The Standing Invitation

The Online University

with 3 comments

The funding of universities is a real problem. Here is a potential solution: get rid of them altogether.

Why not put universities online?

Consider a new model. A student applying for a university course receives a username and password that gives her access to videos of lectures. These can be downloaded and watched from home. It’s cheap, because they only have to be recorded once; academics can focus on research having been freed from teaching schedules, apart from marking papers e-mailed in by students and doing occasional tutorial sessions, in groups, via webcam. For hard science degrees that require specialised equipment, students allotted slots in laboratories: they take four weeks a year out of the usual schedule of video lectures, travel to a lab building with dedicated on-site accommodation, and do an intensive course that gives the whole year’s lab work for a year. These can run throughout the year.

The whole thing would be extremely cheap, and paid for directly by students, either by a loan or having a part-time job. You wouldn’t even have to move out of your parents’ place. Importantly, it empowers students by putting them in charge of their own futures.

As an economic plan, it’s tempting.

As a social plan, it would be catastrophic.

The worst thing you could do to a field of study is to isolate it from other fields. What you can imagine depends on what you know (Dennett, again), and if all you know is what you’ve been taught in lectures then there is only so far you can go. A personal example: my specialism is organic chemistry, but I am analysing it with techniques I only know about through my contact with linguists and computer scientists. If I had never met these people, had never mixed with them, drunkenly stolen the occasional traffic cone with them, these ideas would never have occurred to me.

Furthermore, anyone who’s been through university will tell you that the most important things they learned did not come from lectures: they came from each other, from contact with other students. This contact requires geographical concentration of students as much as it requires them moving out of their parents’ protection. If students are to be exposed to one another’s new ways of thinking, they will need dedicated space, time and freedom in which to interact. This is what taught-at-home universities would lack. The result, if they became commonplace, would disastrous both for the students themselves, and for the society that hopes to benefit from them.

But while I think it would be disastrous, I fear it may also be inevitable. Commoditisation is always a risk of liberalism. Students increasingly see themselves as consumers rather than apprentices, and increasingly think of degrees as ends to be reached, rather than things to pass through on the way to further wisdom.

It’s a worrying trend. But how can we reverse it without radically altering our idea of freedom?


Written by The S I

July 30, 2011 at 8:30 pm

3 Responses

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  1. The basic idea is nothing new. For instance, I had a several fellow students in Stockholm, Sweden who took an online lecture from Stanford in (probably) 1995. Distance learning has been available since at least the 19th century, and the current providers are increasingly Internet based nowadays.

    “The worst thing you could do to a field of study is to isolate it from other fields.”

    At least one of the worst things (other candidates include e.g. politicians dictating what should be considered the truth); however, not really relevant. Why would an online university lead to isolation from other subjects? The students can still take classes in other fields of study.

    “Furthermore, anyone who’s been through university will tell you that the most important things they learned did not come from lectures: they came from each other, from contact with other students.”

    Speaking as someone with several degrees and studies at four universities (one of which distance based), I very strongly disagree. It is true that I may not be a typical student, but your categorical statement is obviously not true. Indeed, I found that I learned very little from others, who (with few exceptions) had greater problems with the text books/lectures and usually gained the apropriate understanding at a later date than I did.


    July 30, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    • Fair criticism. My statements were too sweeping; mea culpa.

      I don’t mean to disparage those who do degrees by distance learning — the Open University in my UK, for example. Courses like this are certainly a benefit since they provide options for those who want to learn, but might be unwilling or unable to go to a ‘physical’ university. People who go down this route, especially those who come to it later in life, impress me no end.

      My worry instead is that traditional universities, in response to market pressures, might go down a route of stripping down their physical presence and replacing it with an online presence — having the first year of the degree taught online, say. It provides students with freedom to choose, surely a good thing, but carries dangers.

      Bertrand Russell, writing about his research into the fundamentals of mathematics, mentioned that part of the reason it took so long to investigate is that logic was not seen as part of maths; it was seen as a branch of philosophy. The breakthrough came from the fusion of the two disciplines, which I suspect but cannot prove was a result of the academics being in the same place and breathing the same air. I wonder if the breakthroughs could have been achieved if students of mathematics and students of philosophy didn’t meet.

      The S I

      July 30, 2011 at 10:59 pm

      • If we move on to faculty and researchers, you may have a point: There is always the chance that an interesting interdisciplinary conversation takes place only through physical proximity.


        July 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm

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