Posted by: crudbasher | February 14, 2012

Response to Megan McArdle – Envisioning a Post-Campus America

I don’t usually write a post like this. I came across this article by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic speculating on what might happen to higher education because of online learning. What I would like to do here is take each of her points and comment on them.

1.  Education will end up being dominated by a few huge incumbents.
As we see with Facebook and Twitter and, well, almost everything, the internet offers huge returns to scale, and substantial network effects.  There’s a big benefit to having learned stuff the same way as the people around you–not least, that they understand what a given certificate means.
I’d expect to see a few schools dominating, while many go out of business.


I agree that many schools will go out of business. I think what you might see here though is a split between education content creators, and education providers. Most online learning systems will get their content from other people. You will enroll in a course of study which is composed of courses and lessons from a variety of different content creators.

2.  Online education will kill the liberal arts degree.
The important aspect for this discussion is that what they teach is hard to test efficiently.  There’s enormous variation in grading of, say, English papers, and even if it were easier to standardize, that grading requires hours of expensive labor.


I think online education will disaggregate the concept of a degree itself. If learning falls in price as much as I think, we will never stop learning. If you never stop, then you never get a “degree”. You will acquire certifications yes, but only for individual concepts.

3.  Professors (course developers) will be selected for teaching instead of research brilliance.


Well I can’t say this won’t be an improvement. Current professors tend to do both content creation and content delivery. That job will be disaggregated into two jobs. Research professors will create content, then other professors will deliver it. (Like grad students do now)

4.  95% of tenure-track professors will lose their jobs.
Or perhaps I should say, 95% of tenure-track jobs will be eliminated
if online education really becomes ubiquitous, very few professors will be needed to produce all the education.


This is just following the general trend on society itself for less security. Based on the pace of disruptive innovation, whole industries are being obliterated and reshaped. How can anyone have job security in that environment? (unless you work for government it seems)

5.  The corollary of #4 is the end of universities as research centers.
We might see much of academia revert to an amateur past-time, as it was in the 18th and even the 19th century.  Work with policy implications would likely move to think tanks or consultancies; and I assume that a lot of basic science would continue to be funded by the government, perhaps renting out the labs of defunct universities.
To get funding in the e-future, research will have to be relevant.  More specifically, it will have to strike someone with a lot of money at their disposal as relevant.


I agree. While in some ways pure research is a good thing, there will be a tighter connection between funding and results. Even so, I am sure there will be lots of funding for research as organizations look for advantages over their competitors.

6.  Young job-seekers will need new ways to signal diligence.
There will be more freelancing, more try-out employment, and more unpaid internships.


Yes absolutely. We are already seeing that just having a degree is no guarantee of a job. People will have to prove themselves.

 7.  The economics of graduate school will change substantially.
the PhD would be radically upended.  Right now, graduate students get miserly stipends in exchange for considerably easing the teaching and research loads of their professors.  But in an online model, we won’t need so many teachers.  And the online schools will not necessarily be research centers any more.


What might be interesting here is if more graduate work is done while embedded or interning with a company. Less theoretical and more practical work might be nice.

8.  Civil society will have to substitute for the intense friend networks that are built at college.


I wonder if social networks are already starting to weaken those “college chum” bonds. In some circles that bond is critical (See: Congress, Wall Street, Academia). I would not be sorry to see more opportunity for people who didn’t go to Harvard.

9.  The role of schooling in upward mobility will change.
 This is kind of a cop-out, because I’m not sure which way the change runs.
 I can tell a story where eUniversities make it radically easier for smart, poor kids to advance in their spare time.  I can also tell a story where education is very complementary to the kind of personal networks and social capital that middle-class kids can tap through their parents.


It would be a great thing for society in general if we returned to a meritocracy like the country was formed as. I am optimistic about this.

10.  The young will have a much lower financial burden in their 20s.


You can’t underestimate the benefits of a radically lower cost for college. Many more people will be able to take classes. A trillion dollars will become available for private investment. Young people will feel like they can try things and fail without ruining their lives. This is going to happen.

11.  The tutoring industry will boom.
While tenured professorships will go away, there will be lots of opportunity for those who can help an online student pull through a rough spot. (At least until computers learn to do this too).


As I said before, everyone will be a student and everyone will be a teacher.

12.  If the credentials become valuable, cheating will be a problem.
I’d expect online test-taking to eventually shift to test centers like the ones where the GMAT and various professional licensing exams are administered now.


This one doesn’t actually worry me. If you go back to number 6 in this list, Megan talks about how there will be alternate ways of signaling. If I am a business looking to hire somebody, I will take on 10 promising interns, then give them all the same assignment and make sure they show their work. The one who does the best will get the job. There will also be businesses that just do certifications and will put their reputations behind their clients.

Overall I liked this article and think Megan is heading in the right direction.

Naturally we don’t know how it will all shake out. Does anyone have another other thoughts on this article?

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.



  1. […] Response to Megan McArdle – Envisioning a Post-Campus America — from Education Stormfront If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it!   […]

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