Thursday, 21 June 2012

Yesterday, the BBC portal carried a most interesting story, revolving around the new joint Harvard/MIT programme for online education ( The gist is that, after more than a decade of various experiments with “online” or “long-distance” learning by "lesser" universities, the heavyweights of the higher education world are throwing their hats into the ring, in what is likely to be a huge gamechanger.

The Harvard/MIT gamechanger is the following: once these and similar universities enter the online education business, this will no longer be the province of shady, letterbox universities or decent university “cash cows.” Online teaching will include the best of the best and, once the best of the best become available to the world, the world will not settle for less. The masses will be able to watch star professors previously available only to a select few, for little or no money. What are the implications for the rest of higher education, the non-Harvards of this world? How will Harvard itself change?

Online teaching is a reality. There are no technological impediments to having millions, perhaps billions of students across the world watch the same lecture and there have been none for a few years now. Just as with any YouTube clip, any online movie, one can watch a university lecture. It is merely the content that changes and the internet is, for most intents and purposes, content-neutral.

The true game-changers of the future are two: the quality of the teaching (top-notch professors becoming seriously involved) and the idea that maybe, just maybe, these top-notch professors will be teaching real degrees online. For now, the Harvard/MIT online lectures do not lead to a qualifying degree but that is likely to change once the scheme gathers pace. The stakes are enormous: with potentially billions of students worldwide, even the wealthiest universities will not be too shy to try to cash in.

The implications for the non-Harvard/MITs are evident: weaker universities will suffer, or, rather, their top professors will. With English as the lingua franca of today, the position of local “giants” in many fields will become untenable. Given the choice between one's local prof and a Nobel laureate-it is obvious which way the chequebook vote will sway. Once Ivy League online lectures become qualifying degree courses recognised worldwide, the domination of the local prof will be over within a single degree cycle. Is that good or bad? The answer is: both. 

It is good in the sense that billions of people will have access to world-class lecturers and that local mediocrity will lose its (often foul, sometimes downright evil) fiefdoms. Today, even very good universities count themselves lucky if they can get top-notch professors for a third of the courses that they have to provide. In the future, it will be top-notch for everyone. On the downside, diversity of opinion is likely to suffer: the fewer the lecturers, the fewer the opinions. 

But wait-the sceptics cry! Online teaching is unlikely to displace face-to-face teaching in our lifetimes, for at least three reasons. While a lecturer can easily lecture a million students, he cannot assess them nor usefully interact with them. Thus, first and foremost, even if the technological challenges entailed in preventing cheating are overcome, multiple-choice and similar mechanised tests have their limitations, especially in liberal arts/social sciences, where there is not always (or even most of the time)-a right or wrong answer. Second, even if a million students could speak to the lecturer, they could not possibly all pose their questions within a reasonable time-frame. Last but certainly not least, if online courses by Harvard/MIT professors become available globally, at very little cost, the astronomical fees charged by these universities “offline” will no longer be justified-ergo, these universities would be committing suicide if their online education programmes really took off.

The first two issues can and will be overcome and the future of higher education may well be determined by the way in which this is achieved.

The obvious solution for the assessment/interaction problem is to “franchise” the Harvard/MIT courses to local universities. Commercial risk would be borne by the local university, while reputational risk would be borne by Harvard/MIT. This is the archetypical franchise, that has been around at least since McDonald’s and probably longer. In a fast-food franchise, the franchisor provides the recipes, the design and, usually, some of the foodstuffs. It is also in charge of the global advertising campaigns, with oversight over local advertising campaigns. It provides training and local agents that control the franchisees in any given area. The franchisees are then in charge of actually providing the food to the customers, paying local taxes, utilities, salaries and the like. The franchisors earn money through franchise fees, which are usually either fixed or proportional to sales, or a mix of both. The same general model could be applied to universities in the online era. What Harvard/MIT could do is to sell a “package,” which would include, ideally, a set of audiovisual materials, a programme and the right to use their brand, to universities that meet certain criteria. They would also run the global advertising campaign, train local “staff” and supervise them at a regional level. The franchisees, i.e. the local universities, would provide the physical space and, most importantly, trained tutors. These tutors would mark exams and hold tutorials.

A possible evolution of this process that could backfire on Harvard, MIT and their like is that the great university professors will become independent and sell their courses on the open market. The maths are easy: if one lecturer speaks to a million students, even if he were to charge just one dollar per student per course, that course would be worth a million dollars. These are economies of scale and the top professors would start to behave like top athletes, with a single and unrelenting focus: bums on seats. Very soon, of course, individual professors would realise that they cannot handle royalty collection or quality control for millions of students by themselves. Thus, big institutional players would emerge. These could be either the established universities of today, or a whole new breed of businesses, which would specialise in bundling top-notch courses and then distributing them to what would, again, eventually, become a franchise system of some sort. In this scenario, much like what we see today in professional sports or music, the best of the best of the best would get stock options in the new companies, perhaps even retiring from teaching to take a management position.

As regards the third problem-what to do with actual Harvard/MIT students that are paying top dollar for their “offline” education-this is a non-issue or, rather, an issue that would resolve itself. Initially, those Harvard/MIT students that study on campus would have the advantage of having physical access to the best lecturers. This advantage would be furthered by the initial existence of different degrees (there would be “real” Harvard degrees versus “franchise” Harvard degrees, with a large, albeit narrowing price differential). That advantage would wither away, however, as the best lecturers would become too busy designing and producing better and more lucrative courses. With time, these lecturers would have less and less time for research as well and thus a whole new breed of “superlecturers” would emerge, distinct from other university professors. The latter would, if successful, fall into one of two categories: great (but socially inept) researchers and great tutors. The “superlecturers” would be a peculiar professor/model/actor hybrid and their expertise would be found in conveying, rather than creating knowledge (although a great deal of comprehension would still be required-mere actors would not suffice). The survival of researchers would be secure, as somebody would still have to do the “hard science.” The great tutors would be either aspiring superlecturers or socially functional (but not top-notch) researchers with time to spare. Eventually, the term “university” would become an utter misnomer, as what little is left of universality today would finally vanish, through a stratification of both staff and institutions. Superlecturers would work for course design firms (education franchisors), researchers would work with research firms (this process is well underway, with ever-closer and more fruitful "partnerships" between academic research and big business), while lecturers/assessors would find their niche with the education franchisees.

When all is said and done, following the present uncertain, transitional era, with the advent of online teaching higher education will finally come to terms with market principles, in a way that need not sacrifice quality. The best lectures would become available to all, albeit with a premium for better tutorship/assessment. Top lecturers would match the commercialisation and high earnings of top researchers, while rising global demand for higher education would secure the future of tutors/assessors. The only challenge will be how to preserve plurality, once teaching is concentrated in the hands of the superlecturers. It is likely, however, that this challenge will be met by the openness of the internet (provided it stays open in the future) and the existence of a multitude of local tutors, who will inevitably put their own mark on the centrally approved course materials. University tutors have proven themselves capable, time and again, to evade even the toughest totalitarianism; faced with a financial incentive to keep their franchises going, the course franchisors are likely to exercise only light censorship. As research becomes ever more separated from teaching and as research results become ever more widely available, it is unlikely that superlecturers will become the new "Ayatollahs."

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