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'Clicks' Could Be Future of Higher Education

  • Ted Landphair

Most college campuses still look like this early postcard view of James Madison University in Virginia from the days when it was a teachers’ college. (Library of Congress)

Most college campuses still look like this early postcard view of James Madison University in Virginia from the days when it was a teachers’ college. (Library of Congress)

Even with myriad technological changes that have affected higher learning in the early 21st century, most U.S. colleges and universities are still traditional “halls of ivy,” with large classrooms, laboratory buildings and a number of student dormitories.

But a new survey of more than 1,000 Internet experts, researchers and observers of American education found that higher education may soon be more about “clicks” than “bricks.”

The survey was conducted by Elon University in North Carolina and the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Sixty percent of its respondents agreed with the statement that, by 2020, “there will be a mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning” in order to give students greater access to real-world experts.

A majority foresees a transition to “hybrid” classes that combine online studies with far less classroom discussion.

But not all the experts who were polled are thrilled with this vision. According Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, they worry that long-distance learning “lacks the personal, face-to-face touch they feel is necessary for effective education.”

Colleges are realizing that traditional classroom instruction “is becoming decreasingly viable financially,” says Rebecca Bernstein of the State University of New York at Buffalo. “The change driver will not be demand or technology. It will be economics and the diminishing pool of students who can afford to live and study on campus. "

As John McNutt of the University of Delaware puts it, “Without online education, only the wealthy will receive an education. The traditional model is too expensive.”
Increasingly, online access is what students will need to attend college “classrooms” of the future.

Increasingly, online access is what students will need to attend college “classrooms” of the future.


Some of the Internet experts and researchers went so far as to visualize universities of the future in which “campuses” would exist mostly for tutoring, specialized training and research.

Jeff Jarvis, of the City University of New York, wrote in his reply to the survey that it makes little sense in today’s world to subject students to “lectures on, say, capillary action - most of them bad - when the best lectures on this and other subjects can be found and shared online.”

If this is the future, another question might be in order. As its student body spreads farther and farther from campus, what’s to become of one of a college’s biggest sources of income: the football program?

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