Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A look ahead on online teaching for science

Here are some thoughts on how on-line education is likely to go for the sciences in the next few years.

In general, the classes with that are most likely to be affected by on-line education are large lectures without labs. Because just a few dozen introductory courses account for the majority of the credits delivered in universities, these are the courses where the greatest economies of scale are.  Look where textbook publishers concentrate and this is where on-line classes will concentrate.

Students will likely take the lecture at distance for these courses and, if anything, colleges and universities will provide recitation opportunities. It's not unlike the consequences of centralized textbook publishing, which hasn't negatively impacted university stature, but still, it's a broad diminishment of responsibility.

Trickling up, I think more broadly, the first effect of on-line education is the cannibalization of two-year institutions at the state level. These are the institutions that often are used as preparatory schools for 4-year institutions and where costs are most closely watched. Many students that attend 2-year institutions do so to save money. There are about 8M students in community colleges in the US, somewhere on the order of 40% of all students enrolled (20M) in higher education.

After consolidation of a portion of 2-year colleges into 4-year institutions, there is likely to be consolidation among 4-year institutions within states and then among states.

Will there be consolidation across states? Likely. It'll be just like what has been happening for athletic conferences. Intro courses will be shared across campuses broadly.

What about science courses?

Science courses have large-enrollment introductory courses, but many introductory science courses have labs. These can be administered at a distance, but not well. Those that don't have labs are subject to the same economies of scale.

The way that these courses get disrupted is likely to split lectures and labs, with lectures delivered electronically and labs in person. 

Labs may be the last refuge for general science courses in universities. Still, a semester's worth of labs  can be compressed into a single weekend. Universities become like regional testing centers.

So, what is it all going to look like? 

Just like textbook consolidation and monopolies, lectures for classes will become centralized in their production. This is not a bad thing for students as the quality is likely to go up. Universities will fill a different role in reinforcing learning rather providing content. 

2-year institutions become diminished as 4-year institutions provide the content at the state level. Then 4-year institutions consolidate. Is Kansas going to maintain separate on-line courses for introductory sciences for KU and KSU? Unlikely.

How many state schools are there in Ohio? (13) Think the regents there will tolerate expensive redundancy?

After that, courses will start to be shared across state lines. 

Quality of content provision is likely to increase. Costs should go down. Faculty lines are likely to go down (at least as a ratio). 

How much cheaper should tuition be? Some states want a 10K Bachelors. That's a ways off.

In-state tuition and fees averages about $9K at public institutions. That number should drop by at least a third after the initial wave of consolidation. 

All of this is unsettling to some, but it's going to happen. 

There are likely to be more losers than winners in academia. A lot of faculty get paid a lot of money for what will soon be redundant with less expensive options. 

Students are likely to be winners though. They will get more consistent, higher quality instruction for introductory courses at a lower cost. Waitlists will be a thing of the past. So will bad seats in a CO2-enriched auditorium.

At a later point, I'll cover some of the ways that universities can maintain their relevance in ways that benefit students even more. Consolidation is going to free up a number of resources. If universities are creative and nimble, they can weather the disruption, if not prosper.

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