Online education and electric vehicles are on the same inevitable trajectory.
At some point, almost all cars, trucks and buses will be electric. The internal combustion engine (ICE) will hang on for a few years. Two or three decades, peaks. But ICE is 20th century technology, not 21st. Electric cars are part of the solution for decarbonization. The pace of substitution from electricity to gas will depend on the cost, storage and efficiency of the batteries. As batteries get bigger, better and cheaper, the case of ICE vehicles evaporates.
Online learning will never completely replace face-to-face teaching. There will always be a place for the immersive, intensive, experiential and transformative experience of a high quality residential education.
However, all the growth of higher education will be in the online space. Online learning will be the dominant method of post-secondary education in emerging economies. These countries will not be able to build enough physical campuses to meet the need to educate their populations.
Most graduate programs will move online. There are very few masters that justify the direct and opportunity costs of a full-time residential model. Only the best graduate studies programs, those built on a social as well as an educational experience, will remain face-to-face. Everything else will go online.
As with electric cars, the knowledge and experience to create quality online programs already exists. Automakers don’t need to invent a whole new set of technologies to switch their models from gas to electric. The stages limiting the flow are the costs and capacity of the battery and the construction of charging networks. Colleges and universities can leverage existing strengths, expertise and technology platforms to move from residential to online.
The second equivalence, low-cost quality online degrees to scale = autonomous vehicles, is trickier.
The world must shift to autonomous vehicles. In 2020, 38,690 people in the United States died from car accidents. Globally, there have been 1.3 million auto-related deaths. This kind of carnage is almost unimaginable. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce vehicle-related fatalities.
The equivalent of a car accident in higher education is student debt. Collectively, Americans owe $ 1.7 trillion in student loans. For the six in 10 undergraduates who will leave college (often without a degree) with loans, the average amount they will need to be just under $ 30,000. (And over $ 70,000 for anyone with a master’s degree.)
We must all continue to fight for public investment in public higher education. Policies that have shifted the costs of higher education from states to students and families have been disastrous. Higher education should be a public good, not a private cost.
As we wage this fight, we should also be figuring out how to bend the cost curve of higher education. The only way to do this is to reduce the cost of degrees. Offering large-scale online degree programs is one way to keep costs down. The challenge will be to deliver high-quality online degrees at scale.
Quality education is a lot like safe driving. These are complex, highly variable and high-stakes activities. They both require judgment, flexibility and adaptability.
Good teaching is relational, personal and patient. Good behavior requires foresight, focus and proactive decision making.
So far, predictions for when we will get to level four (high driving automation) and level five (full driving automation) have been extremely optimistic. In 2019, Elon Musk claimed that Tesla vehicles would be used as fully autonomous robot taxis by 2020. In 2021, even Musk was forced to admit that fully autonomous driving is a more complex task than it is. had imagined it.
The difficulty of developing autonomous vehicles should not deter us from this work. The stakes are too high not to embark on the search for a safer autonomous driving future.
The hurdles of creating low-cost, high-quality online degrees shouldn’t stop us from iterating towards that future, either. Finding out how to deliver high quality / low cost learning experiences – relational, immersive and transformative – is the great higher education project of our time.