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Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens?

Quite possibly, but an education just from YouTube videos would miss the true point of a college education.

This past February, as one of the keynote speakers invited to contribute to a lively forum sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), I presented a bold challenge to my fellow professors that has since been quoted many times: "If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be."

Some were very alarmed at this statement, assuming I meant that all future learning should be online. But that wasn’t my meaning at all. Instead, I was insisting that if, as a teacher, at any level you are no more interactive and responsive than a YouTube video, then your institution and your students should save your salary and go with the cheaper—and probably more entertaining—online version instead, and offer the greater public good of making your course available to those around the world who don’t have the resources for the rare privilege of physically attending an American university.

The fact is the American university system is regarded, worldwide, as the best there is. If you are a wealthy citizen of China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, or many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or Europe, your dream is to send your child to the U.S. for a college education. A glance at the number of international students at U.S. campuses today confirms that higher education is truly the one area where the U.S. has a highly favorable balance of trade.

At the same time, the U.S. is rapidly squandering its most vital national resource. While everyone is rightly worried about the high cost of a college education, what needs to be pointed out vigorously is how much that rising cost relates directly to the decline in federal and state spending on universities. State universities are barely supported by states anymore and federal support of higher ed is also declining, as we can see from the detailed reports issued by the Delta Cost Project of the American Institute for Research. Similarly, corporations have divested themselves on a grand scale of the labs and think tanks they formerly supported.

Universities have taken up the role of supporting the expensive labs and high tech facilities necessary for the basic research that fuels innovation, with corporations often supporting targeted, potentially profitable projects but not the enormous ongoing costs of infrastructure and personnel required to yield those more practical outcomes. Christopher Newfield documents these relationships in Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the University and in the sequel .

Can profs be replaced by computer screens? Yes, a lot of them can be. Even at this early stage, several of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) created by major universities including MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and others provide better actual platforms for motivating learning in some technical subjects than do profs simply lecturing in a 600-person lecture class with a midterm and a final graded by a TA. But not every MOOC is Carnegie-Mellon’s brilliant statistics course and not every classroom has 600 students texting as a boring prof drones on. Both are stereotypes. And since every workplace survey says communication skills, critical thinking ability, collaborative skills, and ability to understand diverse cultural contexts and acuity at diagnosing problems and finding creative solutions are the most prized qualities in future employees, one wonders how one would ever learn those through MOOCs, even those accompanied by peer-learning components.

So what is the key difference between online education and face-to-face, residential education? The late John Strohbehn, the provost at Duke, used to say parents are willing to pay a lot to have professionals turn their 18-year-old kids into 21-year-old adults. Almost everything about the intensity of college and the multiple pressures of studying, social life, work life, and extracurricular leadership activities is part of what leads to that development process from being a teenager to being ready for an independent adult life. Especially for middle-class America, with its over-protected, over-regulated teens and helicopter parents, giving up on universities means educational disempowerment (youth unemployment is high but far higher for those without a college degree). And it also means a major change in the very structuring of parenting.

I know people (and occasionally I’m one) who would much rather watch a sporting event on TV away from the crowds and with the benefit of instant replay. Rock concerts, too. But to put being part of the crowd out of reach of your child is a decision that one has to take very seriously. And if we extend that to all live events, what does it mean if only the 1% ever gets to participate firsthand? The great Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen writes about the "race between education and technology." He argues that in times of huge technological change, you need the benefit of extensive education to keep some kind of equality in society. If you forfeit education, you increase the amount of inequality radically. In the U.S. today the pay of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is more than 200 times that of the average worker. By comparison, the German ratio is 12 to 1. If the U.S. continues to defund education and devalue its worth, our ratio is destined to get higher.

We may think crushing debt is the worst legacy we’re leaving the next generation, but there are far worse problems our youth will inherit. With our shrinking tax structures, we have allowed the infrastructure of our roads and bridges and mass transportation systems to crumble over the last 40 years in the same way that we have let the university support system collapse. Those are the real disasters we’re bequeathing: physical infrastructure ever more on the verge of collapse and a dumbed-down citizenry in a high-tech global knowledge economy that will become more, not less, competitive in the years ahead.