Will Universities be Necessary in the 21st Century?

Robert Beard

Lighting a fire in the studentís heart, role modeling and nurturing may contribute more to learning than the neatest hyper-linked courseware (Michael Dertouzos, What Will Be. 1998, p. 20).

I have chosen 'Gilligan's Island' as my theme song for the evening because my hope is raise the thought in your minds that while we think we are sailing on the Queen Mary, we are in fact on the Minnow. The follow-up to that thought, of course, is, if we are on the Minnow, will there be an uninhabited but tropical isle waiting for us when we go under? I think there will be but I'm doubtful that an uninhabited island, however luxurious, will make us happy.

Perhaps the most interesting point I will make this evening is the question in my topic: Will Universities be Necessary in the 21st Century? This question is a deeply troubling yet interesting one from the simple fact that it is possible. 5 years ago this question was impossible; it would have made no sense to ask it in 1993 for then no viable alternative to what universities do was available. However, in 1993 the World Wide Web was opened, and within the short intervening period alternative sources of education are springing up to such an extent that the only real question left is to what extent these alternatives are viable. It is this question that I would like you and I to examine this evening.

These questions might still seem frivolous, given the increase in college applications ignited by the current economic boom. But we should be careful taking too much credit for that growth: the economy, our ever more corporate public relations efforts (cf. Bucknell's recent pamphlet on how to maintain our corporate image), and the momentum of tradition is more than enough to explain it. The number of applications goes up and down in response to a wide variety of conditions. I find it hard to believe that the enormous variety of educational opportunities that the information age will bring will have no effect on our applicant pool in the postmodern age. Let's see if we can get some idea of what that educational variety might bring

1. A Worrisome Combination

As I hope you all know, an enormous chain of changes is currently taking place in the world. I suppose it is possible to ignore such changes; some folks still ride around in horse-drawn carriages 70 years after automobiles went into production, changing most of our lives in a major way. However, the people who organize the world are passionately under its influence and they are busy changing the world in ways that will never go away again. This evening I want to address two of those changes that I find quite worrisome: (1) the delivery of education in the form of what I will call electronic distance education and (2) the growth and expansion of commercial educational institutions.

I use the term electronic distance education to distinguish it from distance learning associated first with correspondence courses and then with passive video presentations over the past century. Indeed, most of distance learning programs were developed and deployed by traditional educational institutions and these institutions are leading the way in adopting the Internet to its service. Commercial educational institutions are concomitantly expanding in several directions. Commercial universities like the University of Phoenix and Sylvan Learning Centers are growing at an unprecedented pace. The University of Phoenix is a far-flung, for-profit, and fully accredited university. In just 20 years, it has become the largest private university in the U.S., delivering business and other applied degree programs to 56,000 students at 70-plus sites nationwide. Sylvan Learning Centers is currently buying several buildings across Europe for expanded operations and has 7,000 testing sites currently worldwide. At the same time, commercial organizations assuming an ever greater role in the administration of private and state educational institutions. Traditional institutions of higher education are consigning one aspect of their administration after another commercial corporations: food services, laundry services, book stores, some aspects of the registrar's office are currently being run by privately owned corporations. Presumably universities are incapable of administering the operations successfully. Alone, neither trend alarms me; together I think they represent a turn worth serious consideration. To understand why, let's take a closer look at both.

    1. Electronic Distance Education

Electronic distance education is worrisome because it is vastly superior to traditional video distance learning. It is interactive so that teacher and student can communicate in real time to visual representations of each other. Video conferencing is possible on- and off-campus at this moment at Bucknell and all other universities. But this is not even the central issue in electronic distance education. The fact that the computer is involved means that the interaction between teacher and student can be much more complicated than in a conventional classroom. The lines between lecturing, answering questions, testing and grading break down completely. Let me show you what I mean.

[Look at intuitive response testing]

The on-line exercise does more than test. It provides the student with immediate feedback in the form of hints to help him learn the rules and principles he is being tested for. It can only be replicated in a classroom with a teacher but the teacher can administer this interactivity to only one student at a time. The tool here is a powerful interactive tool that duplicates an important part of teaching on an enormous scale without a teacher other than that the compiler of the exercise. Here is another such tool.

[Look at the sagittal section]

This is an exercise that used to require three discrete steps: (1) learning the International Phonetic Alphabet, which provides a standard symbol system for linguistic sounds, (2) learning how each sound is created, and (3) learning the minimal features of each sound. This interactive exercise allows students to learn these three aspects of the English sound system all at once, as the integrated system it really is. There is no other way to do this.

Electronic distance education is therefore a very powerful educational delivery system allowing interaction between teacher and student impossible any other way. In addition to this advantage we must remember that courses by the world's best teachers, edited and improved infinitely, can be made available on this network in perpetuity. Students who choose education by this vehicle ten years (if not five) will have no need to make allowances for mediocre teaching in some of their courses in order to take a few excellent ones. All electronic distance education courses will be excellent, exciting, proven effective, and endorsed if not created by the most famous teachers and textbook writers in the world.

Finally, we should not overlook the convenience of electronic distance learning. It will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Students may earn money while they take electronic courses. They may live with their parents or not, but they may remain in their community, where they are most comfortable, or travel around the world, working on their courses at every stop. They may spend two years on campus and two years off, or 4-5 years off. The point is that electronic distance education is not distance learning. Distance learning has been around since the turn of the century. We are not talking about passive video presentations with written correspondence. We are talking about interactive exercises, including readings, with video conferencing with the teacher in addition to on-line teleconferencing, e-mail, and voice mail.

1.2 Corporate Educational Institutions

Corporate educational institutions pose a greater threat as their numbers grow since they combine an economically operated campus with a vast electronic network. Corporations are concurrently assuming more and more of the responsibilities of operating state and private universities: food services, dormitory operations, book stores, even the registrar's office has recently become the target of the more parsimonious hand of corporate managers. If private and state universities concede they are incapable of managing their own operation, it is only a matter of time before corporations begin offering assistance in instruction. Indeed, publishers already provide most the materials we use and the course we teach is to a large extent dependent upon those materials. So over recent decades we have seen the expansion of commercial universities and a growth of commercialization in private and state university administrations.

We may legitimately wonder why corporations would be interested in the instructional process itself, the courses we teach? Entrepreneurs invest their capital where there are potential revenue streams. A growing number of them realize that in the most valuable commodity in the information age is -- information. If follows that the source of reliable information is also extremely valuable. The academic community is the largest creative source of reliable information on earth. Commercial institutions, therefore, can be expected to pay a premium for what educators have been donating to society in exchange for modest living expenses over the past millennium.

Corporations have a growing expertise in our business. Many corporations have been educating their employees for decades, teaching them not only the business, but skills we often fail to instill: writing, reading, and thinking skills. Paul Shrivastava recently told me that approximately 600 such corporate universities are fully functional today. Some corporate universities have expanded their educational services, offering them to the broader public. Motorola, for example, estimates that over 20 percent of its 100,000 students come from outside company ranks. So corporate America already has quite a bit of experience in our business.

Now corporations and some educational institutions are joining forces to bring graduate education and training to the Web. These new informational conglomerates will combine residential campuses with worldwide reach. The UCLA extension service is now in partnership with OnlineLearning Corporation. It, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland University College are joining with learning portal called Hungry Minds to form a formidable educational presence on the Web. Berkeley already has a contract with America On-line. These join the Western Governors University, Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) and the Kentucky Commonwealth Virtual University, who are working with Cambridge Technology Partners and PeopleSoft Corporation, and dozens of other consortia offering various combinations of on- and off-campus study. The line between corporations and universities is melting.

How fast could a process of commercializing education take place? Let me put it to each of you. What would you do if a commercial university were to offer $100,000 plus a bonus of $25-50,000 per course, to convert your materials to on-line courses and manage them on-line? Your teaching load would remain essentially the same except you would work 11 months per year. 500 students, from around the world, paying $1,000 per course would sustain salaries and bonuses on this scale, and produce a considerable profit given the low overhead of the web. All testing and grading would be done on-line, the teacher would record the course only once, touching up the lectures from time to time, and most questions would be answered by the testing itself, FAQs, and assistants via teleconferencing. Teachers would be expected to organize a videoconference or two each week on-line with students in lieu of office hours. This idea is currently possible, waiting for the right entrepreneur. It is an idea that could strip universities of their brightest and their best.

Figures like these rarely surface in discussions of on-line education these days. Few, if any, educational entrepreneurs are making money from on-line education currently. That is because the cost of a good virtual university is driven upward by the same force that makes private universities more and more expensive: good instructors. But over the next 30 years, on-line educational institutions will accumulate hundreds of thousands of courses written by excellent instructors, courses that can be managed on the Web by graduate majors. With most of the grading done on-line, and most of the questions answered by on-line interactive flashcards and FAQs, 500 students per instructor would not be impossible. Of course, for a higher price, the original creator of the course could appear in a weekly videoconference that would have the much the same appearance as classroom lectures.

Please keep in mind that I am speaking of things that were not possible 5 years ago but are possible today. Since they are possible, the only reason that they should not eventually be realized would be important benefits of residency that cannot be duplicated on-line and that are worth $150,000 and four years of a person's life. In other words, those intangibles that make a university such an economically disorderly, unbusiness-like institution. However, the rapid pace at which the changes of the technological revolution is moving since the advent of networked computers suggests that it is not too early to begin defining and appraising those intangibles which make a residential education worth the expense. In the spirit of such an appraisal, I would like to examine the 9 roles of a university outlined in a carefully researched and deftly reasoned paper, "Come the Millennium, Where the University", written in 1995 by Gerhard Casper, president of Stanford University. Casper is a strong believer in residential university education who presides over the university that has been one of the most active contributors to the development of networked computers. Here are his nine fundamental roles of the university.

    1. Gerhard Casper's Nine Roles of a University

Five of Casper's roles for a modern university are easily reduplicated by electronic systems. They are (1) education and professional training, (2) credentialing, i.e. certification, (3) the selection of academic elites, (4) fostering a worldwide community of scholars, and (5) the transfer of knowledge. There are certainly differences between education and professional training. The latter has been conducted by distance learning since the end of the 19th century. What distinguishes education from training is certainly one or more of the intangibles we are looking for. The distinction usually turns on the ability to think critically, the ability to discover faults in data and in the interpretation of data. Acquiring this ability is difficult without thoughtful conversations with a master whose primary mode of thought is critical thinking.

The scientific method is difficult to learn without some sort of laboratory experience. That is why all universities require a laboratory experience of its undergraduates. The appreciation of art and music is difficult without a knowledgeable guide and direct experience with real art. Certainly, no one can learn a foreign language without speaking it, or a sport without participating actively in it. These are certainly some of the intangibles that distinguish education from training. But do this intangibles require residency? For example, one of the most popular web sites in the early days of the Web was the virtual frog dissecting kit. Are we certain that our students learn more about anatomy by dissecting a real frog than by going through the steps of an imaginatively configured virtual dissection exercise? Why would one procedure convey the scientific method better than the other would?

Certification is certainly possible without a geographical location. The first virtual university, Jones International University, was recently accredited by the North Central Association, although not everyone agreed with the decision. But Casper uses the richer term 'credentialing'. The degree one receives from a university currently is the most important part of their credentials for the rest of their lives. Employers attach widely differing weights to certification from different universities. Universities are the guarantors of levels of intelligence and ability in those who rule and are ruled. Can universities guarantee future performance without 4 years of 'time served' in residence?

First, there is a lot of controversy over just how accurate university certification is. I will not go into the long history of research into that question this evening. I will say that, given the optimal scenario in which the university does provide a warranty on the knowledge and intelligence of its graduates, it is not clear that residence contributes to this role. The degree ultimately reflects success in testing and testing will be done on-line 30 years from now. Credentialing, therefore, does not seem to be an intangible dependent upon residency.

The academies have a long and generally lustrous history of distinguishing the great intellects of our time and providing them with the facilities and wherewithal to pursue their ideas. We simply do not know if genius would be lost without residential universities. We do know that a lot of genius is being invested in the World Wide Web and that computers are the most important tools genius has ever had at its disposal. Certainly, e-mail and the Web currently contribute far more the to the intellectual community than have bricks and mortar if the plethora of lists and user groups is any indication. Information, if not knowledge, is transmitted at least as well electronically as in the space between a lecturer and his audience.

I will henceforth simply assume that these five roles played by universities are more or less reproducible in cyberspace and look more intensely at the four remaining roles, roles that seem less amenable to electronic transmission. These are (1) the creation of knowledge, (2) social integration, (3) providing a venue for 'rites of passage', and (4) networking. I may be criticized for weighting the differences between education and training too lightly but the issue is too complex to explore further here this evening.

5. Four Roles Difficult to Reproduce on the Web

Casper mentions 4 roles played by current universities that may be difficult to reproduce on-line. My impression, however, is that as the Internet progresses and a wider variety of on-line and off-line educational opportunities emerge, even these four roles may not save residential education as we currently know and love it.

5.1 Knowledge assessment and creation. Knowledge assessment is certainly possible on the web. There is a security issue surrounding on-line testing but it will eventually be resolved. In the meantime, Sylvan Learning Systems' solution will do fine: testing will be done at physical locations that may be rented when needed. Testing does require a physical place today, but even today it does not require 4 years of internment.

Knowledge creation is another matter. The research function of universities, ironically, will probably be a strong force holding them together unless that function is ultimately assumed by industry. I do not see industry assuming heavy enough responsibility in basic research any time in the future. Like any hit-and-miss venture, basic research by its very nature expensive and wasteful, and not profitable. While this role may justify residential universities, we must remember that undergraduate enrollment supports this research in those institutions not underwritten by the states. This role thus does not speak directly to the issue of residential education since it could more efficiently be conducted by research centers supported by federal and state governments.

5.2 Social Integration. Casper notes that universities provide a unique place where people peacefully interact across multiple social boundaries: wealthy students willingly support poorer students and students of all social classes, of all national origins, intermingle with little attention to caste, race, or, indeed, age. Casper thinks that distance education will lead to isolation. If students come to universities for this experience with diversity, it certainly militates against study at home but not against study at a corporate for-profit university with a diverse student population.

The diversity argument is a new one, coming at a rather odd time: a time when highly diverse multinational countries are disintegrating. I have in mind now the Soviet Union, now Russia, Yugoslavia, the Middle East as a region, and Indonesia. The argument is that students imbued with tolerance will cast away any inherited affinities for social intolerance. Some universities are taking positive steps in the direction of imbuing their students with a sense of tolerance, but this does not strike me as a fundamental mission of educational institution. It is one of those moral missions we have inherited from a disintegrating religious institution. I think one could argue that, on the Internet, where, as Bill Gates puts it, "no one knows you are a dog", young people could grow up more tolerant simply because racial, sexual, religious, and age differences are masked. On the Internet, the focus is on ideas and creativity, not on physical appearance or racial heritage.

5.3 Rites of passage. Casper finds the contribution of residential colleges to the process of coming of age deserve the value we attach to it. In his words, no other institution is better than a residential college "in challenging the familiar; in challenging prejudices, and values." Yet he himself notes that the vast majority of higher education institutions around the world are not residential; indeed, most are specialized. I suspect that US residential colleges may in fact delay maturation because, rather than half-way houses between childhood and adulthood, more recently they have taken on the appearance of post-secondary day-care centers where their charges are encouraged to extend their childhood. Most universities today are struggling with the problem of irresponsible drinking and property damage, often related, and students who prefer athletic games and social get-togethers to study. I like to ask my students, halfway through a course, how many have missed two days of classes. After a dozen or so have raised their hands, I announce: if this were your first job, those of you with your hands up would be fired. For the next week or two, I see the faces of those who raised their hands in class every day. The Depending on how you define 'adulthood', I think the argument could be made that university residence delays passage into adulthood. I am not sure we will be able to ask the next generation of parents to give us $500,000 in exchange for rites of passage.

5.4 Networking. Since colleges came into existence, they have provided life-long friendships and initial career connections important in the lives of our graduates. They are equally credentialed, usually find similar jobs, and have similar tastes. Networking also occurs in church, at work, at play, and in the various social organizations we participate in. Networking also occurs on the campuses of corporate universities and it is a benefit they could offer their students. Indeed, even if someone is taking courses over a distance education network, they are not prevented from networking by e-mail, chatrooms, telephone, and video conferencing. Currently, we do not currently trust relationships established over the Internet; we are more secure with recommendations of college acquaintances, church acquaintances, and the like. However, as with everything else touched by the Internet, there is every reason to believe this will change, too.

I might have chosen a different set of roles for residential universities as a target of my remarks this evening. The actual roles we choose to examine and appraise, however, is not the point here. The point here is that the intangibles of residential life at US universities that have comforted us as justification of the climbing costs of education in the past tend to evaporate upon close inspection. My overall assumption has been that the nature of the world is changing radically. It follows that the positive frenzy among young people to get into residential universities may not survive the next three decades as more and more alternatives arise before them. My hope is that we will begin forthwith to do a better job than I have done this evening in identifying the essential roles played by residence in a commerce-free university in all our lives. Universities are seen as notoriously wasteful institutions. We must convince future generations that what appears to be waste is in fact essential costs.

There is one other danger we must be aware of as we define these roles. It is to that danger that I turn next.

6. What does it take for a University to Survive?

In order for a university to survive, it must do two things: (1) it must physically and financially survive and (2) it must remain a university. If it remains, even grows, but becomes a social club, it has not survived but transformed. So when I declare that I am not optimistic about the survival of residential colleges and universities, it is not necessarily the case that I am referring to physical or financial collapse. Other crucial, defining aspects of the university as we have known it in this millennium could fail and thwart survival just as well.

In order for a university to remain a university, extracurricular activities cannot become cocurricular activities; sports must remain secondary to study, and the interest in knowledge must hold steady, if not regain its historical luster. We cannot sustain a university if social organizations become more attractive than the business of the classroom or if sports take precedence over that business. This means that those coming to Bucknell as students must retain a strong interest in reading, thinking, and writing. They must arrive capable of doing these things and graduate doing them better. The primary influence of the residential university must be on the mental faculties of its graduates.

Casper himself suggests that this might happen. To quote him, "[M]y point is that integration, maturing and 'networking' in the past were no more than supporting roles, by-products of studying at universities. Their relative importance may change in the future as people weigh the advantages of attending the physical university against the advantages of distance learning." Casper's conclusion is on the same road as mine.

However, I have added another potential to the mix: private residential colleges will have to compete not only with electronic distance education (remember, a far cry from distance learning), but with residential corporate universities like Sylvan Learning Systems and the University of Phoenix. The elimination of expensive items such as athletics, residential graduate programs, and advanced research from the budgets of such institutions would keep the campus and network overhead low. All other social organizations would function on campus and even extend themselves to the on-line clientele. Fraternities and sororities will pay the institution an affiliation fee for pledges and to place their logos on university websites. In fact, the university websites will carry millions of dollars worth of directed advertising to bolster profits.

Educational institutions driven primarily by the profit motive consider students customers. In most successful businesses the customer is always right. Such commercialized institutions would be much more likely to provide more nonacademic activities than academic ones, if that tack produced a stronger revenue stream, while giving the customer what he or she wants in the classroom: easy, entertaining courses with a high grade for dessert. Historically, noncommercial educational institutions have treated students as apprentices told what to do and how to do it. The result should have been widespread dissatisfaction but, in fact, the result has been just the opposite. Yet many independent educational institutions are succumbing to childish whims that delay passage to adulthood, expanding the powers of extracurricular activities, already called 'cocurricular' activities in some quarters. This term is a dangerous point for the faculty of an independent educational institution to concede, for it voluntarily moves us closer toward a commercial enterprise that poses a threat to our traditional roles.

7. Conclusion

If extracurricular activities become cocurricular activities and then the focal attraction to the institution, the faculty accepts it, the administration fosters, even advertises it, the Web, complemented by commercialization, will destroy universities as we know them today. Residential universities themselves, by succumbing to the forces of commercialization, could contribute to the disneyfication of education that David Noble fears will be brought by the Web alone. As bookstores and other administration offices convert to commercial principles, and universities resort ever more on commercial promotion of themselves, the traditions sought by students in residential universities will erode. (I notice that Bucknell is now using cash and vacation prizes to attract faculty and students to important campus-wide social events. Is this the behavior of a university or a business?)

The buildings, of course, will remain to provide a place for social integration, rites of passage, and networking—if the price is right. As the quality of on-line courses improves, however, and as more and more on-line courses lead to accredited degrees, we should expect growing numbers of students to find less expensive venues for maturation. By "less expensive" I mean less expensive in time and money. It has long been noted that degrees are in effect certificates of "time served" since no one can justify the standard 4 years of undergraduate education. A degree from a school, say, like Notre Dame for a quarter the going price of residential education and 2 years of on-line study may have wide appeal in 2030.

If residential universities are to retain the substance they have maintained over the past millennium, we must strengthen and enrich intellectual experience for our students both inside and outside the classroom. Indeed, we must move vigorously to recapture their minds outside of class, with interactive exercises on-line exercises linked to classroom meetings. I say demolish the walls between the classroom and the dormitories now that we have the tool for doing it, the tool that has already made the world an encyclopedia of itself. The faculty must make whatever sacrifice necessary not only to access that burgeoning encyclopedia, but also to become a part of it. Educational institutions must not relinquish the advantage of being the primary resource of knowledge by missing the cyberboat. We must establish our own resources on the web for worldwide use as well as use in our courses. We must bring the resources of other scholars into our courses with the computer. Our students are coming to us engaged to the Web; we must use the Web build on that engagement to expand and enrich their lives.


Relevant Readings

Beard, Robert 1997. "Will the 21st Century Need Universities." Paper presented at Haverford College, 8 p.m., on the evening of April 23, 1998. <http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rbeard/workshop/universities.html>

Beard, Robert 1998. An Incomplete List of On-line Universities.

Bostone, Tristan 1997. "The Digital Drucker", Technocracy , <http://www.dgsys.com/~tristan/technodrucker.html>. (Off-line currently; I'm still looking.)

"Colleges Debate the Wisdom of Having On-Campus Students Enroll in On-Line Classes." Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 1998, pp. A27ff.

CyberAtlas January 10, 1996 (visited). <http://www.cyberatlas.com/>.

De Kerckhove, Derrick 1995. The skin of culture : investigating the new electronic reality. Toronto: Somerville House Publishers.

Gates, Bill 1996. The Road Ahead. New York: Penguin Books.

Glassick, Charles, Mary Huber, and Gene I. Maeroff 1997. Scholarship Assessed: Evaluation of the Professoriate. Special report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The Harvard Conference on the Internet & Society 1997. Ed. O'Reilly and Associates. Sebastopol, CA : O'Reilly & Associates.

Illich, Ivan 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Rowe.

Lenzner, Robert & Stephen S. Johnson 1997 "Peter Drucker: Still the Youngest Mind". Forbes Magazine < http://www.forbes.com/forbes/97/0310/5905122a.htm> (May 10, 1997).

McLuhan, Marshall 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: New American Library.

Mitchell, William J. 1995. City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Noam, Eli 1995. "Electronics and the Dim Future of the University," Science, Vol. 270, 247-49.

Noble, David F. 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education." First Monday <http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html>.

Schwartz, Peter 1998 "Post-Capitalist: An interview with Peter Drucker", Wired Magazine, 1.3 <http://www.wired.com/wired/1.3/features/drucker.html>.

University Without Walls 1998 (visited). Saratoga Springs, NY: Skidmore College. <http://www.skidmore.edu/administration/uww/Skidmore/>

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