Online Colleges and the End of Professors

The revolution in education that has produced the plethora of online colleges continues unabated. Although largely driven by financial considerations as tuition costs continue to rise dramatically, shutting many poor and even middle-class students out of the traditional college experience, the college online experience is growing in reputation and desirability as new software innovations combined with growing support within colleges and universities themselves creates a workable environment for earning an accredited degree without ever physically attending a single class.

Online Colleges and the End of Professors

Professor giving class at the blackboard

Colleges are enthusiastic about online courses for the simple reason that they are cheap to produce and conduct and thus are an easy revenue source for them. Increasingly, however, academics are worried that the ‘college online’ movement will result in the unexpected extinction of a fixture of the academic world: The tenured professor – or perhaps all professors, entirely.

Less Important in Online Colleges

Whereas when physically attending courses students often place a great deal of importance on the professor conducting classes based on their reputations, experience, and real-world achievements, there is much less focus on this when it comes to online classes. And where it does exist it tends to focus on the ‘rock star’ status of some professors conducting ‘MOOCs’ — massive online open courses. For everyday courses taken in pursuit of a degree, there is much less focus on who is planning and teaching the course.

And colleges like it that way, because it cuts costs and gives them leverage:

  • In 1969, 78% of courses were taught by tenure-track professors. In 2013 that number has dropped to 33%.
  • The bulk of courses are today taught by Adjuncts, who are basically freelancers and earn about $3000 per class.

The move to adjunct professors is exacerbated by the move to online courses, which can be taught by any qualified individual.

Virtual Educators and College Online

Another concern is that even the ‘rock star’ professors that people will pay extra to learn from may find themselves teaching from beyond the grave. As online colleges are already reliant upon pre-recorded materials and lectures, the expectation is that someday a famed professor with excellent course materials may simply be continuously sold to new students, with no need to find a replacement professor unless significant changes and breakthroughs in the field make the existing course material useless or deprecated.

While the end of professors may be considered to be a melodramatic concept or perhaps even nothing of much concern, it does herald an upheaval in how we educate and learn – and therefore cannot be ignored.


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