Imagine there are no brick and mortar universities. It's easy if you try. In their place stand ... well ... nothing at all -- because universities, like everything else that's solid, have melted into air, having gone virtual by virtue of the increased reach and power of the World Wide Web.
Such at any rate was the dream that haunted the sleep of techno-visionaries of the 1980s and '90s. Auguries of the so-called "Great Disintermediation" grabbed headlines and puffed tech-stock values as the digital age got into full swing.
Alan J. Zemek offers a handy definition of disintermediation, which the early 2000s digerati heralded as the means of our emancipation, in his 2010 book Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity. "Disintermediation is simply the process of collapsing the supply chain between producer and consumer," he writes.
In the "old days" commerce moved from raw material supplier to producer, then from wholesaler to retailer, before finally reaching the consumer. Every step of the supply chain added value to the product along the journey to the end user, and, by happy circumstance, this process added a lot of jobs and opportunities along the way. Today, by virtue of the infinite connectivity and almost zero incremental cost of internet access anyone can find anything, anywhere.
Freeing consumers from constraints of time and space freed them also from the various middlemen whose value added derived from their contending with these once intractable obstacles. The Internet-enabled Great Disintermediation represents the final triumph over time and space, and also over those for whom these obstacles were opportunities. "The internet didn't just eliminate intermediaries, the traditional brokers, dealers, and middle men between the producer and consumer," Zemek continues, "it annihilated geography, time and distance as well."
It was only a matter of time, then, that brick and mortar universities -- themselves bound to a particular geography, a particular space -- would experience the Internet's revolutionary influence, which has come in the form of the increasing popularity of online education as an alternative to the traditional residential version. Some infographics presented on October 31, 2010 by The Chronicle of Higher Education give some sense of the sharp increase in online education's popularity. Some of the most arresting facts and figures to be discovered therein include the following:
The Chronicle's infographics also reveal that the market has been slow to respond to consumer demand. Only some 28 percent of students report that they had been presented with adequate online education options. The Great Disintermediation appears, then, to be a work in progress.
The lag between increased demand and increased supply as concerns online course offerings may be attributable to the fact that brick and mortar institutions have shown themselves less robust to technological change than their for-profit competition. Though faster on their feet, for-profits lack the sort of institutional legitimacy that brick and mortar schools have enjoyed for years. These epiphenomenal asymmetries of advantage have perhaps slowed The Great Disintermediation of higher education, but it's not likely to stop it.
In a December 25, 2010 post on his blog The Linguist on Language, Steve Kaufmann remarks on how the Great Disintermediation train keeps a-rollin'. "Online learning is ... a cheaper and more effective way to for more and more people who do not have the option to go to school [sic]," he writes. "As the control in learning moves from teachers to learners, teaching organizations will have to play ball or lose out."
Expanding the options for pursuing higher degrees increases the number of learners pursuing these degrees. And, as far as the higher-education market is concerned, learners equal consumers. True to its promise, the Internet, that instrument of disintermediation par excellence, is empowering higher education consumers like never before. As these empowered consumers drive demand, they force institutions, both for-profit and brick and mortar, to devise ways of meeting it. If the readiest way of meeting this demand is to offer more online courses, it may just mean that champions of The Great Disintermediation will rack up another victory, because competition promises to be so fierce that traditional schools may not lose out to their for-profit competitors so much as come to resemble them so closely as to be indistinguishable from them.