Dead and Not Knowing It, Part 2

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Nevada’s tax-financed universities, it was pointed out here last week, are still trying to make a paradigm work that no longer corresponds to reality.

Over the last 20 years new technologies have wrought a radical sea-change in educational efficiencies—and even in the routines of scholarship itself. But here in the Silver State, the folks steering higher ed insist on attempting to drive forward by looking in humanity’s rear-view mirror.

Under the educational model mankind used for more than 2500 years—ever since seventh-century-B.C. Nineveh—information was centrally stored, scholars came physically to the information, and information was communicated under one institutional roof. As long as information was scarce, reproduction of documents was expensive and restricted, and scholarly specialization was low, this all made sense.

Today, however, none of those conditions are still the case. Consequently, all that is accomplished by keeping this paradigm in place is a massive waste of public resources.

Last week we considered how the new technologies have yielded an exponential growth in scholarship and, in so doing, have severely undermined the classic university structure—whether for the purposes of scholarly interaction or for the simple storage of information. For most people, however, the preeminent function of higher education is teaching. And it is here where the changes coming down the pike are going to be most striking.

Nevada’s higher ed system, like most around the country, is decidedly low-tech. About 80 percent of the time it involves a single instructor, in a single college classroom, lecturing to a relative handful of freshmen students—usually, under 25. While a first-rate national university, like Stanford, is much more efficient, with that same class made up of around 500 students in an amphitheater-like auditorium, diligently taking notes, that’s still just a beginning. In principle, the same lecture could—via alternative instructional technologies—be given to 10- or 20,000 students, all across America or the Internet. Indeed, this already is taking place.

Ten years ago, writing in Science magazine, Columbia University’s Eli M. Noam looked ahead and saw the promise of “video servers with stored lectures by outstanding scholars, electronic access to interactive reading materials and study exercises, electronic interactivity with faculty and teaching assistants, hypertextbooks and new forms of experiencing knowledge, video- and computer-conferencing, and language translation programs.” Today, in Asia and Europe, and across the Internet, it all has come true.

“While it is true that the advantages of electronic forms of instruction have sometimes been absurdly exaggerated,” wrote Noam in 1995, “the point is not that they are superior to face-to-face teaching (though the latter is often romanticized), but that they can be provided at dramatically lower cost. A curriculum, once created, could be offered electronically not just to hundreds of students nearby but to tens of thousands around the world.”

The Columbia professor clearly recognized that “Such efforts at cost reduction are not likely to be welcomed by the beneficiaries of low-tech teaching, the university faculty.” In the final analysis, however, such resistance—given the dramatically lower costs involved—would not matter.

“[T]he ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms.… At present, tuition fees at private universities are nearly $50 per lecture hour per student…. With such Broadway show-sized prices, alternative providers will inevitably enter the electronic education market.”

Since Noam wrote, all that he predicted and more has come to pass. As hidebound public universities like Nevada’s have continued to resist change, quick-adapting and flexible private for-profit online education companies has been experiencing rapid growth. In the quarter ending May 31, for example, the online University of Phoenix saw total enrollment for its degree programs increase to 296,000 students—a 23 percent increase over the same quarter a year earlier—while quarterly profits for the parent company, Apollo Group Inc., increased by 40 percent. The parent company of second-place Capella University, preparing to go public earlier this year, reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that, from 2000 to 2004, its online enrollment increase averaged 54 percent a year, while revenues grew 64 percent annually.

So, what Noam foresaw is gathering momentum: the increasing replacement of the old model by the new.

Soon the educational fruits of modern technology will be so well known throughout American business that every teenage would-be MBA in Winnemucca and Pahrump will be able to inform you just where and why the Nevada system of higher education went so seriously wrong.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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