Online Education = Electric Vehicles; Scaled Low-Cost Quality Online Degrees = Autonomous Vehicles

Using transportation to think about the future of higher education.

October 21, 2021

Online education and electric vehicles are on the same inevitable trajectory.

At some point, almost every car, truck and bus will be electric. The internal combustion engine (ICE) will hang on for some years. Two or three decades, tops. But ICE is a technology of the 20th century, not the 21st. Electric cars are part of the solution for decarbonization. The pace of substitution of electricity for gas will be a function of battery cost, storage and efficiency. As batteries get bigger, better and cheaper, the case for ICE vehicles evaporates.

Online learning will never fully replace face-to-face education. There will always be a place for the immersive, intensive, experiential and transformative experience of high-quality residential education.

All the growth in higher education, however, will be in the online space. Online learning will be the dominant method of delivering postsecondary education in emerging economies. These countries will not be able to build enough physical campuses to keep up with the need to educate their populations.

Most graduate degree programs will move online. There are very few master's degrees that justify a full-time residential model’s direct and opportunity costs. Only the top graduate programs, those built on a social as much as an educational experience, will remain face-to-face. Everything else will go online.

Like electric cars, the knowledge and experience to build quality online programs already exist. Automakers need not invent a new set of technologies to transition their models from gas to electric. The rate-limiting steps are battery costs and capacity and the buildout of charging networks. Colleges and universities can leverage existing strengths, expertise and technology platforms to transition from residential to online.

The second equivalency, scaled low-cost quality online degrees = autonomous vehicles, is more tricky.

The world needs to move to autonomous vehicles. In 2020, 38,690 people in the U.S. died as a result of automobile accidents. Around the world, there were 1.3 million auto-related fatalities. This sort of carnage is almost unimaginable. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to radically reduce vehicular deaths.

The auto accident equivalent in higher education is student debt. Collectively, Americans owe $1.7 trillion in student loans. For the six in 10 undergraduates that will leave college (often without a degree) with loans, the average amount they will owe is just under $30,000. (And over $70,000 for anyone getting a master’s degree.)

We all need to keep fighting for public investment in public higher education. Policies that have transferred higher education costs from the states to students and families have been disastrous. Higher education should be a public good, not a private cost.

While we fight that fight, we should also be figuring out how to bend the higher education cost curve. The only way to do that is to lower the cost of degrees. Offering online degree programs at scale is one way to drive down costs. The challenge will be offering high-quality online degrees at scale.

Quality education is much like safe driving. These are complicated, highly variable, high-stakes activities. They both require judgment, flexibility and adaptability.

Good teaching is relational, personal and patient. Good driving requires foresight, concentration and proactive decision making.

So far, predictions for when we will arrive at level four (high driving automation) and level five (full driving automation) have been wildly optimistic. In 2019, Elon Musk claimed that Tesla vehicles would be used as full self-driving robo-taxis by 2020. By 2021, even Musk was forced to admit that full self-driving was a more complex task than he had imagined.

The difficulty of evolving autonomous vehicles should not dissuade us from this work. The stakes are too high not to throw ourselves into figuring out a safer self-driving future.

Nor should the obstacles of creating low-cost, high-quality online degrees stop us from iterating toward that future. Figuring out how to offer high-quality/low-cost learning experiences -- ones that are relational and immersive and transformative -- is the great higher education project of our time.


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