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Margin Notes

The ‘structural disintegration’ of universities

A professor predicts the web will fundamentally alter universities in much the same way it has newspapers.


As a journalist, I marvel at how the Internet has fundamentally altered the practice of journalism while simultaneously bringing the mainstream media near the point of collapse.

A fascinating article by a law professor named Zephyr Teachout predicts that the Web will do much the same to universities. Or, as she puts it, there will be “a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now.”

Her main premise is that universities and colleges, “like newspapers, will be torn apart by new ways of sharing information enabled by the Internet.” The principal change, she predicts, is a massive shift to online classes because they are simply much cheaper to produce and deliver. Within 15 years, she says, it is quite possible that “college will be a mostly virtual experience for the average student.”

She notes that newspapers traditionally relied on selling “hard-to-come-by” information, but now that the news is posted online for free and classified advertising has shifted to places like Craigslist, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. She continues:

Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise – a degree, a better job, access to brilliant minds and training in the art of thinking. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. You don’t need to be in the classroom to see a slide or find links to books about the controversy around “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe” …. The amount of structured information is already astounding, and in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54)-year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online History of the Chinese Revolution classes, complete with video lectures, syllabi, take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature.

Continuing with the newspaper analogy, she notes that the at one time every major newspaper had foreign desks around the world, but now only a relatively few of the large media companies continue to staff such offices while many smaller outlets rely on that coverage.

Similarly, in the future, “a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States, and online faculty will administer classes with many students but relatively little individual contact.”

The ultimate result:

Fewer professors and worse pay; low-paid, untenured faculty will do much of the teaching. Online instructors are already joining freelance reporters in the underpaid, insecure, overeducated work force that works from home. … The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabi and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

How should we feel about this? Professor Teachout seems surprisingly ambivalent. On the one hand, she says, these changes will greatly expand access to higher learning, which is a good thing. On the other, it will mean the loss of the “precious academic tradition” of the university as we know it today.

Her premise is certainly plausible – I’ve read many similar predictions of a move towards the “virtual campus.” But her particular scenario seems a bit too apocalyptic. Then again, as recently as five years ago, I would never have imagined how much my own profession of journalism would change.

Your thoughts? Is the university as we know soon to disappear?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Donald Forsdyke / October 4, 2009 at 17:56

    That there “WILL” be a structural disintegration of “the academy” implies that she believes that at present “the academy” IS integrated!
    Some decades ago several Canadian academics got together and formed CARRF – the Canadian Society for Responsible Research Funding – because they saw the academy disintegrating due to defects in the peer review system.
    The warning came too late. The remedies suggested were not heeded. The fact is not trumpeted but, indeed, the academy did disintegrate and today it attains only a fraction of its true potential. We should hence look at internet innovations with delight as offering the possibility, albeit slight, that Humpty may reintegrate (since the converse is hardly possible).

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