In a recent Wall Street Journal interview about college costs and online learning, Stanford University President John Hennessy said, "What I told my colleagues is there’s a tsunami coming. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there." Stanford and other elite institutions, such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are not sitting back and waiting for technology to disrupt higher education — they are out there experimenting with both delivery formats and cost. They are part of the change. This is why they are elite. They boldly anticipate. And they have the wealth, confidence and the unassailable market niche to do so.
But are they looking in the right place for that tsunami? I would argue “no!” Much of their current effort is directed at experimenting with online learning. This is a necessary component of the massive change that potentially will reconfigure higher education in the United States. Princeton and Stanford Universities and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania have combined to form Coursera, offering free selected courses to the public. Harvard and MIT have announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to do the same. Carnegie Mellon is offering its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) to the public.
But all of these efforts are not the tsunami. Open online learning is merely a tool that adds variety to how education is delivered. And many 18-21-year-olds and their families still believe — despite the rhetoric to the contrary — that a college education is as much about maturing in a residential setting as it is about learning or getting a job.
No, online learning may be part of the current, but the tsunami itself will be something different. The tsunami will come from a notion as old and as distinctive as American education itself. The notion about which I speak is that education takes place not just in the classroom — and now through a computer, iPad or smart phone screen — but literally "everywhere, anywhere, anytime."
Yes, education happens in schools and colleges, but it happens also in the home, on the job, at places of worship and through individual initiative. Education also is never finished. A degree offered decades ago — even a few years ago — is obsolete with respect to up-to-date factual knowledge (critical-thinking skills, leadership skills in a residential setting and historical knowledge stay relevant, however). The "anytime" in a distinctively American education means that there is an imperative to amass knowledge through a lifetime and demonstrate acquisition.
Now, imagine that a highly respected, unassailable institution or set of institutions offers a set of completion exams at the bachelor’s level to anyone everywhere, anywhere, anytime. One need only look at the GED, or to some extent the Western Governors University, to say this is possible. Of course, a GED probably doesn’t have the "prestige" of a regularly earned degree and the WGU is still a new model. But we are talking here about what is possible over time with experimentation, improved technologies and unrelenting public pressure to offer an undergraduate education at a more reasonable price than currently predicted.
Necessity clearly still drives invention. Imagine that this move is made by those extremely prestigious research universities currently at initial stages of experimentation with online learning, open access and the rewarding of certificates. Imagine that these universities find a way to equal a high level of academic achievement online to that on their residential campuses, are secure in knowing that there will be always sufficient students who wish a traditional residential experience at their respective campus, and convince their alumni and the public that their coursework on campus and online is academically equivalent as far as the transfer of knowledge is concerned. Would they ultimately leave money on the table in times of ever increasing financial constraint and unrelenting demand to fund pioneering research? Would they restrain from total market dominance?
Imagine the moment when these completion exams permit a person to assemble learning from a variety of academic institutions and life experiences to complete a degree. At that moment, the monopoly of institutions over source and cost loosens, and the student gains control of how knowledge is to be gained and at what price. At that moment, the sources of learning are severed from credentialing. At that moment, American higher education is radically changed.
A tsunami is in the making, but it will encounter a wall of resistance in yet another defining characteristic of American higher education — a 24/7 residential learning and living experience that aims not just to transfer knowledge to 18-21-year-old students, but also to guide their maturation into citizenship. This pushback will be located squarely in the historically prestigious liberal arts colleges and in those institutions like the Ivies and the major research universities confident in securing undergraduates regardless of alternative developments because they have the wealth to afford what always was. But this wall of resistance is not very deep when it comes to all students. All the governors and other policy makers embracing WGU and other forms of recognition for prior learning as well as online learning seem to be quite willing to give up that residential experience, at least for other people’s children.
This residential learning is often inefficient, costly and repetitive, and that is because many developing young people are emotionally and intellectually unpredictable during undergraduate years. The mission for much of 18-21-year-old undergraduate education is to move these students to another level of maturity and corresponding engagement. It is a worthy pursuit. It is education for democracy.
The tsunami is close to shore. The warning siren is sounding. But the outcome is not evident. A barrier — albeit increasingly thin -- formed by commitment to undergraduate residential education for democracy confronts a wave of convenience and necessity defined by centralized credentialing, dispersed sourcing of knowledge and learner-controlled pricing. This is the wave to surf and the shoreline to protect.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.