Building to Scale

An obvious effect of increasing the number of people pursuing higher education is the increased the stress on resources available to the institutions providing higher education. Expanding physical classroom space in light of current economic conditions is probably untenable. Building materials and labor costs are high and if there isn’t space on campus then there is the need for land purchases and the like. And in the future, if a particular university were to suffer a dramatic decrease in the population of students attending the physical campus, these same buildings would be under utilized, perhaps even vacant much of the time.

To put it succinctly, physical classroom space does not scale well. It cannot quickly grow or shrink as needed. The virtual classroom, however, scales remarkable well. Doubling the size of the online student population would likely burden the university with minimal hardware and software costs Likewise, if the demand for online classes were to diminish, the infrastructure used to support the university’s online product can easily be scaled back, perhaps even re-purposed. With cloud technology, adjustments like this are trivial compared to brick-and-mortar resources.

So much for machine scalability. The question regarding faculty usually arrives about this time. “Online professors don’t scale so how will you solve the problem of finding qualified instructors with experience teaching in online environments?”

This is a false dilemma and, pardon the reflexive reference, “old school” thinking. Professors, or at least their presentations, are scalable. An example will help: Imagine a physics professor who teaches at several universities. He accomplishes this by having his lectures video recorded at the first presentation, for which he is paid. The recorded lectures are then played at subsequent classes, for which he is paid again although it is a lesser amount. The payment model is more like royalties than salary. This model works better for subjects that are more basic or general (like undergraduate subjects) and for which the content does not change appreciably. Conceivably, if this physics professor is very good, he can be teaching a dozen classes simultaneously. That’s how faculty can scale.

The role of the teacher/instructor/professor needs to change in the virtual classroom, as will the responsibility of the student. The student will have a greater responsibility for content assimilation (i.e. reading, watching lectures, etc.) while the professor will focus less on content presentation (lectures will be previously recorded and web content would for the most part be static) but an increased role in verifying student comprehension (monitoring and participating in discussion forums, grading essay responses to questions and who knows what else is yet to be invented.) Although, given some of the innovative work being done with simulations in online education contexts, the evaluation responsibilities may also be significantly reduced or eliminated.

As for employment and steady income, teachers/instructors/professors may be challenged to diversify their sources if no one institution and support them. Will we see accreditation on a more granular level, i.e. at the level of professors? Will freelance professors become the wave of the future? How this looks in the next 5-10 years is unknown, but that’s what makes this exciting, eh?