The Corona Virus of 2020-2021 taught us a lot of things. Some of the things were not so flattering to us, but other lessons forced us to re-examine how we do “normal”. We found that because of the ubiquity of computers, tablets, smartphones, and internet connections we can continue educating people while isolating from each other.
I’ve previously shared my daughter’s varied and somewhat unusual education path. None of that variety, until college, would have been possible except that her mother worked from home. Because of the continuing shrinking of the middle class, the “stay at home” mom has become rare. For many people, elementary, junior high, and high school have become childcare providers as well as educators. Barring some massive societal changes, these institutions will most likely not change.
However, college and university life could change dramatically, lowering costs and becoming more flexible and accessible, though it will take unimaginable pressure to change these glacial institutions. There are currently available on the internet free courses, taught by some of the best professors in some of the best universities in the world. There are a number of companies offering these courses, most are free, but for some small amounts of money, you can buy a certificate of completion. Some universities are offering various full degrees online through these companies.
My question is; why should a large university have twenty different sections of freshman English? One video course taught by one engaging popular professor could teach thousands of students anywhere in the world for years for very little cost. Homework can be submitted electronically, graded by graduate students, and supervised by department heads. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math courses with labs might require some time spent on-site where the facilities are available, but much of the information in these courses can be dispensed by the internet. Trade schools could function the same way, but with more hands-on training.
The traditional college experience has no function that should cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. Textbooks that cost $300 per book should be obsolete. Books can be transformed into electronic books that can be sold for next to nothing. Areas of study that experience rapid changes in knowledge can be updated frequently as needed. The centers of learning in the United States are not using or changing with the technology available to them.
What about school history and pride? These are remnants of tribalism that serve no purpose towards creating an education. All of the sports activities on campus can be privatized. If the highest-paid person on campus is a football coach or basketball coach then your university is already running a sports franchise. We need to stop pretending that the massive infrastructures we have created as university systems are the most efficient method of providing education. The price of a college degree can be reduced by 90% or more and I would challenge anyone to show that the retained learning isn’t as good.
What about the “college experience”? I’m sure that 18-24-year-olds will have no problem finding places to party. This age group knows how to form internet study groups and group chats, and find answers to virtually any questions. What can be learned by sitting in a classroom with 30, 50, or 150 other students? I personally never liked group discussions in class. I believed I paid my tuition to hear a teacher share knowledge and experience. I wasn’t interested in swapping uneducated opinions with other students. If student interaction is necessary start a zoom group so they can argue online. The libraries should stay in place but all college and university libraries need to be open to all students, in the 21st-century learning does not need to be dictated by geographic location. Laboratories and training centers should be shared or have minimal cost.
Change is difficult. The people who run large institutions be they government, corporations, or nonprofits rarely decide that it is a good idea to downsize. The almost universal goal is to grow and to have more influence and power. This justifies large salaries and bonuses. Is that what universities exist to be? Income producers to support high-salaried administrative positions and sports teams? Students don’t gain anything by being forced to a location, having classroom hours dictated, and being one more factor unit on the education assembly line. I have taken many online classes including a master’s degree program. I learned and retained more from my online courses than from any classroom I’ve ever been in.
One of the biggest problems in the United States is the extremely high cost of an advanced education. We have the tools available right now to begin to change the current system, to make it better, faster, and more efficient. We just need the will to begin.