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Will online lectures destroy universities?

Statements like “universities are obsolete” or “universities are dying” are comical. And untrue. Universities are continuing to grow in enrolment and general influence in society. Calling universities obsolete while we are early on in the so-called knowledge economy is like declaring factories obsolete in the 18th century just as the industrial revolution was taking hold. Utter nonsense. When I read articles like Why free online lectures will destroy universities – unless they get their act together fast I’m generally more amused than informed. The article does make one important point about the value of online lectures – after all, we should record anything that can be captured without a significant loss in value. The broader university role of research and building societal capacity for innovation can’t be ignored. Are universities providing value for learners? To some degree, but dramatic tuition increases have created a higher education bubble. When bubbles burst, however, industries don’t disappear…they generally adjust to a new reality (the US housing bubble hasn’t made home ownership obsolete). But, even then, I maintain that the real challenge facing universities is one of relevance, not obsolescence. Relevance requires a repositioning, not complete elimination. Until we have an elected president or prime minister who was self-taught on TEDTalks or YouTube, universities will continue to play an important role.


  1. Scott Leslie wrote:

    This seems silly to argue about, only time will tell. But in saying “the real challenge facing universities is one of relevance, not obsolescence” you seem to be arguing a pretty fine line, that it is possible to become irrelevant but not become obsolete. True enough, I suppose, in the sense that there is always a lag between when something becomes irrelevant and when it disappears. But the two seem largely pointing in the same direction.

    I agree with you that the article you point to is largely not well argued and represents so much digital hand waving. But I also think your dismissal of the dangers to the continued model of universities encapsulated in the catchphrase “universities are dying” is premature too. I do not want to lay ALL of the blame for the following phenomenon at the feet of universities, as that would ask them to be responsible for far more than they are. But there are a number of social measures (the big two for me are the growing gaps in developed countries and the world as a whole between super rich and poor, and the growing gap in our culture in attitudes towards education between the educated and the anti-intellectual) that the model of the university (and moreover, the model of knowledge and learning it promotes) very much perpetuates. I argue that there are ways to respond to the threats to the current model (some of which I take to be around funding, the increasing ubiquity of learning opportunities and emerging alternatives to traditional accreditation) that simultaneously move towards addressing some of these large issues of the societies in which the universities are embedded. If they choose to do so, universities will not simply be reacting to the current set of crises but adapting into something quite new. And in that sense, the University as we know it could (and I argue “should”) be “dead.”

    This is a long discussion to have. Am happy to engage with you over time on it. This comment, however, was simply because (and I know this wasn’t your intent) by picking fights with straw men like the article you point at, influential writers like you actually do a disservice to the real, actual *pressing* needs to transform our institutions as a part of the larger social transformations required to adapt to the coming storms.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Scott – thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that there is a real need for university reform. But, I’m convinced that we need to recognize what it is that universities (higher education) actually do for society. I think their value is twofold:
    1. To offer a statement of competence of an individual (achieved through teaching and then a degree)
    2. To grow and advance knowledge (research – I won’t deal with this here)

    In terms of employment seeking, universities offer a mediating/value stating role. Let’s say I’m applying for a position in a department that you run/manage. Because you are somewhat familiar with who I am/my interests/my capabilities, you can likely make a fairly quick determination about whether or not I meet the needs of your department. However, if you don’t know who I am, a Google search will offer some help. In this instance google serves partly as a mediator. You may find out enough about me to hire me (or not). With HR departments in large organizations, standards/rules/guidelines determine who will be hired. A degree is a base minimum. I can’t see social networks and Google searches replacing the systematized processes involved in HR hiring procedures. The whole system is based on a premise of “covering your butt”. If an HR dept waves hiring requirements, it opens itself to severe criticism. The current uproar at University of Manitoba about bending rules to accommodate a phd student supports this self-enforcing circle (look at this letter of support for the faculty member in question: The power of any system is its connectedness/integration. The greatest preservation of the university system is those who rely on it (employers, governments), not actually the university and the learners.

    I’m all for agile and adaptive university systems…and would like to see significant changes, especially based on your comments about gaps (rich/poor, intellectual/anti-intellectual, etc). Maybe I’m turning into a real skeptic, but I see most activity in society turning to increased structure and constraint, not greater flexibility (standardized testing, quality control in education, accountability). If I let my thoughts wander for a bit, I get concerned that we are perhaps in a brief golden age where we have actual power/control in learning…before the impending technification of learning takes full hold.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  3. Scott Leslie wrote:

    About the only thing I think we can agree on in this brief exchange is that it is naive to believe that accreditation and the validation of forms of knowledge and learning are not bound up very tightly with the capitalist economies that fund them. I acknowledge that too.

    I do not, however, acknowledge the desirability of that state of affairs, the viability of it as a long term strategy, nor its inevitability, as ineluctably as it may present itself to those willing to think outside it.

    I do know, though, that for my *personal* part, the way I will change this will likely not be at the level of “the university” or “the public system” – not because those don’t need changing, but instead because it’s not a level I can get *personal* purchase on, but also because I believe that focusing on that level/scale is part of what got us into the problems we’re in. Because “we” can scale doesn’t mean “we” should.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Scott Leslie wrote:

    sorry, typo, should have read “to those UNwilling to think outside it”

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  5. George,

    I don’t believe universities are dying from online delivery alone. And to your point, they aren’t dying. However, they could easily collapse.

    A college education for the average student is quickly becoming cost prohibitive. Are we comfortable saddling future graduates with tens of thousands of dollars of debt plus interest? Are they being sold a “dream” not far from the trade school diploma mill model?

    And if the job market continues to stagnate, plenty of graduates will find themselves working far below their capabilities with little way to repay their loans and unable to add much economic value.

    The new global economy may have rendered a guaranteed ROI from college a myth.

    This leads to a catch-22: Only wealthy individuals will be able to attend and tuition rates will continue to outpace inflation as tuition is spread across even fewer students.

    No, it won’t be online delivery that does universities in, it’ll be their enormous operating budgets literally imploding on them.

    The industry needs innovation, consolidation, and economies of scale to remain relevant and affordable for the average student.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  6. James Wrubel wrote:

    To me this is more about the lectures and less about the lecturers. I draw a parallel to the movie industry. In the beginning we sold a seat to the theater to each individual that was willing to and able to pay for it. Just like currently we require each student to pay for their singular experience of attending the lecture. When they are done, they can’t take it with them, they can’t access it again – just like the movie theater. Online lectures are time-shifting the instruction just like VHS and DVD, but you still have multiple ‘copies’ of the lecture; one for each university. We’re waking up to the fact that the world may need many thousands of universities to support the education of its populace, but it does _not_ need many thousands of slightly different lectures on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We need one really really good lecture, used everywhere. Universities are important for the collaboration and research functions; they are less and less important as places to go to learn basic facts.

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Howard wrote:

    Hey George;
    I resonate with your relevance line of thought. Higher Ed is good at increasing rhetorical skills or passing along knowledge of the law or engineering; stuff like that… But since for most of its existence graduates were greatly outnumbered by non-graduate, the net effect of the degree was to grant a type of class distinction. It meant you had some intellectual ability above the rabble and your family had some money (at least prior to the GI Bill in the US). The skills and knowledge one gained served to reinforced that distinction. Today nearly every job requires a degree and it no longer conveys that class distinction. I believe that people will increasingly demand something more, like that their education provide a meaningful difference to their everyday lives. I don’t think that lectures and much of rest of higher ed pedagogy passes that everyday relevance test. That’s why I was drawn to the concept of Personal Learning Environments in PLENK 2010. I think it (along with other new pedagogical forms) has the potential to address things like complexity, tansdisciplinarity, and provide for a individually unique lifelong educational path; something that may be very relevant to everyday activity. The question is: can the pedagogues give up their own idealized education to explore something new?

    Monday, November 29, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  8. Mark Curcher wrote:

    I agree George. My response is not as well written or concise as your, but its here at


    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 2:31 am | Permalink
  9. Jean-Marc Guillemett wrote:

    Universities are facing difficult times, regardless of how we look at it (role, funding, social changes, etc.). Unfortunately, difficulties are in many ways self imposed. For example, in a recent project involving an international group of experts evenly split between respected academics and other professionals, academics were consistently those who were most resistant to new ideas and change. As a result, their contribution was all but dismissed, without negatively impacting the work underway.

    Perhaps the saddest thing I’ve read in this thread is George’s comment that the role of universities is to offer a statement of competence and grow and advance knowledge. I’m not sure what happened to educating, facilitating learning and developing the ability to grow through learning but if that’s no longer on the agenda, then we definitely don’t need universities.

    The best way not to be considered irrelevant is to keep demonstrating value. That value is becoming increasingly difficult to find in universities. If that doesn’t change, universities will die or be irrevocably changed in ways they may not like. It’s time to show people the money or get ready to move on!


    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  10. LSM wrote:

    The sad thing is that universities are ideally set up for taking up the challenge for the future of learning.

    They have the courses, the content, the lectures, the educators. And they have a potentially massive captive audience. The problem is delivery.

    And delivery is being held up by a lack of will and technological ignorance. Many academics are intentionally resisting change to online learning, not just because of a quality perspective, but because they refuse to retrain themselves and take on the technology and tools that will get their content out there and bring the students to them via the online world.

    Online, whether it eventually outnumbers on-campus students, can and should be seen as a value-add component. The content is generated in the lecture halls and classes, and in learning materials. They just need to be delivered in an innovative way to attract the online learners.

    Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  11. Calian wrote:


    As you mentioned, universities do play an important part in our current educational system. However, higher tuition and related expenses are hindering the less fortunate a future in our society. The shift to online or distant learning has created another avenue for getting an education without leaving your household. This provides revenue for the institution, encourage remote participation and increase relevance through repositioning without elimination.

    Wednesday, December 1, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink