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The specter of online education: it looms.

September 22, 2009, 9:41 am

I once saw Joel Garreau give a talk in which he promised (promised!) that brick-and-mortar stores would soon be gone (gone!) because everybody (everybody!) would be doing all their shopping online. Big boxes, especially, were dinosaurs (dinosaurs!), he claimed. And one of the major challenges facing urbanists would be what to do with the empty shell of the discarded consumer landscape after all of the consumers had moved to Internet. Garreau told his rapt audience that this process of creative destruction would take less than a decade.*

That was eleven years ago. And Davis’s gigantic new Target, a palace to hyper-modern consumer culture, is slated to open in less than a month.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve long had doubts about the idea that online education will spell the death of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. But this article, coupled with the University of California’s decision to try to raise fees by A LOT over the next two years, gives me pause. My sense is that the children of relatively well-off parents will continue to go to traditional colleges and universities for the foreseeable future: to learn, for credentials, to network, for finishing school, etc. What I don’t know, though, is what will happen when some significant chunk of non-traditional students, coupled with the children of not-especially-affluent families, decide that higher education for $99/month sounds pretty darned good. What will that do to the revenue stream that colleges and universities now rely upon for survival? What will it do to the economies of scale that currently make higher education viable? And what will the ripple effects be? I guess I could give Joel Garreau a call and ask him what he thinks.

* Word to the wise: elements of this paragraph may be slightly exaggerated for effect. But only slightly. The talk, by the way, happened at a conference on cultural landscape studies held at the University of New Mexico in 1998. As part of that conference, I got to tour J.B. Jackson‘s house, which was cool.

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