How Online Education Might Impact the Future of Mathematics Departments
President Reif, and presumably the people who chose him, have a dream about the future of higher education. Their goal has broad appeal among people who believe that by packaging educational material properly, higher education can be made available to those who have no ready access to schools like MIT, and they are undoubtedly right about that. Whether they are correct to believe that availability is sufficient to change the ratio of educated to uneducated individuals is less obvious. Ever since Andrew Carnegie provided every large city in America with a library, vast reservoirs of information have been available to the general public. However, only a small fraction of the population even attempts to tap those reservoirs, and only a small fraction of those profit from their efforts.
Even if one does not share President Reif's confidence in the success of his proposal, one might feel that his is a proposal worth trying. But to be enthusiastic about such an experiment, one has to ignore its potential dangers. For example, what is the future that mathematics departments face if his dream comes true? My guess is that they have no future.
The MIT Mathematics Department is a gem. It is an expensive gem, but its cost is justified by the role its members have heretofore played in the education of MIT undergraduates. Unlike those at Harvard and some other top schools, almost every MIT undergraduate mathematics course is taught by a regular faculty member, and often by one of the most distinguished members. Only rarely is a graduate student responsible for anything more than a recitation section.
Of course the undergraduate program is not the reason why MIT can attract some of the best mathematical talent in the world. Instead, it is the graduate program and research opportunities that attract them. However, if President Reif's vision of higher education is the future, then the role of the mathematics faculties in undergraduate education will be indistinguishable from the role that the graduate students play now. If MIT thinks that its prowess will make it immune to the consequences of this change, it is wrong. Even renowned graduate programs in mathematics like MIT's will shrink and may well disappear. Indeed, the universities that now hire our PhDs will use our online videos to teach their undergraduates and adjunct faculty to cover recitations. As a result, MIT's present Mathematics Department will lose its raison d'être, and within a few years MIT will regret having hired the high-priced young talent that has joined its Mathematics Department in recent years.
Mathematicians are not the only members of the academic community who are likely to suffer. In fact, aside from the ever burgeoning administration, only those academics whose research is either immediately applicable to industry or part of the war against mortality are likely to find that their jobs bear any resemblance to the ones they have now. Maybe this is the price that one has to pay for progress, but before paying it one should be certain that it is a price worth paying. Dismantling a structure that took centuries to build is easy and fun; reassembling it is neither.