Today is Spencer’s birthday. He is eleven years old and as the youngest in the family, he will be the last to enter college. Mom is already dreading the day and just might move into the dorm with her baby. Sometimes being the youngest in the family sucks. For Spence this includes the concern that the traditional college experience may not be available to him when he graduates high school and alas, on-line programs don’t offer soccer scholarships.
It has become fashionable to depict the traditional university as a dinosaur facing extinction. Honestly, I probably read ten a week. Mark Cuban, for example, had a provacative post on Linkedin the other day expressing concern that colleges may go bankrupt in the next few years (to read it click here), the latest victims of the internet revolution. If so, Spence won’t have a dorm to move into and will have to get an education on-line while sitting on mom’s couch next to an unemployed me.
To give Cuban his due, he advocates college for young people and I like his idea of encouraging students to have a well-thought out plan. His primary concern is that our institutions of higher education are taking on way too much debt in the race to create an ever more appealing campus environment for students. He believes these costs are needlessly driving up tuition rates (along with high-priced administrators) and resulting in empty seats. Cuban appeals for lower cost alternatives and sounds the alarm by comparing the future of higher education to the newspaper industry.
Like many others who predict the demise of traditional universities, Mark Cuban is wrong. Television didn’t kill the movies. Baseball and hockey are way better in person. Cuban and all his owner buddies keep wanting more expensive stadiums and charge ever higher ticket prices even though they know you could sit home and watch the game for free (or for twenty-five bucks per month if you buy the cable company’s sports package). While the owners capture a lot of revenue from television deals, these guys also know nobody would watch if the arenas were empty. So why do we all behave this way? Why do we go to the movie rather than wait for it to come out on Redbox? Why do we pay a small fortune to take a family of four to the ballgame rather than just watch it at home? It’s the experience stupid..you go for the experience.
The newspaper comparison is flawed. The newspaper isn’t an experience. It is a method for getting information and these days it is rarely first to the scoop unless it tweets local breaking news like the Sentinel. A transformative education, on the other hand, is an experience. It is about how to create, analyze and use concepts and tools to make sense of the world, expand your horizons, and construct a better future. It must be shared with others and works best when guided by someone who has novel experiences and a provocative vision of the future.
The dirty secret of on-line education is that it’s not cheap. It is not offered at a discount relative to the bricks and motor alternative at the same institution and typically generates large margins at for profit institutions by employing contingent faculty who earn very low wages. (You want to learn from someone who makes more than you do.) I have yet to see a really big name professor earn a living off of an on-line course. And before you say MOOC, hype is way out in front of revenue there . Maybe some day a famous person’s massive on-line course will be brought to you by the ACME Corporation or some other sponsor, but until then I’m not worried about products that don’t generate revenue–that has dot.com bubble written all over it. Correspondence courses, by the way, were going to revolutionize education and realize many of these same alleged benefits back in the day.
But where I think Cuban is right (despite some recent evidence) is in his argument that better work-out facilities and a winning football team aren’t going to save higher education. The key to a sustainable business model for higher education lies in embracing the notion that the person in front of the classroom matters. That the people in the seats matter and that the interaction between and among them matter. It is not the dorm or the coffee bar that is at the center of the college experience, it is the classroom, student clubs and well-integrated co-curricular activities that drive the experience. It is the opportunity to sit on a log next to someone with interesting stuff to say and engage in a conversation. Success will come by investing there.
So what of Spencer? Where will he show up in 2021 and what will his college experience be like? How about flipped classrooms with jelly? A flipped classroom uses technology to complement what faculty do rather than try to replace them with cheaper labor and it opens classtime for engaging discussion around the most recent developments. Jellies, on the other hand are casual work events. They are popular with freelancers, home workers, entrepreneurs and people running small businesses who meet up in order to get out of their normal space, meet different folks and work together in a social environment. Jellies solve the isolation problem and encourage innovation through proximity to diverse sets of people with common interests. Applied to higher education, jellies are experiential learning venues positioned at the crossroads of campus where you go to get out of your comfort zone, take risks, and learn from each others’ failures as well as successes. Universities will need to create different kinds of spaces to provide these experiences and faculty who are skilled coaches and mentors rather than lectures, but the institutions that offer scalable models of this type of college experience will kick on-line’s butt.
So don’t worry Spence. Go have some chocolate ice cream. Two bowls if you’d like, its your birthday. We will figure this out and a vibrant UCF will be here waiting for you.