As online learning grows, the college campus lives on


This blog first appeared on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.

Success in management requires learning as fast as the world is changing. Given that the world is changing at an accelerating clip, the business student-leader must plan on learning constantly and continually. Lifelong learning will be mandatory–that much is certain. What is less certain is the form that this education will take, for either the business student or the working professional.

The latest rage is online education. Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and other top universities have taken the lead in offering free, “massively open online courses” (or MOOCs), which can allow one professor in Cambridge or Palo Alto to lecture hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

The initial popularity of these courses had led many to debate far-reaching implications. Some experts worry (or perhaps hope) that traditional college campuses may soon be shuttered. I would suggest that, while change will come, some aspects of business education will not change.

Experts were once convinced that the printing press and widespread dissemination of books would make it unnecessary for students to traverse rivers, forests, and mountains to convene physically around a faculty master. Some were convinced that university education could cheaply be replaced by public libraries. And some believed that the advent of the U.S. Post Office would make campuses unnecessary.

Why, then, has the traditional form of education endured so far? For the same reason that it will endure in coming years: Human beings instinctively and habitually crave proximity to whatever they value or venerate. They crave closeness to the source. And they value congregating with others during such deep experiences of closeness.

I’m reminded of what I witnessed some summers ago at the Louvre in Paris, watching throngs of visitors waiting patiently in line for the chance to view the Mona Lisa and other exhibits. They could so easily have stayed at home and gazed at a reproduction of the artwork (for the smallest fraction of the price). In that way, they’re not at all unlike the pilgrims who save their last dollar to see Jerusalem or another holy city in person.

It is why students at MIT clamored and jostled to get a chance to take a course given by the legendary Paul Samuelson, rather than simply reading one of his books at their own convenience.

But as the world is changing, learning will indeed change. I find myself partial to the measured and sensible stewardship of change at my own university. USC President C. L. Max Nikias, a colleague who has emerged rapidly as one of American higher education’s most dynamic leaders, has managed to build what seems to be the world’s first online education model that is both academically and financially viable.

Nine different USC schools, ranging from communications to engineering to education, have already created master’s programs that reach 4,800 students and that will earn $114.5 million this academic year (in contrast to the fashionable MOOCs, which are not inexpensive to operate but which usually generate no revenue). Within a few years, every USC school is expected come online with a sensible and sustainable graduate degree program.

Unlike the MOOCs, these programs require standard admissions, fee standards, and rigorous academic accountability to keep the experience from being diluted by hordes of people who lack the intention or ability to form a real learning community.

Intriguingly, USC’s faculty has chosen not to offer online classes at the undergraduate level. It is during the impressionable and formative years of 17 through 22, Nikias tells me, that “face-to-face intellectual and creative encounters, inside and outside the classroom, create the greatest impact.” He says that, at this phase of education, “Technology will enhance, but not replace, the traditional campus experience.”

But at the level of lifelong learning, Nikias says that “technology can make distance less relevant, as students can work and live anywhere on the planet while learning new skills and moving from obsolete industries to new ones.”

Learning options will indeed mushroom for business students and leaders, but it will take prudence and shrewdness to find and utilize the best option. My own advice to a prospective student would be, even as an increasing number of Internet-centered business degrees emerge, to immerse herself in a physical, social community if at all possible or practical. Learning in a face-to-face human community, as humans have evolved to do over hundreds of thousands of years, may always be the ideal–especially in an endeavor that is as relationship-driven as business.

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