Higher Education – The Impact of the Internet has been underestimated

The established model of higher education is roughly as follows. A young person – typically 18 to 22 years old – dedicates a portion of their lives, usually 3 or 4 years, to the acquisition of a piece of paper, which certifies knowledge or competence in a particular field. This involves large opportunity costs, as for the duration of the course the student is usually only able to work part-time at most. In many countries (the UK and particularly the US) there are also substantial direct costs, with students taking on debt to finance their studies. Other costs in this process are:

  • Travel costs for students. Lectures, seminars etc. are held in central locations, to which students must travel.
  • Infrastructure costs, the institutions involved must dedicate substantial resources to the provision of buildings, equipment etc.
  • Personnel costs – an army of lecturers, teaching assistants and so on, many of them mediocre, together with an auxiliary army of bureaucrats to administer the whole process.

Several organisations, such as coursera.org, have begun offering university-level courses to the public via the Internet. The lectures are videos and the students have the opportunity to interact with each other and the academic staff via discussion groups etc. Although this approach is still very much in it’s infancy, the potential is clear, with not only cost savings a prospect, but also qualitative benefits. A list of advantages:

  • No necessity to travel to a central location – saves money and time.
  • Fewer infrastructure costs, mostly servers, networks etc.
  • Vastly reduced personnel costs, attained through massive reduction of bureaucracy, but also a reduced number of lecturers. With this model a good lecturer can now reach potentially millions, rather than at most several thousand.
  • Flexibility- a student can work through the study materials in his own time, at his own pace. This makes it much easier to combine study with work or with family activities. This approach also makes it much easier for people of all ages and at all stages of professional/career developement to study.
  • Since many fewer lecturers are needed, all lectures can be delivered by the minority of very good ones – improvement in the quality of the learning experience. Those who prefer to spend time on research, but who often have teaching commitments, will be freed to do so.
  • Greater control by the student of the learning experience. For example, if the student has difficulty comprehending a concept at a particular stage in the lecture, he can pause the video to think, to research the question elsewhere, or to simply review that particular part of the lecture. After understanding is reached, the video can be resumed.
  • Enhanced networking among students to facilitate learning through discussion fora etc.

It is of course neither possible nor desirable for online study to completely replace bricks-and-mortar colleges or universities. What it will do however, is revolutionise higher education by sinking costs, delivering overall a better standard of education, and shaking up the often comfortable world of academe.

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