On E-Universities

Megan McArdle tackles the future of society and universities in a recent article at The Atlantic. In response to a post on the future of universities by Stephen Gordon at the Boston Globe, she enumerates her predictions for how societies will change if universities change to a totally online model.

Both McArdle and Gordon place great emphasis on cost, and perhaps not wrongly. Gordon claims that because they can hire an MITx credentialed student for cheaper than a regular university grad due to lack of student loans, the MITx model win win. McArdle says that the economies-of-scale that result will make us all go to the cheaper option and she thinks that’s good. But there are a couple of assumptions that are implicit in the analysis that I find incredibly disturbing. And not just because it would likely put me out of a job.

The first is that it’s valuable to have everyone learn the same thing. I find this horrifying. Yes, it’s useful if everyone used the same computer programming language, but if they did, then things wouldn’t progress. They become entrenched, like the QWERTY keyboard, which we all know is inefficient, and yet we learn and use it anyway. I think it’s great that most economists use Stata, but I also think it’s great that some use SAS, so that if I needed something done in SAS–which handles large datasets much better, while Stata is perhaps simpler to learn–I could get it done.

I want to know people who have read different books and studied different thinkers and learned different ways of studying or learning about the world. I think life would be incredibly boring otherwise.

Secondly, though McArdle mentions it, I think both authors severely underestimate the networking effect of college. McArdle says that we’ll need to find a different way to essentially make friends, but I think it’s more than that.

People I know from college represent not only many of my close friends, but also collaborators, colleagues, coauthors, references, providers of services, and directors of charities I support. If I wanted to go into investment banking or consulting or medicine or some other field, I have a list of people I would call for advice and to let them know what I was hoping to find, work-wise. I’d imagine that at least one Duke alum, if not many, would aid in my career change or become a client down the line.

This is not unique to Duke. If I’d gone to CU or Stanford or UVA or Metropolitan State, those networks would still be important. And important to my employer, not just to me. I think employers recognize this. Education signalling is not just about quality (regardless of noise levels), there’s also an assumption that who you know might matter at some point, as well.

Besides, what the heck are journalists going to cover if researchers aren’t putting out papers and books?


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