Some trends are so evident that even I can't miss them. Chapter 9 of a book I wrote in the 1980s, Prodigal Press, has the title, "Network News and Local Newspapers: The Coming Economic Judgment." It was easy to forecast that "use of personal computers in homes will lead to a more efficient delivery system" for the news, and that in the process liberal behemoths would stagger and fall.
Should Christians be upset that some major city newspapers have gone out of business, and that even the mighty New York Times has mortgaged its headquarters? No: We should work on filling the gaps. In that vein, another opportunity is coming: The small shock of falling endowments at many universities will soon be followed by a larger shock of falling enrollments, as online education leads to a more efficient delivery system for education.
The media/education analogy starts with the way cost of entry has gone way down in both realms. It used to take tens of millions of dollars to buy printing presses and distribute their products, or to build classroom buildings, dormitories, and performing arts centers. Now, with online news and online education, anyone can get in the game.
But in other ways the academic game is unlike the media game. Online media can bring words and photos equivalent to those of a newspaper, but can online education match the classroom experience? And, since college tuition buys not only education (sometimes) but higher status and improved future earnings, will online diplomas be satisfactory union cards?
Some new evidence suggests that the answer to both questions will soon be yes. More than 1,000 studies of online learning have been published during the past 13 years. A U.S. Department of Education analysis of them concluded that, on average, "students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction" in the same courses. One reason is that face-to-face is often not face-to-face: Many college students snooze in big lecture halls. In good online courses, though, instructors require every student to answer questions and stay involved.