Saturday, September 26, 2009

More on Internet Colleges

From Free Exchange:

So, the question: are colleges selling an information-based product or an aura-based product (or something else altogether)?

There is no question that much of what counts as the educational part of college is digitisable and nearly endlessly duplicable. Texts and papers fall into this category, as do lectures and demonstrations. In the past, the economics of universities were based on provision of these things; books and experts were scarce, and so it made sense to gather students in one place, in proximity to those things, in order to learn from them. If this is all that underpins the modern institute of higher education, then it is only a matter of time until it vanishes.

But it may be the case that aura is more important than pieces of information where colleges are concerned. It could be that the key value is in being in a room with an expert and other interested students, in participating in dorm-room bull sessions, in napping on a pile of texts in a musty old library, and in running naked across the quad at three in the morning. These things can't be digitised and infinitely replicated. If the primary benefit from a university education is to be found somewhere in that aura, then many colleges will do just fine.

In fact, there are aspects of both that are important, in different contexts and to different students (and employers). Potentially, things could go either way for institutes of higher education. Of course, there are powerful lobbies waiting to do what's necessary to support the traditional university. Among them are alumni, who cherish their college experience and who control hiring practices, for the most part. There are university employees, who are often wealthy and influential. And there are television stations who make millions of dollars off of collegiate athletics. These groups may be every bit as committed to maintaining the status quo as have been record labels in the music industry, and more effective.

One other thing to think about; it could be that a key value of universities has nothing at all to do with what a student does while enrolled, and instead stems from the filtering mechanism of the admissions process. College degrees may be useful because the admissions department has done the difficult background work of identifying promising candidates for employment. They act as ratings agencies, in a sense, screening products and declaring them "safe" or "risky". It would be interesting if in the future there are organisations which play this role more explicitly, offering to investigate a candidate's history and skillset for a fee, and certifying qualified candidates, all in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of an actual university education.

But one way or another, the digital and internet revolution should ultimately reveal just what everyone is paying for when they write that tuition cheque.

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Colleges sell a piece of paper. Everything taught in class could be learned on your own if you so had the desire. Not that discussions with an expert aren't beneficial but the majority of what is taught in college is self replicable. However, colleges enable students to learn social skills and network (and to get all of the running across the quad naked at 3 in the morning out your system), all of which are helpful in the real world. Many of the most prominent people in their perspective fields did not go to or at least finish college. Like Bill Gates, a Harvard dropout.
I completely agree with Brandon. I think that half of the learning experiences from college are completely unrelated to academics. You pay less to take classes online, you get less. I would rather go to community college to save money so not to sacrifice the "college experience" that on campus living offers.
A principle component of attending a college or university is the networking relations that are created there. Online universities are generally devoid of such personal interactions and are thus less capable of propelling students into successful future careers. A degree can only get you so far. Who you know can be just as important as what you know.
I agree with Andrew that networking is perhaps the most important aspect of college that cannot be digitalized and sufficiently translated to an internet program. While everything we're learning in our classes is all well and good, what gets your career started and differentiates you from others is the network of friends and professors you've become acquainted with outside of the class who can attest to your skills and strengths. The difficulty creating a network of friends, professors, and possible employers through the often nameless and impersonal internet would seem to be a big handicap of an internet college. It may be that there is no substitute for the value of face-to-face social interaction.
I agree with all the other posters in the sense that college is clearly about more than mastering a given body of information (if that was all it was, we'd all just study on our own and then take standardardized tests and call the test results a degree). I also see that networking is an important part of what people get out of college. However, I think that we should not forget the in-class aspect; listening to other people's reactions to and ideas based on the material you're studying can be incredibly valuable. Hearing other perspectives not only increases your own understanding of said material, but it also increases your ability to approach real-life (or work-life, take your pick) situations from multiple angles. All of which is to say that yes, part of what colleges are selling is information, but they are also selling experiences, which I happen to think are considerably more substantive than an "aura."
I agree as well that networking and connections are a key factor. I also think that not only knowing people, but also learning how to network is a big part of it. In my experience, college students learn to some extent how to act professional, and how to react to other people's opinions.
I don't completely agree that most of the material could be found on your own. For one, through our college we are given access to so many scholarly journals and resources that other people aren't. Also, there is so much information out there on most topics that you would never be able to wade through it on your own in any sort of timely or effective manner, especially not without learning some research skills as do colege students. Our professors act as a filter of information, or a guide if you will. So I think that there still is a big difference between learning on your own and learning at a university.
If it is true that people with college degrees tend to make more money in their careers because of their networking while in college, how can it be that few people at LC are networking? I get the feeling that besides a few ambitious kids (the kind with business cards when their 19), most of us aren't doing much networking. perhaps:
a) everyone else IS networking, but hasn't told me about it (yikes!)
b) we're all networking, we just don't know it yet (at least one of our friends must have a parent with a big business!)
c) networking in college ISN'T what makes people earn more money

Let internet degrees reveal the answers!

I tend to think that students at LC don't really network well. I think part of what makes you a "proud" alum of your school are the memories you had there. Yet, our Alumni Office has trouble keeping Alum interested in the college. I think there is a bigger issue here. I think there is very little school pride here at LC which is carried with us when we graduate.

However, I think most LC students are good at networking with at least a few teachers, so when it comes time for a letter of recommendation we have someone to go to. Something like that would be difficult to get from a teacher you may never meet.
This is really interesting. Those who have college degrees are more successful because of the networking, but also the screening process is important. Therefore, the college people do to is important in how successful a person becomes. If someone goes to a better college, the college conducts the screening process so they tend to get better job opportunities. But, this is partly due to the networking opportunities also.
In response to Brandon, Bill Gates' case is different. He only made it to be such a computer star because of the opportunities he was given throughout middle school and high school having access to sophisticated computers when other kids with his same genius did not have these exceptional opportunities of going to the right private school that could afford the right computer, and having access to the UW computers when in high school.

I'm saying that for the most part it's less about desire to succeed than it is about what opportunities you are given. There are a ton of people who aren't in college, yet who have much greater intellectual ability to succeed in a field, so yes I too think that in a general sense, having the college experience and networking opportunities is a key advantage in being successful in the long run.
I think the principal argument for the continuation of attending colleges has been hinted at within everyone's previous posts. But I want to argue for a slightly different reason for its continuation other than "networking."

A degree from a sit-in college sells a piece of paper, I agree. But the importance is the reverence that a degree from a sit-in college holds over learning the same material on your own or over the internet. A degree justifies that the student attending a college is in compliance with the achievement qualifications from the collaboration of the college's faculty. In a sense, a degree is proof of educational merit.

But why is a degree from some colleges and universities, such as Harvard, which has graduate students teaching courses, valued more than say Lewis & Clark College, which guarantees that no class is taught by a graduate student? Are Harvard graduate students perceived as better than tenured faculty here?

I think I have arrived back to the "networking" argument, or some derivative of it at least. Public acclaim for an institution is a huge part of the equation.

Unless internet colleges ever attain a hierarchical structure that colleges have, cheap public access to higher education will not yield the same immediate employment demand.
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