When I taught a course titled "Introduction to the City" in the UW-Madison Geography Department last spring, I had my students view an online lecture by Professor John Merriman of Yale University.
It was just one lecture from an entire course on European history offered by Yale Open Courses. In fact, dozens of courses are available online from Yale. As far as I know, you can't get credit for them yet, but the learning is available at no charge.
In one sense this is wonderful. Some of the best minds in the world can share their knowledge with an unlimited number of people at any time. This has the potential to provide broader and better educational opportunities, and that can only lead to good places.
But, like most wonderful things, this one isn't without a catch. Last week the catch caught up with University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan. The state Board of Visitors fired her for vague reasons, but the main one seemed to be that she wasn't moving fast enough to catch up with Yale, MIT, and other major universities that were getting on the online learning bandwagon.
She was ultimately reinstated, but she's just the latest university leader to get caught in the fast-changing academic world where tension between regents and faculty catches presidents in the middle. Our own Biddy Martin, who I liked very much, was an example of what happens when you try to move too fast in an academic environment.
But getting back to open courses offered online, here's the problem. It looks a lot like what happened to journalism. As someone has written, "this is what happens when you let English majors run businesses." They gave away the same content they were selling in their papers on the Internet for free. And all that free access to information has resulted in fewer newspapers, fewer professional journalists and, I would say, a poorer public exchange of ideas.
Could the same thing happen in academia? Maybe. The question is this: Why would any cash-strapped family pay north of $40,000 for an education in a bricks and mortar university when world-class knowledge is just a click away for free?
Well, the answer might be that there's no substitute for being on campus -- no substitute for seeing the professor and asking him questions, no substitute for mixing it up with your classmates from around the country and world, no substitute for getting shit-faced and walking home alone along Lake Mendota at midnight on a breezy, balmy early May night and lying on the grass outside Adams Hall, staring up at the stars shining through the old oaks and wondering where your life might take you, not to say anyone I know has done the latter.
The truth is that for so many of us, what we learned in college was only partially acquired in the classroom. We learned from one another, and we did that in unexpected places and in surprising ways. Like cities, campuses are places where people collide in unlikely ways, and share experiences and ideas. Wonderful things can come of all that.
The bottom line is that this is dangerous stuff. If online learning results in the reduction of the four-year campus experience like free access online to newspapers has resulted in the loss of so many good publications, then that will be a very significant loss. So many friendships, relationships, marriages, and twists and turns in life, so many self-discoveries, will be left undiscovered.
You can access John Merriman online in the comfort of your own bedroom at home. But you cannot find yourself by yourself.