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?