Higher Ed Will Not Transform Fundamentally in the Next 20 Years

By Peter Boettke

Sir Arthur C. Clarke famously wrote that “Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.” I agree with that statement 100 percent. But I think enthusiasts of the technological innovations in higher education that supposedly will eliminate the need for traditional teachers and classrooms are not contemplating the full sentence.

There is no doubt that higher education will be transformed over the next 20 years, but perhaps less so than many enthusiasts believe. The idea of a “university without walls” is not new—though ironically people in the Internet age seem to suffer more from “presentism” than previous generations, despite the availability of more information about the past at a keystroke. The idea that learning can take place beyond ivy-covered walls and that a true democratization of knowledge can be achieved has been the vision of many educational entrepreneurs through the ages. In the broadest context, the printing press was an early technological innovation that both promised and delivered on this ideal.

The same can be said for the development of audio technologies, from radio to recording, and capturing moving images on film to digital. Lectures have been recorded since the technology first developed and have been listened to by far greater audiences. My favorite economist of all time is Ludwig von Mises, and I have been able to listen to his lectures despite the fact that he passed away well before I ever even thought I’d care about economic issues. My intense interest in economics early in my education was sparked by watching Milton Friedman lecture and debate others on TV with his Free to Choose series (and as a teacher I have returned to those recordings to capture the imagination of new generations of students about the economic way of thinking). Finally, correspondence colleges have existed for years as an alternative model for higher education.

I mention these examples to stress only that (a) we have had the technology to learn beyond the classroom for centuries, and even modern technologies for roughly a century, and (b) I appreciate the aspiration of a university without walls, and have benefited myself from the use of modern technology to be exposed to economic ideas that I could not get within the confines of the particular walls and halls of higher education that I walked. But still I want to suggest that those predicting the disappearance of the traditional college/university are not considering several key factors.

The first thing I want to stress is that any institution that has persisted as long as the traditional college and university must have some efficiency properties that are perhaps hidden from the view of even the most astute observer; otherwise these alternative learning channels would have represented more of a challenge. I’d like to suggest that the alternative models—including the most technologically advanced version—simply cannot capture the educational experience that students receive in the traditional college/university. Online education and online peer-to-peer learning can be superior for many subjects, and the opportunity they provide to those who otherwise would be denied access to education is phenomenal. But what online education doesn’t capture is the face-to-face teacher–student interaction, or the student-student interaction, that “clustering” in a single location delivers. In this sense, online education produces an inferior good to what could be (and should be) produced through the traditional college/university educational experience.

As an undergraduate, not only did I benefit from the exposure to Milton Friedman’s teachings of economics through his Free to Choose series and book, but also from the writings and lectures of Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and even Adam Smith, J. B. Say, and Carl Menger without having been in their physical presence. But I was able to benefit precisely because in developing an appreciation of these individuals and their work, I was guided by a master teacher, Hans Sennholz, who encouraged my study, forced me to consider questions I would not have thought to ask on my own at that stage of intellectual maturity, and caused me to think through answers that were startling to me at the time but now seem obvious.

My understanding of economics came from that teacher–student relationship, and it was further strengthened during my advanced studies in the discipline with Don Lavoie, Kenneth Boulding, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and others in George Mason University’s economics department in the early 1980s. Each of these teachers inspired me to probe deeper into understanding the logical structure of economic argument, and the historical record of the operation of these ideas in theoretical debate and in practical experience.

But as important as teachers are, so are the face-to-face peer interactions with students of similar interest. As a graduate student this is obvious, because you cluster together with roughly 30–40 other students who share a deep passion for a discipline. One gains knowledge exponentially in such environments. But even as an undergraduate with all the other social distractions around me, as I matured in my intellectual interests, I sought out conversations with peers who shared those interests. Online chat and social media sites do not compare to the hands-on, face-to-face working through of difficult issues that the physical clustering of learners provides.

If I had just watched Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose and read his book on my own, I might have acquired information about economic policy, but I believe I would not have developed the knowledge of economic theory, economic history, and economic policy that I in fact did develop through teacher-student guidance and peer-to-peer interaction. The pure online experience is very good at communicating information, but very bad at producing knowledge. And that is the key reason that the traditional college/university will not disappear.

My prediction is that a hybrid model will continue to be perfected. I believe the competition from alternative educational institutions will spur teachers to be better and will enable students to learn faster. But as in my own example, students will continue to need the guidance of master teachers to learn that which they are unprepared to learn at the moment they most need to learn it. Once we know it, we often think we could have learned it on our own. But this conclusion is a mistake. Difficult ideas seem obvious because a master teacher has guided us through the process of transforming information into real knowledge. The physical plant associated with colleges and universities provides the setting for this sort of engagement, and online technologies will not replace that. If anything, online technologies will steer the most ambitious to wanting to learn more by attending the physical location where their favorite lecturers conduct their work.

Sir Arthur Clarke was right—any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be—but the best teachers will not be, and the most curious students will seek out interactions with other curious students around those teachers. It happened in Athens, it happened in Oxford, and it is happening all the time in colleges and universities across the world to this day. Long and enduring institutions persist for a reason, and not just because of institutional inertia. The future of higher education will be different due to technological innovations, but shockingly it will also be a lot like it has been through the centuries precisely because of the benefits of face-to-face teaching and peer-to-peer learning.

Peter Boettke is a FEE Trustee, a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University, and director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center.

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