The Virtual University is Possible; Are We Ready?

October 31st, 2011 by under The University in the Future, The University Today. No Comments.

A popular Stanford Professor, Sebastian Thrun, is offering an online course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, free of charge to about 130,000 students around the world. If students complete the exams, they receive a certificate of accomplishment, not college credit. Thun thinks that the virtual University is the way of the future because the cost of the current University model is so high. The idea is that in a setting with a smaller number of students, teaching assistants could meet virtually with students in smaller groups for discussions of lecture material (New York Times, 10/3/2011).

The idea of star faculty teaching across the country or the world online has been possible since the dawn of the Internet, but except in limited instances it has not happened yet. Maybe no one can agree on who the best instructor for introductory economics would be. Possibly faculty are afraid of becoming unnecessary if a few hundred of the country’s best lecturers teach all the intro courses in the University. What tenured faculty member wants to be relegated to leading discussion sections for a star from another University’s online lectures?

The article mentions some problems with online teaching, for example, it would be easy for an online student to cheat or to have someone else take the course for him. Will students sit at their computers, but tune out during the lectures? If there are hundreds of students, where will the teaching assistants come from? (Thune’s course would need 5200 TAs to have 25 person sections for discussion.) If the virtual model takes hold, we will need fewer faculty and that means fewer graduate students preparing to be faculty members. Would there be enough graduate students to staff discussion sections? Would faculty members be willing to do so just to have a job?

The economics of virtual are orders of magnitude more favorable than the bricks and mortar university. In other domains it appears that consumers have already decided that virtual is better than physical, for example, think of recorded music, newspapers, photography, video distribution, online commerce and book publishing. What does the physical university have to offer? The president of Stanford, John Hennessy, is supporting Thune, but he also argues that there are huge benefits, especially for undergraduate education, from having students together physically to be immersed in a culture of exploration, discovery and hopefully, critical thinking. The author of the Times article describes our University system as “a wonder of the world.” But how long can we afford this wonder?

Is there a way to preserve tradition and at the same time reverse the constantly increasing costs of college? The four-year college of the future has to change if it is to remain economically viable. In an earlier blog I presented ideas on how to restructure the University into four parts, an undergraduate college, a graduate school (for a university), a research division and a franchised athletic operation. Here I want to concentrate on the teaching side that affects the first two units.

Consider a University offering undergraduate and graduate education. It will draw on some national courses, probably of two types, to be offered online with local faculty and graduate students running discussion sections. The first type of course will be the very large lecture that might have hundreds of students; this course like intro Economics, Psychology, Political Science, etc. will feature lectures from the leading teachers in the country. These teachers will earn modest revenues for their university. Local faculty will organize the classes and supplement the online lectures with their own material. In a sense, they will co-teach the course with the remote, star faculty member from another institution.

The second type of course will be specialized like Thune’s lectures on AI; he is the designer of Google’s self-driving car which means he can offer a course that few others could. Having specialized faculty and courses like this will enrich the offerings of any college and expand choice for students.

In an earlier blog I suggest that the nature of the college experience will change. Some, probably a relatively few, will spend four years on a campus getting an undergraduate education. A much larger number will spend various periods of time on the campus, taking the rest of their courses virtually. The technology exists to have much of this online teaching done with synchronous video and audio interaction over the Internet; we are not talking about the University of Phoenix asynchronous online courses. Instead the faculty member and students see all of the others in the class on their screens so that the interactivity of a physical class is captured online.

The technology is just about ready for this kind of model; unfortunately universities in general are not. At some point in the not-too-distant future, cost pressures and student demand will force us to move in this direction. It might make sense to start that movement now to be ready for an environment in which the competition among colleges for students will exceed the competition between their athletic teams.