"Technology cannot produce new ideas," Crow said. "Technology cannot produce new understandings. Technology cannot produce new connections between disciplines."
He's wary of other models that threaten to "unbundle" the college degree entirely from institutions, and disconnect it completely from in-person interaction.
"That's a fatal error," he said.
The factory model has its advantages. Peer pressure — and paying tuition — incentivize students to stick with classes. Roughly 90 percent who sign up for MOOCs aren't completing.
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller's response to that is that 80 to 85 percent who intend to complete a MOOC do so. It's just that most don't want or need a whole class. So really, she says, MOOCs actually help solve academia's wasted time problem.
But Koller admits MOOCs can't do everything.
"If you have the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a great lecturer, 12 people around the table having a discussion, then by all means that is the best educational experience you can have," Koller, a former Stanford computer science professor, told a recent conference of education journalists there.
"I'm not trying to substitute that with technology," she said. "But even at Stanford I can't make the claim that students spend the majority of their time in classes with less than 20 people."
Changing concepts of academic time could have far-reaching effects, on both costs and classrooms.
More than a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation invented the "credit hour," which became the basic unit of academic time across education, measuring hours spent in class but not necessarily what students learned.
Now, the foundation is reviewing the whole model with an eye possibly toward a more competency-based approach — awarding credit for what students learn, not how long.
The U.S. government is interested, too. In March, the Department of Education approved a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University and signaled other colleges could get federal approval for programs that don't mark time in traditional credit hours. Such programs are starting to emerge.
For students who want to move through college quickly, "this has the potential of really changing the cost curve," said Jeff Selingo, editor at large at the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the new book "College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students." For others, it could free up time for other important learning experiences — like research with faculty or study abroad.
But change won't come easily. The credit hour is consistent and measurable. Carnegie admits competency-based learning is hugely complex, and it could end up sticking with the credit hour. When 46 countries in Europe recently integrated their system of academic credit, they stuck with a mostly time-based system.
Similarly tectonic shifts may be happening with accreditation — another traditional pillar of American higher education that's been a model for the world, but which technology threatens to transform.
Accreditation, a process essentially run by traditional universities, determines who can award credit and degrees and collect federal financial aid dollars. It offers a quality control other countries envy. But it's also a kind of self-regulating club that limits competition. To education entrepreneurs who can't give credits or degrees, it's an innovation-squelching monopoly that keeps them from offering their solutions to the problem of college affordability.
The Obama administration said earlier this year it wants more flexibility in the accreditation system, to reward things like value and student outcomes — results, rather than just faculty and physical resources a college provides.
Such developments could open the door to new types of providers. They have entrepreneurs optimistic, though pushing for more.
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