Not too long ago, my university, the University of Virginia, along with a dozen or so other schools, entered into an agreement with a company called Coursera  to develop Internet-based courses. The issue of Internet learning is especially fraught at Virginia. As just about everyone now knows, our president, Teresa Sullivan, was dismissed not long ago in part because the Board of Visitors thought that she had been lackadaisical in moving Virginia toward Internet-based learning. Though Sullivan was eventually reinstated, the issue of Internet education continues to be a major one at Virginia as it is (or will be) at many ambitious American universities.
What will happen when universities form partnerships with companies like Coursera? How will the coupling of the university with an online distribution company affect the kind of teaching that we do and the kind of learning that students can expect?
Our partnership with Coursera is young: at this point we are developing only a few courses in conjunction with them. But in time we will no doubt develop more, and an ultimate objective for both Coursera and the University of Virginia will be to use those courses to generate revenues.
Right now, it appears that Cousera is the junior partner in our mutual endeavor. Virginia is a large, well-regarded university with a six-billion-dollar endowment. Coursera is a relatively new corporation. For a while, it’s reasonable to imagine that Virginia will call most of the shots.
But what if the partnership works and begins to generate significant revenues? That’s a big if, naturally. So far, no major research university has succeeded in reaping enormous profits selling courses online. Though Harvard and Yale and Stanford have developed Internet-based courses, they do not give credit for them, either to their own students or anyone else.
But suppose Internet courses do begin to bring in revenues. If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.
What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.
And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.
Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all.
And there is this too: the courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale. They will have to wonder if this or that class in religious studies might insult Islam. (A look at this month’s news reminds one that Islam is not terribly hard to insult.)
There will, in other words, be a constant dialogue between professors and the corporation about what kind of content is going to be admissible. There will be disagreements and there will be disputes. Some professors may walk away. But in the end, it is not hard to predict who will win the arguments, provided the online courses are capturing significant revenues.
At a certain point our corporate partners may demand that all of the courses we teach be Internet-friendly. They may want to film each class we give on the chance that it might someday be profitable. And naturally they will want those courses to conform to the standards of the successful online class.
I think that there’s an analogy between what could happen to American university classes in the age of international Internet education and what happened to American movies when Hollywood studios decided that to make the kind of money they wanted, it would be necessary to market their product globally. American movies now are lowest-common-denominator movies, intended to sell in Singapore as much as in Seattle. Where we once had "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville," we now have "Spiderman" and "Batman."
What was most original and lively in mainstream American movies was erased by corporate imperatives, and something similar may become true about American education. To sell broadly, we’re going to have to tone our teaching down — become flatter and more predictable. And we’re going to have to be careful not to offend anyone. We’re going to need to engage in a certain kind of mass pedagogy. Those who don’t will not succeed in the new Internet-based academy— assuming that such an academy really does come into being. And this is, I want to underline, a big assumption.
Another analogy might be helpful. It’s possible that the incursion of the Internet market into the universities will be something like the incursion of big-time college sports. There are any number of American schools that appear now to have been swallowed by their sports programs. They admit anyone who can stand out in football and basketball, no matter how poor a student; they hide the indiscretions and the crimes that athletes and coaches commit; they overpay coaches and elevate them to superstar status; they organize social life around football and basketball games.
These schools are constantly sending out the message that academics don’t matter much and that sports and school spirit and getting drunk on Saturday and staying so until Sunday late at night really do. We can all name a dozen or two schools that because of sports are close to no longer being schools. Penn State seems to have been swallowed by its football program and now is in danger of losing a major quotient of its credibility and standing because of it.
Something similar may happen with Internet education. Certain colleges may become addicted to the revenue that Internet courses draw and they will deform themselves in the attempt to make more and more money. They will adulterate their intellectual goods for the marketplace and perhaps those goods will sell briskly. We now speak of football factories. In not too long we may be speaking of academic Internet factories. This is especially distressing, now that some of our best universities have jumped aggressively into the distance learning game. It would be sad if Harvard or Yale — two schools that lately seem gung-ho for money raising by almost any means — were deformed even slightly by the hunger to make money selling courses online.
But not every school that has a big-time football team has become a football factory. Stanford University retains its academic reputation despite having a first-rate team. Last year that team included Andrew Luck, the NFL’s top draft choice. Just so, it’s probable that even if Internet education does take off, not every school will be swallowed by it. Some will push back against the corporate types who want to dumb down their work to create profits.
But this is the first time in my memory when our leaders — presidents and deans and boards of trustees -- have so energetically opened the doors of the house of learning to commerce. It is the first time that they’ve shown willingness to insert the entrepreneurs directly into our day-to-day teaching lives. In the past they have stood between us and the market. Though the members of American boards of trustees often come from business, they have understood that the hunger for wealth is not compatible with genuine intellectual life.
The quest for truth will always collide in time with the quest for profits. If Internet entrepreneurs forge a strong alliance with the governors of universities, converting them to the pursuit of gain, teachers and students who want a university based on the disinterested pursuit of truth will be hard-pressed to fight back and to win.
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia.