The computer revolution keeps transforming everyday life -- and universities evidently will be next to undergo radical change. Online learning offers a way to slash the severe cost of higher education, and to reach millions more students.
A new book, Higher Education in the Digital Age, says a "tsunami" of electronic classes soon will sweep thousands of colleges. Nobody is sure where the upsurge is heading, but it seems unstoppable. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
"Some people, like Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen, predict that in as little as 15 years, half of the colleges in the United States will be in bankruptcy, upended by online learning and the move to hybrid models in which only select classes are taught in person on campus. Others see more incremental shifts, with virtual learning remaining a tool rather than a transformative technology in higher education."
So far, the stampede involves mostly MOOCs (massive open online courses), each taken by perhaps 100,000 students around the world at no cost, without college credit. West Virginia University is the first in this state to join the MOOC bandwagon. Later, it's assumed that universities will begin charging for their MOOC courses and giving credits for passage.
We hope this snowballing change will bring low-cost college to multitudes of young Americans -- and we hope it can be done without bankrupting today's institutions.
Dr. Wade Gilley, former Marshall University president, has written a forthcoming book saying state-owned universities have operated chiefly on "$1 trillion of debt currently owed by college and university students and former students. Today, more than 35 million Americans owe an average of $28,000 in college loans, and half have not earned and are not likely to earn a four-year degree."
It's a shame that so many young Americans were forced to sink into so much debt, just to support the old-style model of higher education. If computerized learning can slash this burden, it will be a blessing.
State legislatures have downsized tax support for public universities. Currently, WVU is raising tuition (again) and freezing salaries in a frantic attempt to cope with a $13 million loss of taxpayer funding. We hope online courses will open possible ways to cut operating cost.
Harvard's Dr. Christensen and a colleague, Dr. Henry Eyring of Brigham Young University, wrote The Innovative University. During an interview, Eyring said:
"Fundamental change is coming to higher education. We're seeing the confluence of unsustainable cost increases in the traditional model and a disruptive technology, online learning, that makes it possible to serve many more students at high quality and affordable cost. The result will be greater innovation than we've seen in higher education in more than a century."
Affluent families will continue sending their children to expensive universities, which offer great opportunities for success, he said. "But students on the margin, those who can't really afford to move away from home and give up good jobs, will increasingly choose the fully online option."
As we said, the cyber revolution is unstoppable. For good or bad, it will change universities as it has changed most other facets of life.