Column #16, posted 5/2/02

The Future of Virtual Universities

Today the New York Times led its Circuits section with a very long article about how virtual universities and virtual courses had failed. They noted that Columbia had lost a lot of money in its Fathom operation (which was mostly about gathering up textual material and putting it online), and that venture capitalists were no longer investing. Thus, one was to conclude, it was all a terrible idea. This is my response:

It may be a just little early to write the obituary for the concept of Virtual Universities. Most universities went into the online course building business without attempting to understand why students attend universities and what an online offering should look like. They naturally assumed that the courses they offer were very valuable, and that students would flock to the online versions. In reality, students take courses in college because they are required to do so for degrees or other certification that they seek. Left to their own devices, students would rather not attend courses (and they often don’t) because courses all too often feature lecturers who drone on endlessly about subjects that students know will never matter in their real lives. As far back as Aristotle scholars have pointed out that students learn by doing, but very few schools take this concept seriously. John Dewey complained bitterly in 1916 that's the state of American education was still dominated by the learn by telling model when everyone knows that people learn by doing.

Another reason that students attend college is for the experience of being with other students, including both social events and intellectual discussions. Both are sought after by students and are not really provided by a conception of online education that takes existing lecture courses, adds a pretty picture or two to their textual version, and allows students to take the exam at the end.

The computer is an interactive device, and that interaction, whether with a mentor, with other students, or with simulations built on the computer in which a student can play a role, is what any high quality online course must feature. But interaction comes at a price. In fact, in the last few years my team has been working with Columbia University (as well as Harvard Business School and most recently Carnegie Mellon University) to build learning-by-doing centered highly interactive experiences for students online. The problem is such courses are expensive to build. While universities may have rushed into the online course building business, they certainly did not rush into spending a great deal of money and developing new kinds of content appropriate to the new medium. Venture capitalists who rushed to finance these new ventures and now are rushing away from them never were interested in advancing the state of education nor in improving the student experience. They were interested in cashing in on what they perceived to be some easy money in an untapped marketplace.

Universities shouldn’t spend time or money copying what they now offer on campus and offering it online because doing so makes the assumption that it is the content of those courses that is valuable. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the content that they offer online is available in textbooks. Students don’t simply buy text books and read them to get an education. The content is not the issue.

What universities offer is the possibility of exciting students to work on projects that faculty are involved in. They also offer one-on-one mentoring to help foster a student’s ideas or projects. Or, they offer lively discussions on complex issues, informed by faculty. These are the things that must be put online. And these are the things that can be put on line. To do so, requires building online experiences (not necessarily courses) that lead to degrees. This can be done by allowing students to work in teams with mentors on projects that are simulations of real life experiences and that help prepare students for the real world.

When Fathom attempted to create online courses, what they were doing was little more than attempting to put a lot of text online. Many at Columbia knew this was folly, but apparently those who hold the purse strings did not. It is good that universities are no longer wasting money on such nonsense. But the possibility still exists for making the online experience better than the on campus experience. To do this, universities must take advantage of the communications offered by the computer that would enable real mentoring to take place, as well as the simulation abilities of the computer that would enable students to have experiences that they otherwise couldn’t possibly have. To do this, universities will have both to offer degrees online and to build new kinds of degree programs more oriented towards teaching real world skills. Students will rush to take advantage of such offerings because they will offer opportunities that might not otherwise exist.

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