Some of you may have seen Thomas Klassen’s piece in the Ottawa Citizen last wee. It’s a nice short piece which succinctly lays out the “bricks vs. clicks” argument in higher education, and why the former is better than the latter. That said, I think his central premise – that universities are becoming more like airlines – is mostly wrong.
Here’s his exact quote: The emerging business model of many universities is that pioneered by airlines. That is, a group of first-class passengers paying a lot of money for a rich and intense learning experience. A second group of students in economy class pays less for mass-produced learning. Both groups will be granted the same formal credential, but the journey is different. Also different is what they’ve learned about themselves and life.
I grant you that there certainly are some people who seem enthusiastic about things heading in this direction. Margaret Wente, for instance. Some state legislatures in the US seem to making tentative moves in this direction for their systems as a whole, maybe – but no single institution is using the two-tier approach as a model. Not even TCU Minister Glen Murray, whose freakish enthusiasm for all things online is ruffling so many feathers, can be accused of this; at worst, his ambition seems to be to keep rotating the passengers between classes. And although it’s possible he’s being disingenuous, I think he’s doing it because he truly believes that students actually want such a system.
The thing is, the customers – students or their parents – aren’t buying the cheap option. Just look at England: tripling tuition fees hasn’t led the masses online, has it? Regardless of the advantages of online education, and despite whatever cultural tropes exist about lazy professors and crowded classrooms, if you give people a straight-up choice between giving their eighteen-year-old a traditional, in-person education and the very best form of online education, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they’ll pick door number one. Even if someone were to offer a two-tier pricing system, it wouldn’t pan out the way Klassen thinks because everyone would take the more expensive and more prestigious option.
Even if online education were suddenly to become chic, it won’t be because each existing university offers it as an economy option. The economics of the web are such that online higher education is likely to be dominated by a few major players, each with some kind of link to one of a handful of already-prestigious universities. Most universities won’t be able to compete, either on the prestige pull of the name, or the size of the required capital investment. For most, it’s bricks or clicks, not bricks and clicks.