Rethinking College 2.0

For a while now I’ve been predicting the eventual transition to College 2.0, a dramatic change in the way that colleges operate because of the influence of on-line classes.

When I was in graduate school, our department’s funding was, in large part, based on how many students we taught. If that’s how funding is allocated, classes like freshman calculus, chemistry and physics bring in lots of money. They’re also probably the classes that are most easily moved to purely on-line versions, and the economic pressures on higher education will probably make this transition inevitable. And it will almost certainly greatly affect what many colleges will look like in the future as departments get dramatically reduced funding from teaching on-line classes instead of face-to-face ones. I call what comes after this change as “College 2.0.” 

My recent experience with a class through Coursera has led me to reassess what I think College 2.0 will be like.

The class that I recently took covered quantum mechanics and quantum computing. I learned a lot from this class and I think that others who took it also did. I’d say that it was easily equivalent to a serious upper-level undergraduate or first-year graduate class. It was clearly more advanced than freshman calculus, chemistry or physics. And it worked just fine in the purely on-line format.

There were some aspects of the all-on-line format that didn’t work well for me. On some of the homework assignments I’d get a question wrong, and it was frustrating to not have someone to ask about exactly why I got it wrong and how to get it right. But my overall impression was that the education that you get in an all-on-line class is just as good as what you get in their much more expensive face-to-face versions.

And I’ve heard similar reviews of lots of the other very technical classes offered through Coursera – they’re just as good as the version that you’d pay for if you were attending college in person. In many cases they’re actually much better.

So if you can learn a lot about cryptography by taking the free on-line class taught by Dan Boneh or if you can learn a lot about quantum computing by taking the free on-line class taught by Umesh Vazirani (both superstars in their fields), the relative value of the face-to-face versions will probably decrease, and that will probably affect how future colleges are structured. Maybe we’ll see undergraduate education entirely replaced by on-line classes in the not-too-distant future, leaving graduate school the last place in higher education where face-to-face interaction is the norm.

Another possibility parallels what we see happening in academic publishing today. The high cost of specialized academic journals will probably drive the market towards a two-tier system in which a few printed, high-prestige journals continue to exist in printed form, but most of the rest move to a purely electronic format. Similarly, people might still pay lots of money to attend high-prestige colleges like Harvard or Stanford in-person, but the offerings of less prestigious institutions will become dominated by on-line classes with few, if any, taught in physical classrooms in the traditional way.

And if you make that step, it seems that economics will eventually force the move to College 3.0, in which most academic positions that aren’t supported by either endowments or grants disappear, leaving many fewer of them available.

So it’s not clear to me what will follow College 2.0, but it will probably be as different from College 2.0 as College 2.0 was from the 1.0 version that I attended. But with the clever use of whatever technology is available after College 2.0 becomes the norm, I expect College 3.0 to be much cheaper than yet just as effective as its more expensive predecessors.

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