The end of brick-and-mortar universities?

Have you heard the buzz about MOOCs?  This acronym with the unfortunate sound-alike—“mook” is slang for “loser”—stands for Massive Open Online Course, of the sort offered for free by companies like Coursera.  The popularity of MOOCs, with thousands of students logging on to a single class taught by leading professors from elite universities, has led to speculation about a future without campuses.

University officials have begun to fret openly about just such a possibility.  A senior administrator at RIT recently spoke of how online education experts asked him how he could justify having so many buildings.  He repeated this question to faculty to show how online education threatens the traditional model of post-secondary schooling, while urging them to come up with more online courses here. 

The Department of Communication has long been involved in online education—in fact, we consider ourselves early adopters.  We began offering a number of such courses in the early 1990s.  And we’ll continue to look for ways to deliver some of our classes online, particularly at the graduate level. 

 We’ve even discussed—very tentatively—the notion of creating MOOCs of our own.  Courses open to a worldwide classroom would allow us to connect with a huge audience, obviously, and help extend the DOC brand.

But for now we’re still focused on providing the sort of education students tell us they prefer: in small classes that meet a couple times a week in a room.

No question:  we have to find ways to reverse the trend of rising costs.  Campus buildings and all the stuff in them are expensive.  And that expense is reflected in the cost of going to college, which according to the U.S. Department of Education has tripled since 1980, in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Little wonder college student debt is at an all-time high, at just over $25 thousand. 

But eliminate our campuses and the experience of “going away” to college, of spending a few years exploring ideas face-to-face with others in a real physical space?  The phrase “brick-and-mortar” has entered our language as a necessary distinction with the online world.  We now must refer to brick-and-mortar stores because we shop so often on the Internet.  Is it possible that in our lifetimes we will begin referring to brick-and-mortar universities?









About patrickscanlon

Professor and Director School of Communication Rochester Institute of Technology
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2 Responses to The end of brick-and-mortar universities?

  1. Many times, in casual conversations, I’ve posed a similar question that was asked of the senior RIT administrator: Is RIT being shortsighted in its current growth boom?

    I ask it not in criticism — but, rather, in genuinely wondering about the future. I worked at RIT for nearly 13 years, from 1999 through last summer, and there truly was never a time when a major construction project wasn’t underway — meanwhile, all along, higher-ed has been in a shifting-all-things-to-digital mode.

    I believe there will always be a place for face-to-face education — and “brick and mortar” campuses; that said, however, future college educations will likely come in a “blended” model — with most classes, eventually, meeting both online and, occasionally, in person.

    It might another decade or two off (or not so long), but it’s clearly the direction higher ed is headed, in my opinion. That could mean, of course, that come 2032 (or sooner), when half of all classes might meet online, RIT is likely to have a lot more infrastructure — brick-and-mortar buildings requiring expensive heating, cooling and maintenance — than necessary to provide a college education.

    So, is the current RIT building spree shortsighted? I’m only asking….

  2. ncheong says:

    College is also about networking, building relationships, and participating in extra-curricular activities. Another purpose of college is for an authority to to certify (via an exam of some sort) that the student has indeed mastered the concepts in the course(s) and the program. Those are things that brick-and-mortar institutions provide that MOOCs will never be able to.

    Because of immigration policies, only students who have graduated from American institutions are allowed to stay in the United States to look for a job. Those who want to live and work in the United States (even temporarily) would not be able to use MOOCs to get an immigration visa — I do not foresee this to change anytime soon. So long as American institutions need foreign tuition (to help balance their budgets, particularly in state schools) and want foreign students to remain relevant and diverse in an increasingly globalized world, brick-and-mortar institutions are necessary to serve foreign students.

    Because of those reasons, brick-and-mortar universities will not see their demise soon. I recognize, of course, that the headline is provocative. No doubt, brick-and-mortar universities will have to evolve — and quickly — to the rise of MOOCs.

    As a sidenote, I doubt that “campus buildings and the stuff in them” are the reason why brick-and-mortar institutions are expensive. My undergraduate alma mater, Singapore Management University, pays for dozens of Ivy League graduates to teach in its classes, which are limited to about 50 students each. I understand it used to pay for the right to be affiliated with Wharton during my time. The campus itself is situated in the downtown area of one of the most expensive cities in the world. There is wi-fi coverage through the campus and each classroom is furnished with expensive IT equipment. Currently, before government subsidies, citizens pay the equivalent of $28,700 a year in tuition — less than the annual undergraduate tuition in RIT. So what gives?

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