Is a Virtual Revolution Brewing in Colleges?

John SenerBy John Sener

The idea that US colleges and universities are on the brink of demise, or at least radical transformation, has been around for a long time. It’d be interesting to see how long, exactly, but Peter Drucker seems to be the progenitor of most current thinking. Over the past 20 years, based on his musings on education in his 1989 book The New Realities and accelerating with his 1997 prediction that large universities would become relics in 30 years, commentators have been concerned about the obsolete “business design” of the university (1996), echoing Drucker’s predictions of demise (2005) etc.

This year, the pace has picked up: David Wiley asserted that the “university will be irrelevant by 2020“; commentators are predicting that colleges are facing the same doomed fate as ailing newspapers for much the same reasons; and now we have this article, “A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges” by Zephyr Teachout (Washington Post, 13 Sep. 2009).

What is really going on here? Certainly it is ridiculous to take these predictions at face value. Every time one looks at them closely, they dissolve into irrelevance on the surface. This WaPo article is no exception: it goes completely off track by the end of the fifth sentence. “The market” is not the force for change in education; colleges are not like newspapers; education is about a lot more than sharing information; the social ritual of getting a dorm room is not disappearing anytime soon either. Teachout, as with other business-oriented commentators on education, does not understand that education is a complex system animated and sustained by a variety of important competing forces interacting dynamically with each other and operating fundamentally differently from business.

Tellingly, when I first tried to find the article on WaPo, the first article I found was a piece on how the University of Maryland is trying to crack down on drinking. It’s not a pretty scene, but social drinking is a much more powerful and cohesive force in university life than the cost of online learning (wasn’t paper-based correspondence learning cheaper also, BTW?). And anyone who thinks that universities will become “relics” in 18 years or so needs to chill out at a tailgating party. Drucker was brilliant, but even geniuses get it way wrong sometimes.

Teachout’s article, and indeed this entire line of thought, only makes sense to me in two respects (other than being flat out wrong): ( 1) the authors are just trying to get attention by provocative exaggeration, and (2) they are trying to move public opinion by asserting a position that is only casually related to rationality or actual facts. Both these are very much in tune with the times, but the numerous disconnects between superficial attention-seeking headlines or sound bites and the underlying reality bother me.


What really bothers me, though, are the possible negative consequences of excessive hype. For example, online education has changed the face of higher education, but has it been “revolutionary” or “radical?” I would argue that it hasn’t.


What does it mean, for example, to say that “universities will be irrelevant by 2020”? They have already been irrelevant for decades in some ways, which is why small liberal arts colleges exist and why community colleges, private for-profits like University of Phoenix, et al. have filled the vacuum in those areas that universities have mostly ignored during the expansion of higher education in the US over the past 40+ years. But maybe Wiley was merely aiming to provoke or prod in a particular direction rather than to predict. Perhaps this has become commonplace because, in our “blink“ered” world, subtle or complex messages get lost while only simple messages gain traction. Take, for example, the recent USDE report on online learning. The report’s summary messages don’t match its actual content, and its methodology is deeply flawed. But the basic message (online learning is even better than classroom) is getting out there and starting to cause some pushback.

Teachout’s article does not even rise to the level of “Drucker Lite” quality. The ingredients are there, but the article makes a hash of it. “Colleges also sell information?” Redundant Sociology 101 courses are all that stand between the academy and its imminent “structural disintegration?” The drive to cut costs will come to rule higher education policy? Please.

What really bothers me, though, are the possible negative consequences of excessive hype. For example, online education has changed the face of higher education, but has it been “revolutionary” or “radical?” I would argue that it hasn’t. Are the predicted changes greater than the creation of community colleges, the GI Bill, or the growth of private for-profit institutions? If so, how? If not, why all the fuss? I worry that the hype of such pronouncements may actually retard the progress of needed, substantive change; if big changes are afoot, then other needed changes will be overshadowed and ignored.

Here’s what I would really like to see: a deep, reflective examination of what changes are really needed — what would be truly transformational? Ironically, I find more useful material in the reactions to these articles than in the articles themselves. For example, why does a Smith co-ed believe that the “personal touch” is only possible in classroom and campus interactions? (Has she not heard of Facebook?? OMG… ;-) What does “personal touch” actually mean in this context? Why do so many college faculty believe that they have this magic ability to gauge the ‘aha’ moment of all the students in their classrooms? Because as readers’ comments and writers’ reactions show, a myriad of unexamined, deeply held assumptions are out there. At the same time, Drucker and the line of thought he engendered are on to something: change is happening, mostly nibbles around the edges, but there are some serious issues that need to be resolved pretty soon. My bias is that a more thoughtful approach is better. But maybe these articles are a necessary part of the process?

4 Responses

  1. Hi John – all indicators are that David Wiley is correct in asserting that many colleges will become irrelevant in a few years. The only thing I would add is that I do not believe he is saying that “education” and the role of faculty will become obsolete. What I take away from him is that the current model of banking style of education where professors blab on and on, that will become obsolete. I’d also extend that to current learning management systems. So that’s what will become obsolete, but “education” and the role of the faculty will always be here, but what has already begun to change is how we deliver education, how much we charge (if any), and yes, people like Shai at University of the People are also redefining the role of faculty, but not eliminating them completely. I felt compelled to comment because I feel that many critics are worried about their future role when the dreaded “change” happens – for example, at Tech U we are requiring that each faculty member have a LinkedIn profile ane we will post a photo of the faculty member on our site with a link to their LinkedIn site – I feel that transparency is key, especially with online learning.

    So my point is that if people are worried about change and becomming irrelevant themselves, then all that have to do is set up a free LinkedIn profile and Facebook page as well – it’s really not that hard to stay current and relevant but I think it first requires us all – myself included – to take a deep look at ourselves and our approach to learning.

    Ironically, I started protesting when I was in college because my professor required me to email him in order to get the course syllabus – I was a shit stirrer then – wow, and once the military taught me about leadership, personal accountability, followership, and not arguing and complaining about everything, I soon realized many of my shortcomings as an educator – WOW, and who would have thought that the guy that tried to stop email use by faculty would be championing the greatest movement ever within higher ed? Fun times!

  2. Higher ed on the decline? Poised for an overthrow? Ready to topple? Online learning the Trojan Horse to bring the attackers behind the ivy walls? Online learning another threat to the stability (morbidity?) of higher ed? Perhaps. But then again maybe not. Higher ed has a history of being the classic Tar Baby – absorbing punch after punch from one usurper after another. More and more colleges are incorporating and expanding online courses as students fill up whatever online courses are offered. Why? Colleges want more FTEs (full time equivalents) and online learning is proving the vehicle to bring those students to campus. But why do students gravitate to online learning? Not for any pedagogical reasons. Students prefer the flexibility offered by 24/7 asynchronous online courses – no driving to campus, no fighting for limited parking spaces, no tethering to a specific time on a given day. Simply put, online learning more closely fits the increasingly hectic needs of today’s students, especially the part-time, nontraditional students who are working and raising a family. If traditional higher ed institutions want to stave off any thought of a “down with the king” uprising by students fleeing to online courses at more U of Phoenix alternatives, then they need to think more of students as human beings with needs, often very basic needs (e.g., staffing the registrar’s office with cross-trained knowledgeable folks who work past the no longer appropriate 9-5 workday that was yesterday, more student services available online, more parking spaces). UOP has over 400,000 students – a fact that cannot be debated. Higher ed admin and faculty might look at UOP with distain but they cannot scoff at 400,000+ students who have chosen to attend there. If higher ed continues with its typical “let them eat cake” response to obvious (at least obvious to all but higher ed) student needs, then truly the end is preordained. It’s just a matter of time. But it won’t be siren calls of online learning, per se, that bring down walls of Jericho. The growth (aka threat) of online learning just is symptomatic of a higher ed system in need of a reboot before it crashes.

  3. Upon doing some research, it seems that the WaPo article is a follow-up treatment of an earlier Teachout article, Welcome to Yahoo! U, in another publication. Here’s the first article dated Sept. 8,0

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