potential...for real universities with real faculty and a real library. There's no reason why you can't have a close-knit, engaging, intellectually stimulating and rewarding online class experience. You have to keep the numbers small, use a variety of different kinds of online apps, and you need to meet at set times so you can engage with each other in real time. But that's generally not how we play it. We tend toward convenience with online courses, not real academic values. We set up asynch courses; readings, discussion boards, email conversations. It's not good enough to form real connections and real interaction in a short span of time (a term).

A mixture of synch and asynch, reflective venues, discussion options, virtual presence apps (virtual worlds with avatars have some potential there); if I were running an online course right now, I would schedule reading time so that you can react to the reading together online (could use something like firefly to interact with classmates and the instructor over a text) . The commitment to an online class needs to be greater than in person, not less, in order to build those key relationships with fellow students and with the instructor.

Universities, with paid faculty and library resources, could create excellent online courses that would cost more than in-person ones. But they'd probably still be popular.
posted by Hildegarde at 4:48 PM on September 8, 2009


*obviously* a speech class or art classes or labs are not going to be online courses.

I have news for you, many schools around the country are *already* teaching public speaking classes online. It is controversial within the discipline, but it happens. (I think usually they have students videotape speeches and send those in). A colleague who has taught these courses has described them to me as a"phobic's paradise," and I believe it. I don't personally think it's pedagogically sound, but it happens, because administrators are pushing for more and more online degree programs. So I wouldn't count out anything as being "obviously" not taught online.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:40 AM on September 9, 2009


people throwing out examples of stuff that obviously won't work online are just being obtuse. *obviously* a speech class or art classes or labs are not going to be online courses.

Anything that needs real-time interaction from the instructor and/or other students (in other words, everything except large lectures) needs to be done in person. With current technology, it's not possible to replicate that experience outside the classroom. Discussion sections about this week's philosophy reading need to be done in person. You lose something by trying to replicate the classroom experience online, because it's currently impossible, so any efforts necessarily come up short.

some students, especially those who are not apt to ask questions in a large lecture course, do far better (and it's been proven so) given an online option.

According to…? (Not that this is really pertinent, because students should never be asking questions in a large lecture.)
posted by oaf at 1:40 PM on September 9, 2009


As someone with agoraphobia, I am damned glad that I didn't have the OPTION of online classes when I went to college, because I probably would have never left my apartment. I'm serious.
posted by desjardins at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2009




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