November 20, 2017

Bargain Basement Higher Ed Has No Need for Libraries | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

You know a higher education issue is really heating up when you suddenly find yourself reading about it almost everywhere you turn over the course of a week or so. Think of all those articles about the popularity of online learning just as the price of gas was peaking. Then there were those dozens and dozens of articles about crashing enrollments just as the recession was peaking. And recall all those articles about alternative textbook options just as their cost was peaking.

See a trend here? When some sort of event or trend starts to peak, analysts come out of the woodwork to tell you that something transformative and earth-shaking is about to happen. Now the out-of-control cost of higher education combines with the expanding migration to online learning to create buzz that may well tip the field toward a radical shift in higher education.

Get your cheap higher ed here!
I’d never heard of StraighterLine until I read about it in an article by Kevin Carey with the provocative title, “College for $99 a Month.” Carey writes frequently about the excesses of the higher education industry, and encourages institutions to economize. In this article Carey profiles StraighterLine, which offers all the college courses a subscriber can complete for just $99 a month.

Of course, the curriculum is fairly limited, but that’s by design. Most higher education institutions offer basic introductory courses (think Accounting 101) that are much the same, except for tremendous variation in the cost, and even those costing significantly more might be taught by fairly inexperienced adjuncts or teaching assistants. StraighterLine plans to concentrate on offering online versions of these basic courses that have the potential to be accepted for transfer credit at any degree-bearing institution.

StraighterLine also offers 24/7 technology support and tutoring, which, by the way, are also available to colleges and universities that want to outsource such services. The article raises some questions, but it really does show how easily cheap online education could put some traditional higher education institution out of business.

The floodgates open
Almost simultaneously an article titled “Welcome to Yahoo U” appeared with a blunt message: the business model that has sustained private U.S. colleges can’t survive. Like Carey’s article, this one points to the economic advantages of online higher education. Both articles make it clear that elite private research universities and highly selective four-year institutions have little to fear, but that any other tuition-driven college or university lacking some special brand or niche is seriously threatened.

The next week, BusinessWeek featured the article “An Internet Revolution in Higher Education” which poses that open-source, online, low-cost higher education will cost a fraction of a private institution’s degree and offer something just good enough for those who want a college diploma.

Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems who is now applying the open-source model to higher education, is quoted in the article claiming that “Universities will be forced to decide what they are…are they going to be football teams with libraries attached?” McNealy would hardly be the first person to suggest that higher education, in the Internet revolution, requires no libraries or any of the familiar trappings from the pre-Internet age.

The expected backlash
Several bloggers who write over at Educational Technology & Change took on the challenge to counter the claims of those who believe that traditional higher education is about to collapse. One of the better responses, because it acknowledged that Carey’s article made some valid arguments for why cheap higher education might just work, was authored by John Sener. He also makes some good points about why traditional higher education institutions have less to fear from low-cost online programs than Carey would like us to believe.

All of these articles take on the issue of accreditation, and what role it will play in protecting what traditional institutions offer from an influx of cheap online vendors. Sener points out that accreditation serves an important function in assuring the quality of higher education, and that new models for delivering college courses should be held to existing standards.

It’s not as good, but does that matter?
While none of these articles specifically mentioned academic libraries it is clear that the vision for cheap, online higher education has no room for libraries or librarians. After all, if what is being offered are bargain basement versions of standard introductory courses, who needs an academic library? Sure, at some institutions a creative and dedicated faculty member, collaborating with a librarian, could devise a challenging research project for Accounting or Statistics 101. But the reality is that at most of our institutions these courses are taught strictly out of the course textbook. No library support is required.

Academic librarians may blow off steam ranting about the differences between expensive education and cheap credentialing, but in reality there are many non-traditional students for whom the traditional institution catering to 18- to 22-year-olds holds no special appeal. And even for those traditional students and their parents it will become increasingly difficult to entice them to go $30,000 into debt for the privilege of experiencing book-filled libraries and a host of non-essential amenities like rock climbing walls and luxury dorm rooms—especially when there’s no guarantee of a degree-worthy job at the end of it all.

A wake-up call
I suspect that most of this current crop of doom-and-gloom articles is more hype than reality, but a bit of fear and trepidation in the academic library community might just be a good thing.

This all seems vaguely reminiscent of conversations among academic librarians when online for-profit higher education providers such as University of Phoenix, Strayer University, and DeVry University came on the scene, and none offered traditional libraries. Academic librarians fretted that their libraries would be overrun by online students who had no other options, degrading all library services. That alarm proved to be false. Both the online universities and academic libraries adapted, and some even entered into cooperative ventures for information services.

In assessing the impact of cheap online courses, at least one commenter wrote, “Those that resist change instead of embracing this Internet-driven shift, however, won’t survive.” The probability of radical change in the higher education industry should continually force us to question the value of our services to our institutions, and force us to seek out innovations that will maintain our relevancy even when more students are getting their education from cheap, online providers that offer quite different models of learning. It’s not a question of whether this will come to pass, but rather one of how soon.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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