The Real Value of College: It Takes a Team (in a Room)?

Learning, Love, and the College Experience

Posted Jun 04, 2012

By Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova

College isn’t what is used to be. Completing a degree, traditionally seen as a sign your ticket is punched for entry into the great American middle class, is now seen more as an essential for economic survival. Yet while more young people are clamoring to get a college degree, budget problems spreading like a financial plague throughout most states mean fewer slots for students (California, for instance, may yet again trim capacity later this year and enroll more out-of-state students) and higher tuition for the students who do get a coveted seat. As an economics-based solution, colleges increasingly look into expanding online class offerings. Of course, some schools, especially for-profit ones like the University of Phoenix, have been in the online model of education for years. But more recently, some of the most elite schools, like MIT and Stanford, have begun offering online courses for free, or even give certificates for completing online courses that cost a tiny fraction of what it would take to get a degree on campus.

Pushing this trend is the new online learning company, Coursera, launched this past April by two Stanford computer scientists. Coursera, as advertised, is far from simply allowing someone to look a textbook online or watch videos of professors; it provides for homework assignments, frequent quizzes that are graded (in some cases by fellow students) and ultimately results in a certificate for completion. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Coursera is the colleges it has partnered with: Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania — considered among the stratosphere of American higher education.

Yet, these developments bring up some interesting questions about not only the real value of online education and its delivery, but more fundamental implications of ‘attending’ college- the act of physically coming together with students and professors in a classroom. While the Coursera founders (and others in the online industry) claim learning is in some ways enhanced in the online model (grading other students’ work is actually a way to improve learning according to one), there are no reports, to date, of Stanford students giving up their spots and saving a lot of money to enroll in Coursera. This may eventually happen, but it seems unlikely. Further, it seems clear that some topics may be better taught in a face-to face system- for example, laboratory sciences like physics and chemistry or ones where one-on-one discussion is key. But if the delivery of content of most courses is made just as effectively in the online mode as in the traditional classroom, why then are students, especially at private, elite universities, paying 40,000 dollars or more a year to meet in a room?

To this you might say something like: “It’s obvious: Developing an informal social network and connections for future career opportunities.” That being the case, the future may see an educational 'hierarchy' where elite universities continue to offer small classes where people interact face-to-face, meet their lifetime friends, or even futures spouses. Think Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, and many other couples whose destiny would not be possible if not for real nose-to-nose interaction in colleges. Meeting your mate in colleges is in many ways as important as developing lifetime networks for career opportunities, and in that colleges become a sort of tool for maintaining social class.

While it is obvious online education falls short in accomplishing all these networking goals, it does allow larger social groups of people access to content-related components of education. What is more, it can prepare future managers and workers to learn how to critically think, and think as a group in a virtual environment (which is critical in today’s world of global-scale projects and industry). There is likely something different about the virtual environment than the face-to face interaction that technology cannot replicate, try as online education entrepreneurs might do to provide a rich context. But remember, numerous companies have also been using virtual teams to make decisions and organize meetings between workers in far apart locations for decades now. So in some ways the online education experience can give students a preview of what it is like to work in virtual work teams that have become such a bread and butter part of many corporate environments. In fact, research on virtual teams has identified primary problems, according to Wayne Cascio and other management scholars, such as building trust and coordination issues- this research it seems could be applied to improving the online learning experience.

But the real point remains- what are the implications of a two-tiered future of academia where more students learn virtually (a recent course in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford and Google attracted 160,00 students) with relatively fewer residing on campuses? Maybe the real value of face-to-face education is found in the old saying that some of the best ideas are born during hallway and water cooler ’chance’ conversations. That opportunity is missed in virtual teams. Though it is impossible to say how different things might have turned out to Facebook if Zuckerberg had attended Harvard online instead of in person, it makes one think about what college students really get for the dollar- and why so many will undoubtedly continue to pay for it (the ones who can) in the future.