Much has been written lately about how technology is ready to topple the existing bricks and mortar model of higher education. With the rapidly decreasing costs of communications technologies and advances in AI, and continued development of online learning forums, it would seem natural that the way we deliver higher education is bound to change. Professors as they exist today may become the buggy-drivers of the past. I am very sympathetic to the view. Here is Arnold Kling’s take.
However … I remain skeptical that we’ll see the effect Arnold claims will occur anytime soon. By disintermediation he means that instead of many students learning from their professors in the traditional setting in the future there will be much more independent and perhaps one on one learning. This is only possible because of the cheap technology available to us.
But, I have two counterpoints to make from elsewhere in our educational system. First. we’ve always had a really cheap technology in K12 to provide intimate learning. Home schooling. Sure home schooling is on the rise, but I don’t see anyone arguing that this is going to take over the world. Of course, home schooling has become extremely expensive today in terms of lost economic output from the stay at home parent, but this was not even a very popular option before female labor market opportunities improved.
Second, within higher education there exists a similar opportunity – retired professionals. Indeed, as our population ages and the ratio of young to old continues to fall, and as life expectancy continues to rise and as our wealth continues to rise, it will become increasingly cheaper for older generations to directly education younger generations. Yet we do not see any remote hints of this emerging. After all, the new technologies we are all excited about are simply cheaper and more flexible ways of delivering educational content. Retirees could be cheap and flexible and have the extra advantage of not having to deliver the same exact material as is specified in the video.
Now, of course, celebrating labor intensive methods of production is not my cup of tea, and of course the credentialism of what higher education institutions do matters, and matters a lot. But, my point is that it is not simply new and cheaper technology alone that will be the reason for massive changes in education. We’ve had the chance to do that for decades and we’ve yet to try it. Or, we are not willing to admit to ourselves that universities may offer something that can hardly be replicated by better technology? It’s not just consumption — how do we simulate the positive peer effects from being in the traditional setting? Are these important?