education is next

David Brooks has a very interesting essay in today’s N.Y. Times. He asserts that the Internet will dramatically reshape education in the next few years, just as it is already doing with newspapers, magazines, and publishing. His position is balanced, explaining both the benefits and drawbacks to online education.

One thing he didn’t mention was what will happen to our brick and mortar campuses. Every college has spent the last couple of decades competing in an arms race to build the best gyms, dorms, and cafeterias. What will happen to these campuses when most students are taking classes online?

Another problem, which I have mentioned before on this blog, is that once courses are prepared and offered online, the professor’s role is diminished. He becomes a coach–an important role to be sure–but not one that requires a terminal degree. Why would colleges keep a full-time stable of coaches when they can adjunct the courses out for a fraction of the cost? How can they not do this, if they want to compete with the other schools on price?

It seems inevitable that the schools of the future will have only adjunct professors, people who teach on the side while earning a living doing something else. And once teaching becomes a part-time job, who will be willing to go through the hardship of obtaining a Ph.D. for it?  Won’t we end up with less educated people overall?

On the upside, the price of education will almost certainly come down. As Brooks notes, Harvard and MIT are already offering free courses online. So that’s good. Perhaps the world of tomorrow will include a lot of knowledgeable people (not necessarily wise, according to Brooks) without credentials.






12 responses to “education is next”

  1. joshbishop

    I think the distinction between knowledge and wisdom is an important one, and one which points to a deeper question that doesn’t get much play in Brooks’ piece: What is the purpose of education?

    If it’s return-on-investment, information gathering/learning, and job-specific preparation, then I think an online model could serve it well. But if you have a more traditional or classical understanding of education—one that focuses on character development or a proper understanding of the human condition (or at least something near to those things)—then it’s hard to see that happening in a digital world.

    (Yes, I realize this perspective is a cultural outlier, but it’s one I’ve been wrestling with lately.)

  2. Matt

    Oddly enough, when he asks, “If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?” I read implications for the church in light of the video venue/multisite movement.

  3. I wonder if we should consider a different class of degrees for online education vs. classroom degrees. Maybe just put an “o” before each one: “O.B.A.”, “O.B.S.”, “O.M.A.”, “O.M.Div.”, etc. At least then, for those of us who believe that a more traditional classroom education is superior to an online degree, there is a way of distinguishing the two.

  4. John Marshall

    There are many (like myself) who have been frustrated that 30 years of very successful experience in K-12 education (and holding a Masters degree) is unacceptable to the university world as a qualification for helping to train the next generation of teachers. In the academic aspects, a terminal degree makes some sense, but in the applied aspect of that process, a closed door to successful practitioners is demoralizing and denies undergraduate students access to the benefit of those who have really “walked the walk” (which most PhD professors have not, especially when it comes to K-12 teaching).

  5. Justin,
    Could you enumerate on these advantages? Thanks.

  6. mike wittmer


    Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate how that can be demoralizing. Also consider how demorializing it may be for someone who studies for a Ph.D. in theology, who takes courses full-time for two years, studies and takes comprehensive exams for one year, teaches himself to read German, French, and Latin (and passes their proficiency tests), then takes two years to research and write a dissertation, only to find that his teaching position went to someone who did none of that. Maybe both sides have a reasonable case for being demoralized?

  7. Jim Huber

    A concerning development all around. This is where I have become very concerned with the people who view “market forces” as almost a sacrament in their “religion” of Capitalism. They value everything as a bidding climate – who will provide the service for the best rate, and they make the mistake of assuming that one provider is as good as the other because they incorrectly assume that people will make wise choices. In other words, their faith is in the things of this world, and not in the creator of this world.

    For the gentleman who wishes he could use his experience in K-12 education to help prepare future teachers, I have faced that one as well. I believe there is a need for both aspects of training – the scholarly and the applied. As a seminary student in my early 50’s, I am continuously reminded of this distinction AND the essential role of both.

    As for Dr. Wittmer, don’t let the winds of political discourse get you too upset. It’s one of the ways they try to scare us into voting for one party over the other. This is a place when a certain amount of faith is our strongest anchor and hope. (from student to professor!) 🙂

  8. Sam Frazier

    We are actually wrestling with this at the high school level. My son is a budding elite athlete (nationally ranked in long and short track speedskating), and if he is to get to the World level, he will need to train in such a way that he will have to either forgo physical high school altogether or find a hybrid solution.

    On my part, I took several classes at WMU online, and found some of them to be just fine (such as writing classes and geography where half the class was watching videos anyway). Others I wish I could take in person, such as foreign language (I’d love to learn Italian, but it is only offered during hours I work, and I can’t leave to take a class).

    What I see is that there are some classes that work very well online; others need the interaction between students and faculty to get the best out of them.

    Last thought – I really don’t think I’d want to go to a doctor who got his or her MD online….I’d rather have them actually working with patients!

  9. mike wittmer

    What a good problem to have in regard to your son, Sam! I think you’re comment makes two points: some courses work well online, and the subjects we value most (such as our health) are the last ones we want to trust to alternative forms of education. So maybe this discussion is also about values.

  10. This comment by Competitive Knowledge, Inc CEO Saeed Mohasseb, may stir some conversation about how we view and value people. You can see the whole article at:
    “Folks, find a niche promptly. Get wise now, and reevaluate your position in the value chain of goods and services delivery. In the age of the Internet, the value of a proposition must be proven every time and the matter by which this is done will be digital. If the machine can replace our travel agents, our brokers and the local bookstore, it is highly probable that it can replace you and me.”

  11. mike wittmer

    That’s a provocative article. The key seems to avoid being a “middleman,” for anything in the middle is going to get squashed.

  12. As a denominational leader I can say that this is a massive issue right now. If you don’t bring specific value to your role (value others believe you should bring) then you had better be in the job search mode and that includes church staff.

    I recall that one of my pastor friends once shared that “We count people because people count” (I am sure it was not original nor honest). I don’t think things have changed much in 20 years except now we can say, “We count people and people don’t count”. It’s not the internet Mike, it’s us.

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