Will online learning cause colleges to close? Clay Shirky says it’s complicated.

It’s popular these days to argue that a pandemic surge in online education will lead to a wave of university closures. Most colleges just aren’t changing fast enough, the theory goes, and many are at risk of disappearing.

But that kind of rhetoric angers Clay Shirky, the vice provost for educational technology at New York University and an influential voice on how technology is changing our culture. He thinks the situation is much more complicated than many experts suggest.

“I see people starting with assumptions about what online education can or should do for the price of a college education, and I think not only are what they say wrong, but the substantive assumptions that ‘They’re doing about how higher education works are not even in line with what the American system actually does,’ Shirky says.

To help guide the discussion, Shirky last year launched a newsletter titled “The (Continuing) Transformation of Higher Education.” About once a month, he publishes a new essay on the many complex forces acting on higher education today, highlighting some of the ways in which real transformation is happening.

We caught up with Shirky for this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, to dig deeper into his arguments and talk about what he sees as significant transformations in colleges these days.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or anywhere you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

EdSurge: What do you think is wrong with some of the discussions about how online learning could change higher education?

Shirky clay: It’s not about whether or not Zoom becomes the platform or someone invents a new video tool specific to higher education or whatever. These are: having western governors [University] and southern New Hampshire [University] understood how to scale without limit, and will the number of students enrolling in higher education continue to decline, or will we find a way to reverse it and grow?

What I talk about most in the newsletter is that you can’t even think clearly about what technology is enabling or what direction technology is moving in without understanding that there are some really major macroeconomic forces that happen here – that they are the platform in which the technology is implemented, and not the other way around.

While mega-universities are big, for many students the reason for going to college is the coming-of-age experience, right?

Exactly. There are many teenagers at the end of life for whom the two main life transitions – leaving high school to go to college and leaving college to go to work in the world – consist at least in part of breaking up and reform their social networks and social relationships. People who take online degree programs are on average older. They are likely to be married. They are likely to have children. They are much more likely to have a job. They are more likely to have jobs whose schedules are not entirely predictable. So the question isn’t so much, ‘Will there be a market for, you know, students playing frisbee on the leafy quad?’ Yes, of course there will be a market for it all over the world. It’s one of America’s draws for students to come here.

The midpoint between the highly utilitarian and highly practical online degree capped and hanging around Princeton – we don’t know where that midline is. To the right. And flagship public schools may be doing well. They probably will. But secondary campuses and especially community colleges will suffer from online competition.

You talk about the most innovative types of colleges these days. And you mentioned the case of Sweet Briar College, a private women’s college that made headlines a few years ago when it was about to close, but came back. Can you tell us about this example?

I remember when Sweet Briar appeared on the front page of the New York Times one day because the directors voted for the bulk. They did what they thought was the fiscally responsible thing. They said, you know, we’re broke – we have money in the endowment, but in terms of revenue, all the trend lines are down. Then people exploded [in frustration]. Students, alumni, faculty, staff all exploded. The state got involved and a plan to “save Sweet Briar” was hatched. The trustees rescinded their notice of closure.

And then Meredith Woo arrived as the new president. And in a single summer, they brought together this collection of a committee of professors, with input from a variety of sources, and they transformed the departments into larger interdisciplinary groups. They reduced the number of majors from 33 to 17. It was a massive change in a short time.

It really taught me two things about the American system as it is now. First of all, the colleges you heard about are not the ones that will close, and the colleges that will close will not be the ones you heard about. Sweet Briar, for some reason, had a national reputation, even though it was very small, and it had a rich and dedicated network of alumni who were willing to come forward and support it with donations. There are a handful of schools whose alumni base will allow them in a time of crisis to deploy additional resources.

Meredith was a transformative figure, no doubt, but she couldn’t have walked into Sweet Briar as it existed in 2015 and transformed it. He had to close. The administrators effectively had to tell everyone that unless they changed, this college was going to disappear. … Transformation is desperation plus audacity. You need something to happen that tells the community that not transforming is not an option.

Listen to the rest of the conversation on the EdSurge podcast.

About Dianne Stinson

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