College as ritual

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the effect of the proliferation of online education on the current structure of academia.

  • The positive question: Some people think that academia is ripe for creative destruction, and that online education will transform the academy the way the Internet and digital music devices transformed the music industry. Fewer jobs for professors but higher incomes for the star teachers and researchers. How likely is this to happen? And also, why hasn’t it happened already?
  • The normative question: Will this be a good thing? Is creative destruction through automation the antidote to cost inflation / Baumol’s disease in higher education?

I want to focus on the first question. Some prognosticators say that companies like Udacity and Coursera will transform higher education the way the iPod transformed the music industry. But why hasn’t this happened already? In the face of the high cost of higher education, why aren’t more students and the legislators who represent them asking for cheaper online alternatives? Sure, there’s some of this going on now, but why the time lag? After all, correspondence courses have been around for a while.

The music world was transformed by recording devices a long time ago. Why didn’t cheap, easily distributable media transform higher ed as well?  Why haven’t live lectures been replaced by tapes and correspondence courses in the same way that live music declined after the affordable recordings became widely available?

Some have suggested that the answer is about motivation. An analogy is made to a personal trainer. A personal trainer gets people to engage in much more strenuous activity than they otherwise would. Meanwhile, the naturally motivated athletes are amused that people would pay so much money to someone who can tell you to do things you can learn to do yourself. In the same way, college motivates the majority of us who could not motivate themselves to get through online courses sitting in their home by themselves.

Some have argued that a traditional college degree remains important in the face of more efficient alternatives largely because of what it signals to employers. When making hiring decisions, employers seek quick-and-easy indicators of cognitive skill, diligence and conformity. Online degrees haven’t traditionally been a good indicator of any of those three things. Perhaps the connotation of online courses will change since many if not all of the most prestigious universities are now participating in one way or another in MOOCs. But even then, we’re a long, long way from a tipping point in which taking a bunch of online courses in lieu of pursuing a conventional degree could possibly signal conformity.

I can think of another reason that might explain the continuing dominance of the traditional college model. Perhaps we should think about the question more as an anthropologist might.

Going to college is a ritual, a rite of passage. (It might be good here to compare college to rites of passage in smaller societies.)

Going to college (exclusively) online is certainly a viable option for some, but perhaps the bricks-and-mortar version remains dominant in part for the same reasons that many able-bodied religious people go to church rather than watch a church service on TV.

It’s partly about the experience of course. The college experience is I think for many students a haven of hopes and possibilities away from the hum-drum of standard work life. Students may like how college makes them feel about themselves. Even if they aren’t doing too well in school or aren’t particularly interested in school, going to school raises their status in their community and contributes to a feeling that they are improving themselves.

College graduation is vitally important to the identities of many people. It signals an arrival, the meaning of which goes well beyond the additional money one can earn. I think of parents crying at the graduation ceremony. Can online degrees produce this kind of meaningful experience?  Can online degrees have the same impact on identity? Maybe, but it might require a dramatic shift in what college signifies for people.


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