Who Needs Public Universities When You Can Get iCollege?


It was rather late at night when I watched Tim Pawlenty, Republican Governor of the great state of Minnesota, tell Jon Stewart that he would like brick-and-mortar public universities to disappear in the not-too-distant future, and while I was somewhat surprised (to put it mildly), I was too tired to blog about it. But the more I thought about it, the more troubled I became. Then I discovered that others had taken notice, including USA Today

When Jon Stewart asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week for some examples of how he intended to administer “limited and effective” government, the Republican governor did not roll out boilerplate rhetoric on welfare or farm subsidies. Instead, he took square aim at traditional higher education.

“Do you really think in 20 years somebody’s going to put on their backpack, drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about econ 101 or Spanish 101?” Pawlenty asked Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

“Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like it?” he said. “And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?”

This might sound self-serving, given that I’m a boring professor at a public university myself, but the idea that 20 years from now a student could get the same quality of educational experience through their iPhone or iPad as they can presently get by actually interacting in real time with fellow students and faculty is so far from reality that it makes me wonder just what Pawlenty has been smoking. I doubt that a few hits of pot would do the job.

But, come to think of it, maybe the sort of education Pawlenty has supported in the past – including the teaching of Creationism (under the guise of “Intelligent Design”) in public schools as a theory of human origins on a par with evolution – could be gotten on an iPhone app.

(Don’t get me wrong: I love technology and look forward to the day when we can inhabit something like holographic classrooms via the internet and interact effectively in real time without having to share physical space. But I believe that technology will not reach that level of sophistication for a long time, and that in any case public universities will still have to exist within that virtual realm to insure academic integrity).

6 thoughts on “Who Needs Public Universities When You Can Get iCollege?

  1. Pawlenty’s statement just reflects the general anti-intellectual, anti-learning, anti-knowledge, anti-government (except for military adventures) attitude of a lot of politicians on the right. I don’t think they really believe everything they say, it’s disingenuous pandering to what they think average people want to hear.

  2. You’re too hard on yourself, Dr. Herzberg. I never thought you were a boring professor, but maybe that’s because I was able to understand what you were lecturing about (at least I think I was). I doubt that Pawlenty would have this capability…

  3. Jim-

    I hope you’re right about the pandering; it’s scary to think that they really believe what they say.


    Thanks, but self-deprecation comes with the territory. As for Pawlenty, I’d be curious to know what he studied in college.

  4. Dr. Herzberg-

    I knew you were being self-deprecating. Also, I am one of those students who enjoys “boring” lectures from “boring” professors, so what do you think Pawlenty would say about me?

    I agree with you that technology has not progressed to the point where we could get rid of brick and mortar schools without losing something quite valuable, viz. real human contact and interaction. As someone who has college credits from both a traditional setting and from an online setting, I can admit, however, that there is value in each type of educational setting. That said, I don’t think that everyone who would have a chance of succeeding in a traditional setting would benefit from an online educational setting. In an online learning environment (today), you have to be very self-sufficient and be able to learn by teaching yourself. Although I found this challenging and rewarding in some types of classes (history, english, for example), I found that online learning today is not well suited for science classes that require lab work or math classes where many students require extra attention.

    Right after high school at Loyola University Chicago, I got an A in honors Calculus before I dropped out the next semester. When I started college again at Ellis College of New York Institute of Technology (an online school) five years later I took calculus again to see how I would do, and I found it to be much more difficult. The professor at NYIT would show me the right answers but he wouldn’t show me where I went wrong in my own work. As you know, there is more than one way to solve a math problem. Now, perhaps this was just a neglectful professor, but I must admit that it was probably more difficult for him to teach me over a computer using Word docs and emailing back and forth as opposed to meeting in person. It just was not efficient. With that said, I don’t think that online learning today could replace a traditional setting, as most students would be losing out on too much.

    As you know, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, and I wouldn’t trade the experience I had there for any form of online learning today.

  5. I do think that if a course is being taught online, it needs to be taught primarily out of a textbook (as your Calculus course was). Then, if the textbook is well-written (and that’s a big ‘if’), students at least have a reliable place to immediately go when they have concerns about understanding the material. That’s why the only course I’ve taught even partly online is elementary logic; in fact, I’m teaching it now as a 50% in-class / 50% online 4-week summer course, and I find that only about half of the students are comfortable with the online portion per se, while the other half really does require the face-to-face interaction in the classroom to reinforce and clarify the textbook and online materials.

    But, at least the way I teach them (and as I’m sure you remember), more advanced philosophy courses often use the texts merely as jumping-off points for discussions that go off on tangents (and where much of the learning process concerns how to tell relevant from irrelevant tangents), and I can’t imagine conducting such discussions online given the current technology.

  6. I agree. There’s no way an online school could conduct, say, your Theory of Knowledge class and get anywhere near the quality that we had with face-to-face learning with students interacting in real time with the professor and with one another.

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