Ten will be left 

Sergey Sumlenniy

The growth the global system of distance higher education through the Internet has only just begun, and thus it is not clear how successful this model will prove to be. However, it is clear that if the model is viable, it will lead to the domination of American universities.


Erwin J. Haeberle

The expansion of university education in the Internet will lead to radical changes in the world of science, according to the German professor Erwin J. Haeberle, who, a.o., taught at Berlin’s Humboldt University, the University of Geneva, and San Francisco State University.

- You're talking about the coming revolution in higher education, which will occur through access to college courses through the Internet. What do you mean?

- In developing countries, there are millions of highly motivated and highly intelligent young people who cannot receive any scientific education. They either do not have access to universities and libraries, or have no money to enroll. The German universities offer online courses, but only for students who are already enrolled. These students receive a password for access to digital course materials. But why is the password given only to enrolled students? Because the materials are protected by copyright. My German colleagues often simply scan three or four books, to which they do not have the copyright, put them online - and ready is another course. Copyright law allows this for limited groups. But this is not permitted for an unlimited, world-wide readership. Americans do things differently.

- Distribute them for free?

- Yes. Two years ago, the well-known professor Sebastian Thrun at Stanford tried an experiment. He announced a free course in the internet about artificial intelligence. Within a few weeks 160,000 students had enrolled. Stanford then told him that he could not give official university credit to these students, but could do so as an individual. "Excellent!" the professor said, and, with the help of Google, developed the course to the point where thousands of students could be supervised and graded. In the end,  20 000 out of the 160 000 completed the course successfully and received credit. Based on this experience, Thrun said: " Stanford, you're too slow for me. I will now found my own university – “Udacity”.

Now young people around the world can see: There are free courses available in the internet, and we can take them. Even if few students pass them in the end, it does not matter very much. And even a diploma from a famous private Professor Thrun is still better than nothing. It can be very helpful in any job interview.

Another example: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston has, for several years, been offering free course materials – not the courses themselves - but the materials that are being used for them. We are talking here about ca. 2 000 courses in six languages.  And MIT President Susan Hockfield declared: "Why are we doing this? We do it in order to help the MIT to achieve and keep a dominant position in the world ".

But back to Thrun: When he started his project of internet education, he attracted the attention of Harvard, which eventually decided, together with the MIT, to offer whole new courses, not only course materials. (The project is known as EdX.) This naturally raises the question about academic credit, certificates, diplomas, and degrees. The answer is obvious: You can study all of our courses without pay, but if you want academic credit, you will have to enroll and pay tuition and fees. This is how free courses make money - and lots of it.

- That is, the payment is necessary only for someone who wants to get credit?

- Yes. Professor Thrun and his Udacity University also joined this system of free courses, which can simultaneously serve enormous numbers of students. These can decide at any point to register and get credit. In German universities you need to create an account first, before you see any part of a course. But this is no way to do business. As I said recently in an interview with the newspaper Die Welt: “Only those who give their knowledge away will get paid in the end”. But most of my German colleagues do not understand this.

- But how serious are “distance diplomas”?  A University expects students to closely interact with the faculty, and the learning process consists of more than just lectures.

- Of course, I'm not saying that these certificates, diplomas etc. are equivalent to or can replace the classical university education. The ideal model of the university providing a well-rounded education was proposed by 200 years ago Wilhelm von Humboldt. However, in today’s mass universities this ideal is no longer attainable. Needless to say, distance education cannot work in most natural sciences. Medicine and chemistry, for example, require hands-on teaching and laboratories. However, there are many specialties, where distance education does work. And, please, do not tell me that German universities offer the students sufficient contact with their professors. When I was a student in Heidelberg more than fifty years ago, I had to attend an overcrowded advanced seminar with 130 fellow students. During my doctoral exam, I saw two of my three examiners for the first and last time in my life.  Today, most German professors offer their consultation hours as "windows of opportunity" for two hours per week with dozens of students waiting in the corridor. On the other hand, do not forget that on Skype today, it is very well possible to establish personal contact with the professor. He can arrange to meet with a small group of students per live internet video, for example - one student from Bangladesh, one from Australia, and three from Peru.

- What happens in this case with our national universities?

- It can happen that, in some field, a small College in Idaho can get ahead of Humboldt University in Berlin. If the Germans do not understand this and keep resting on their laurels, they are likely to have a rude awakening. Their competitors do not sleep. What the Germans do not want to understand is that with the internet science is entering a new phase of instant globalization.

- But if the competition is going global, can it not it happen that the cheapest and most aggressive institution simply kill its more serious competitors?

- I am convinced that quality will win. But money does play a role. Imagine that you are a poor student from Bangladesh, and there you have Harvard offering an online course for five thousand dollars. And, at the same time, you get an offer of a course on the same subject from an otherwise unknown Community College in Mississippi - for half that price. What would be your choice? At this time, a general prediction is not possible. However, the universities that refuse to compete at all will no longer be able to play an important role.

For years I have been annoyed by German universities when they say: “Oh, yes, we, too, are in the Internet: “This is our president, this is our vice president, these are our departments, our institutes, here is a list of our classes etc. etc.” But who cares about any of this in Pakistan? There is no content! Where are the training materials, where are the actual courses? 

 - And why is that?

- Because, if the universities were to begin to understand, they would have to make radical changes in the allocation of their budgets. Take the appointment of a new professor, a process I have witnessed many times: When someone is being considered for such a position, and when everybody is sitting at the negotiating table, the usual offer is this: You will get a full-time or part-time secretary, and a full-time or part-time assistant. That's it. But if the prospective professor should say that he also needs a programmer, he would find no understanding at all. Instead, he would be told that some students can do the job. This means that, right there, you can forget about competing with Harvard.

- By the way, how many programmers does a Harvard professor have?

- Harvard and the already mentioned Thrun said: “We are investing $ 60 million in our free courses.” In other words, he and the others did exactly what the Germans have been refusing to do for years. Here is another example: This year, Georgia Tech (the Georgia Technical University in Atlanta) offers a curriculum with a master's degree in computer science. If you study it on campus, it will cost you $ 45 000. However, the same university offers the same course off-campus in the internet for $ 7000.

- The same? Then why pay 45 000?

- A very good question, which every reasonable person is going to ask himself. In any case, what will happen is clear: More students will choose the internet curriculum for $ 7000, and Georgia Tech will make more money from the many distant students than from the few on campus. But even those young people who live in Atlanta will sooner or later begin to wonder: Why should I bother to move to the campus and pay more? Do not forget that, in the USA a college education is often paid by the student taking out a loan. 

- But online courses are popular only, if the university has a good traditional reputation. If this reputation is lost, how can one convince the students to learn online?

Indeed, that is a problem. But here is the next inevitable step: Already today, some professors are academic stars, known all over the world. Now assume that one of them puts a free course online. What are their universities going to do then? They may very well say: Thank you, professor! Your work is done. Now we are going to hire cheap assistants or “monitors” to keep your course running. The professor, if he is indeed famous and very lucky, may then receive a commission for his name, plus some money for some general oversight and for regular updating. Otherwise he is no longer needed. This is a revolution, for which most institutions of higher learning are not prepared.

- Before we talk about long-term developments, I would like to know: How can one conduct examinations in such mass distance education programs?

- This problem has been solved a long time ago. So-called Open Universities, in the UK and in other countries, have existed for many years and have always served distance students. The technical problems of communication and examination were solved well before the advent of free courses. More important is something else: While university teachers can bring in more money through their courses, researchers only cost money. Thus, the research and teaching functions of universities are increasingly drifting apart. ​​Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reform was based on the unity of science and teaching: Students learn from professors who engage in scientific research, but these students are also active participants in this research. Now this “classic” connection is breaking. Cheap university teaching will earn a lot of money for universities, while expensive research will be neglected as too expensive.

- How dangerous is this rapid change in the overall academic landscape?

- I would not be worried if the courses were not offered by Harvard and the MIT. But when they started doing this, it was a turning point, and the other universities should have begun to be scared. But they were not. The MIT is supported by US foundations and is now offering free courses in six different languages. Harvard has invested $ 60 million. The Germans would never have dared to make this kind of investment. Also, the MIT and Harvard are in a position to charge reasonable prices. In short, they can dominate the field, because they are the best and the fastest.

- But if the world market year after year produces many more graduates than the first-class universities possibly can, will their degrees be worth anything? And if the demand for graduates should decline, would that not also become true for the demand for higher education?

- I think that Harvard and the MIT have asked themselves the same question. Apparently, they consciously and voluntarily took the risk.

- Why? Do they believe that the demand for graduates will remain huge?

- No one knows what would happen if Harvard should produce 100 000 graduates every year. But it would be a revolution.

- How much money can be made in the distance learning market, now that Harvard and the MIT have taken the initiative?

- No one yet knows any exact numbers. Harvard and other leading universities are now taking the first steps. But it will be a lot of money. Ultimately, the global market will decide.

- What will it mean for the world of science if the English language and the American university model become and remain dominant?

- American graduate schools are based on Humboldt’s original concept. But now even American academics are getting scared. It is becoming harder and harder to get permanent employment. I myself had a very illuminating experience as early as 1969 as a “postdoc” at Yale. That year I went to Denver, Colorado for the annual fair offering university jobs (jokingly called “the slave market"). My specialty was American Studies, and I came from one of America’s “top universities”. Naïve as I was, I simply assumed that, with my background, I could pick and choose from a great number of job offers. But this assumption proved to be totally wrong. Wherever I asked, I was told that I was “overqualified”, a world I had never heard before. Finally, it dawned on me: “Overqualified” simply meant “too expensive”. The universities were no longer interested in hiring professors on tenure tracks, but were looking instead for cheaper “teaching assistants”, who could easily be fired and replaced. This was a harbinger of things to come. Today, once a professor has developed an online course, it can be run by such “teaching assistants”, who receive a much lower salary. Now, what do you think will happen to the little-known professor with a mere dozen students on campus?  

In this context, I can’t help but remember what happened on July 14, 1789 at the palace of Versailles. On this day, Louis XVI came back from an unsuccessful hunt. He had not shot a single animal and therefore wrote in his diary: «Rien» ("nothing"). That very night he was awakened by his highest-ranking valet, who told him about the storming of the Bastille. The king asked: “Is this a rebellion? ", and  the valet answered: "No, Sire, this is a revolution!". Now, everybody is talking about “the electronic revolution”, but many do not realize what the word “revolution” means. (Laughs.)

- What will this revolution mean?

- For example, there is another joint distance learning project in a number of universities around the world, including Berkeley in the US, and several German universities. It’s called Coursera. This project also offers free online courses. The University of Freiburg in Germany, where I now live, has begun to recognize and give credit for some courses offered by Coursera. What does it mean in the long run? As soon as a university starts giving credit for the online courses of other universities, its administrators will sooner or later ask themselves: Why do we need our own teaching staff for this subject? And they will get rid of it. For a university, this is the path to self-castration. And there is another thing that any university librarian will gladly confirm:  When universities subscribe to scientific journals, they pay not only for printed, but also for the electronic versions. The cost of these subscriptions is steadily growing, and some universities have already been forced to give them up. For example, the Technical University of Munich has now cancelled its subscriptions to Elsevier's mathematical journals - and these were the best journals in the field. But once the subscription has been canceled, the professors and students can no longer read the articles, because the copyright remains with the publisher. In the end, the authors will not be read at all and will, in fact, find out that they have written for an academic “black hole”. The situation is so absurd that various American university presidents have uttered dire warnings, but, so far, to little avail. Princeton University, however, has now explicitly prohibited its professors to give their electronic rights to others. The authors therefore remain free to distribute electronic versions of their own work. This is an open declaration of war against the journal publishers, a truly historic step.

- You are seventy-seven years old. How do the younger German scientists react to your arguments?

- They do not want to understand what I am saying. For them, I am just a retired and tired old man who can be ignored. But they are not stupid, and this is merely a form of self-defense. If they are unable to understand my very simple warnings, it is not from a lack of intelligence. It is a psychological defense against unpleasant realities. Professor Thrun said at one time that “in fifty years, only ten universities will remain in the whole world”. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the development is definitely going in this direction.

I myself owe very much to America, but when I am now forced to see how everything academic is going the American way, I feel sad. Yes, I am infinitely grateful to the Americans. They gave me scholarships, and they helped me in starting a new career, but it hurts me to watch them reaping now all the benefits. The Germans are still in deep slumber. German foundations, unlike their American counterparts, are shortsighted. Yes, they do finance string quartets to perform in old castles. Sure, you can send them applications for funding, but please, not for anything innovative! Don’t be the first in anything! They don’t like that. One last depressing example: Humboldt University has received a million from Google for an institute studying the implications of the internet. And what did the professors do with the money? They did what they have always done: They held meetings and published the results on paper!