Last month, after Cambridge University announced that all its student lectures would be online until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Silicon Valley–based entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan wondered whether the decision might set off a major disruption in higher education. “It’s interesting that removing the in-person experience destroys the pricing power of colleges”—except that of the relatively few colleges and universities, like Cambridge, whose “brand” can survive the disruption.
Srinivasan speculated further: “You’d think [colleges and universities] were selling education or (more cynically) a credential. But they were actually in the experience business.” The extensive luxuries of the modern campus—presumably the “experience” Srinivasan is referring to—are not essential to the university’s educational mission. But is that all there is to the experience of college? Can all higher learning happen on Zoom?
Silicon Valley doubts about the value of in-person education did not begin with this pandemic. Ten years ago, online prophets predicted that the rise of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) would revolutionize higher education. Others advanced the idea that in-person learning is less efficient than learning via computer. In a 2008 interview, Elon Musk defined learning as follows: “You’re basically downloading data and algorithms into your brain.” Education, Musk suggested, would be better if it were more like a computer game.
Now is a crucial moment to defend in-person learning—going to a classroom, sitting at a desk, listening to a lecture, raising your hand to make a comment or ask a question, listening and responding to your fellow students, persuading them, being persuaded. This is generally the best method of learning, at any level of schooling, a method worthy of us as human beings.