A world-renowned physics lecturer believes that free online university courses will force the US’ less prestigious higher education institutions - which he calls “trash” - out of business within 20 years.
Walter Lewin, emeritus professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Times Higher Education that students would desert weak universities in favour of completing online courses from more respected institutions.
“There is, of course, in this country an enormous scale from the real top - Harvard [University] and MIT belong to that top - [down to] universities that are just awful,” he said.
“We have 10,000 colleges in this country, so when you get down to the very bottom, [a qualification] is worth nothing.”
Professor Lewin predicted “that a fair fraction of the very bad universities in the US will disappear. It may take 10 years, it may take 20 years, but that is going to happen.”
The Dutch astrophysicist’s electricity and magnetism lectures have become the latest massive open online course to be offered by edX, the Mooc platform run by MIT and Harvard.
He said that as time passes, students will be smart enough to “make their own package” by taking courses on edX and other Mooc providers instead of accepting places at less prestigious universities and colleges.
“There is no other country in the world to my knowledge that has such an enormous sliding scale of 10,000 colleges, whereby you have 10 that are among the very best in the entire world, then at the bottom you have such trash,” he said.
Professor Lewin added that even the best universities would start to reduce the number of degree courses taught on campus in favour of delivering them online.
“What you will see…is that perhaps at MIT - if I shoot a little bit from the hip - it’s possible that 10 years from now, maybe there will be 10 per cent of the courses that we will no longer teach in the classroom.”
The academic said his estimate reflected the fact that “many of our courses have extensive laboratories connected to them and you cannot do that by e-learning very easily. It may be 20 per cent, but certainly not all classes could possibly disappear.”
Professor Lewin, 77, has already cemented for himself a reputation for online pedagogy.
He has produced 105 online lectures, which are viewed by nearly 2 million people annually, and has been declared a “web star” by The New York Times.
He said that students signing up to his Mooc would not be disappointed.
“My lectures during the past 10 years became world famous and they are world famous for a reason - they are different, they are very special, they are inspiring, they are very funny. I have an ability to make people see through the equations,” he declared.
“That’s why people line up at eight in the morning to get a seat at my lectures.”