Leef asks Forbes readers to consider the impact of online education on traditional colleges

George Leef’s latest Forbes column ponders the potential impact of online education options on the future of traditional colleges and universities.

From the dawn of time until the early 20th century, when people wanted to hear music, they either had to play it themselves or go to a performance where someone else played. All music was live. Then the technology for recording and reproducing music developed.

Primitive at first, the technology rapidly improved (remember that old commercial, “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”) and today humans spend far more time listening to recorded music than to live performances. Live music hasn’t disappeared and performances can be more exciting or moving than even the greatest recordings, but recordings give us fantastic variety, high quality, and complete freedom of choice at low cost.

Similarly, for eons humans learned “live” – listening to and working with teachers and mentors. Beginning in Renaissance Italy, colleges and universities attracted students who wanted to study with established scholars. For some 800 years, college education meant students in a room with professors.

Then, late in the 20th century, another learning possibility emerged, namely distance learning through the Internet. Just like recorded music, at first the quality of online courses was poor, but for some students it was the best option available. The technology steadily improved and now a large percentage of college students take at least one course online and quite a few take all of their work online through institutions such as Western Governors University.

Leef goes on to summarize a fascinating debate about the impact of the technological developments, explaining why he disagrees with George Mason University economist Peter Boettke about the likelihood that colleges and universities will remain relatively unchanged.

While the kind of college and grad school education Boettke enjoyed is ideal, the sad fact is that most students these days do not want that kind of cerebral experience. Furthermore, rather few professors really want to engage with their students the way many of Boettke’s did with him. A great many college students today merely want a credential attesting to some level of occupational competence, and they want it with as little effort as possible. And a large percentage of college professors do not want to spend much of their time working with undergraduates; they’re happy to enter into Professor Murray Sperber calls “the faculty/student non-aggression pact” thereby minimizing the effort they have to devote to their classes.

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