Educational explosion

Over the past two weeks, a fierce controversy has erupted over the forced resignation of UVA president, Teresa Sullivan.  Apparently, Sullivan’s “resignation” was engineered by three members of the sixteen-member Board of Visitors - without public discussion or input, or even an intelligible explanation of what she might have done wrong.

It’s a mess, without doubt.  Thus far, the overwhelming response of UVA’s faculty and alumni has been somewhere between irate and furious.  The Vice-Rector, one of the trio involved in Sullivan’s firing, has already resigned in hopes of calming the storm.

Fat chance.

One can only hope that UVA Rector Helen Dragas, the Virginia Beach condo developer who fancies herself qualified to re-invent Thomas  Jefferson’s university, will quickly follow suit.

Seriously, I’d love to write a column about this mess.  Maybe several.

The problem is, I still have no idea what the issues are.  A handful of a handful of political appointees, some Bob McDonnell’s, some Tim Kaine’s, have ousted the president of one of America’s oldest and most outstanding universities.  And they won’t say why.    

There have, of course, been hints.  Apologists for the Board have been quick to suggest that Sullivan has been slow to address the onrush of change resulting from the high-tech revolution.  The hinters suggest the fact that a handful of prominent universities, including Harvard and MIT, have already begun offering lecture courses online, at no charge, to all comers.

To be sure, this is a stunning development.  The free online classes obviate the need to apply for admission.   Most classes have no size limit.  For a modest fee, a student may even participate in additional activities in order to qualify for a certificate, or even college credit.

Which raises an almost unimaginable prospect:  Academic credit from the best universities in the world, available to all, without the prerequisites of taking an SAT, filling out an application or learning to get along with a new roommate.

If this trend continues, other universities, including UVA, will inevitably jump on the bandwagon.  Education, for so long dauntingly expensive, could soon be as close as your laptop, and essentially free.

Or at least, up to a point.  Putting lectures online is simple enough.  Arranging to evaluate the learning of thousands of online students will take some doing, but it’s a manageable challenge.

But many of the richest and deepest educational experiences, such as a one-on-one tutorial with a brilliant professor/mentor, or a small, intense seminar, will always be labor-intensive.

Still, a lot of college involves a combination of reading, writing research papers and attending lectures. If the lecture part can be put online, for everyone, the nature of the university could change drastically.

Consider the possibilities.

Suppose you can’t get into Harvard.  But you can “attend” free lectures online, from some of the greatest experts in the field, and earn credit at a bargain price.  Why would you ever pay a fortune to attend a second-rate college, be lectured to by second-rate professors, and earn second-rate credits?

Why not get at least part of your education in the comfort of home, while earning a living, and then use your demonstrated success to apply to a better university?

Or what  if you’re one of the thousands of high school graduates who aren’t quite sure you’re ready for college?  Why not sample a few free courses online in order to decide whether this is how you want to spend the next four (or more) years?

Online education, featuring the top classroom lecturers in the world, could work a revolution in the cost of a college education, and the way we pay for it.  If, say, the top 50 universities in the United States and Canada offered all their best lecture courses online – why would anyone pay more to study somewhere else?

This development could devastate the fast-growing business of for-profit universities.   It could do the same thing to a lot of run-of-the-mill colleges which survive by  admitting hundreds of C students,  and graduating a handful.

But it could do more than that.  

The availability of high-quality education, at almost no cost, could revolutionize public, K-12 education.  

Consider this possibility:

A freshman taking World History I accesses lectures from UVA, Stanford or Duke.  What if there were some sort of high-level test, not an SOL, but a truly in-depth test, which would confirm that that student  really knew the subject matter of World History I?

Wouldn’t that student, or her parents, insist that the public schools award high school credit, or even college credit, to that student, without making her sit through nine months of classes?

And if we awarded credit for what students actually know, rather than for “fanny-time”, how would that change our public schools, and how much they cost?


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