The Bright Future of Face-to-Face Instruction

Tyler Cowen speculates that even with improved digitial technology, few students in affluent societies will opt for exclusively online learning:

Select groups, such as adult continuing education, military officers on ships, precocious 12-year-olds, or perhaps middle class students in Kenya who can’t get the real product, will follow an exclusively on-line model.  But most students will not, at least not in the United States.  College still has considerable consumption value, fraternities improve your job prospects, instructors help motivate, and face-to-face contact imprints a lot of learning on our minds.  Still, there is far too much duplication of lectures and universities are being squeezed by personnel costs.


This seems correct. An awful lot of people who have a kind of ideological dislike of the higher education establishment seem to me to blind themselves to some obviously relevant parallel trends like the kudzu-like spread of yoga studios and 44 percent increase in the number of personal trainers over the past 10 years. Obviously it’s not the case that a person needs face-to-face exercise instruction in order to get in shape. On the contrary, the fittest people I see in the gym are clearly highly-motivated folks who are passionate about exercise and probably look at the whole training industry as a laughable waste of time and money. But if you look at the overall shape of American lifestyle it’s clear that those people are a minority. Most of us benefit from the motivational and precommitment aspects of having someone there in the room with you.

That’s not to say there aren’t certain major aspects of the way brick-and-mortar colleges work that are rendered obsolete by digital technology. But the typical person who’d benefit from more exercise is very different from the typical fitness nut, and the typical American in need of more education is very different from the typical supergeek policy writer type.