Education: The Next Domino to Fall to Digital?

With my first child due this fall, I had a recent conversation about how her life would be different from mine, and mentioned that I didn’t expect her to be going away to college when she graduated high school. Not because she would not get into college, but because there will likely be no need to “go away” to college. The expansion of distance learning programs, ubiquitous broadband connectivity, empowered mobile devices, video sharing websites, co-working collectives, robust virtual classroom sites or expanded video conferencing, all make the need to leave home for college superfluous.

Recent stories in Business Week and the Washington Post ask the question, “Why would future students spend tens of thousands of dollars for something that can be obtained for a fraction of the cost?” The answer is, they won’t. As Kevin Maney points out in his story, there is a vast middle between what he calls the “high fidelity” experience of top-of-the-line four year schools, and the “convenience” offered by community colleges and trade programs, and it is into this gap future online education will rush. Cost savings for both school and student will be one of the great drivers of this. And as online learning expands, its ubiquity will help to erase doubts about credibility, allowing many to get the “good enough degree.”

The aptly named Zephyr Teachout warns that the higher education system needs to pay attention to the recent travails of the music and newspaper industry. Teachout rightly points out that classroom courses and work are discrete units of information and just as digital technology has removed songs from albums, or articles from newspapers, so too will technology “remove ‘the class’ from ‘the college’.”

All of this leads to exciting and interesting questions: How will (can?) schools protect against pirated lectures? (Someone could make some serious money off of Edu-Napster or LectureWire.) What happens to the socialization function of going away to school? (Social networking is already stepping into this gap.) Will this democratize higher ed by expanding school to the economically challenged, or will the uneven distribution of technology continue to deny them access to college?

It's quite possible that networks and digital devices are having the same impact on education as on health care in the US, and eventually in other countries: if the central "system" is overburdened and/or can't deliver adequate services to a broad population, the technology may help disperse the burden. And as with health care, strategies should be developed now to ensure that a digital divide doesn't grow too wide and create greater inequality in access.