As I said in my last post, there were three key readings supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA.  The second of these was David Brooks’s “The Campus Tsunami” of May 3rd.

Brooks says that the key recent shift in online education is the entrance of elite schools into the online arena:

[O]ver the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.

Brooks presents an optimistic view.  Note that, like Kirschner before him, he cites Clayton Christensen to make his point:

In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course.

Brooks implies that elite universities will gain from online education but only by changing their practices dramatically; his is the sunnier articulation of Kirschner’s gloomy take on the status quo.  Brooks closes with this:

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

I am not ready to hazard many guesses about the future of elite institutions, but I would take the other side of a bet on Brooks’s first proposition.  The deployment of high-quality introductory courses online will make it very much harder to be “a terrible university on the wide-open Web” and for that matter to be a community college or other institution other than the most selective.  The more the education you deliver is about building skills rather than establishing credentials, the more of a challenge the new model will be.  I will explain this opinion in light of my experience with the Stanford online course: stay tuned.


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