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Universities: Back To The Future?

by Stuart Shapiro

When I’m not pontificating about politics, I’m spending time thinking about what the future holds for public universities (like the one that employs me).  David Brooks thinks that technology and online classes represent the future.

The doubts are justified, but there are more reasons to feel optimistic. In the first place, online learning will give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T.

Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions.

And Brooks’ point has merit, online teaching lowers the cost of providing an education, an essential as more and more people want a college education.  Brooks notes this but is optimistic.  Anthony Grafton less so:

The problem with these remedies is simple: one ends up destroying the village in order to save it. Online teaching can work very well—but doing it properly, with skilled consultants available to help students personally at any time, is not cheap, and doing it cheaply does not yield good results. Online education, when provided without such backup, is another and a nobler word for extorting tuition money for nothing.

Much like it did for media and entertainment, the future is coming quickly for higher education.  And our ability to shape it is rapidly disappearing.

About Stuart Shapiro

Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels. Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

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