This is the first in The Vanishing University, a four-part series exploring the tech-driven future of higher education in America.
Right now, this very morning, thousands of young adults in the United States are scrambling through the same minor hell. They’ve woken up to the very last in a series of half-futile phone alarms. Made, and likely abandoned, an attempt to shower. Skidded wet-haired and flustered into a cavernous lecture hall, flickering fluorescent, stuffed full with hundreds of teenagers yawning and jostling one another for space.
An inevitable five minutes late, they’re barely able to squeeze into seats amid a sea of elbows and protruding laptops. Then, a bespeckled professor strolls up to a podium, clears her throat, and begins droning away to a PowerPoint presentation that only a third of the kids will remember in a week’s time.
This is all going away.
Later this year, Jon Meer and Steve Wiggins, two economics professors at Texas A&M University, will begin their annual introductory microeconomics lecture to several thousand students—and this time around, they’ll teach it all without lifting a finger.
Students taking the Meer and Wiggins class, which is mandatory for the hundreds of business and economics majors at the school, will not physically attend a single session. Meer—an ardent lover of teaching, who started this project out of frustration about lecture courses’ sheer inefficiency—has already drawn up and pre-recorded all the lessons, engineered an interactive video platform, prepared all the homework and reading materials, and uploaded everything digitally, painstakingly mapping every last moment of the semester out before it actually starts. (The course was trialled last year at A&M on a smaller scale. Historically, it has been taught to about 300 students at a time physically present in a lecture hall.)
Meer writes equations and concepts onto a transparent whiteboard—which the camera later flips—a method that allows him to stay engaged and face-to-face with students.