More about on-line education. One hesitation people have, of course, is that it’s easier to dephysicalize some forms of education than others; and that if higher education gets redefined as something that happens online, the parts of higher education that don’t survive that transition get redefined as “not part of higher education.”
But what about creative writing workshops? Right now, these sit somewhat uncomfortably inside English departments in universities. What are you paying for when you pay tuition to attend a fiction workshop? (I was lucky enough to go to a program with funding, but I think most MFAs don’t work this way.) I think you’re paying to have a known novelist read and think carefully about what you’re writing, and you’re paying to create some official sense that This Is The Year I Write My Novel. (This last part might be the most important. Of course, you could write your novel any time! But having paid a great deal of money with the intent of doing a thing focuses the mind on the task extremely well. Freud always said this was why he charged so much; he didn’t need the money, but the patients needed to spend it.)
What happens if a novelist decides to offer a writing workshop via Google Hangout, to 12 people, charging them much less than university tuition but enough to meet his expenses? Like, say, $3K a person? Does that work? Or, since most novelists probably don’t care to run their own small business, what happens if a startup company collectes well-known but poorly paid novelists and runs the marketing/payment processing side of things, in exchange for a cut?
It’s not clear this is interestingly different from existing distance MFAs like Warren Wilson. Certainly I don’t think you can scale up the offering of “serious and admired writer X read my work closely” to hundreds of thousands of people, which I suppose is a reason it might continue being possible to charge serious money for the service.
An online workshop wouldn’t reproduce what I got out of my MFA program at Johns Hopkins, but I was a special case. I was on break between college and graduate school, I was pretty sure I was going to be a mathematician my whole life, and I really needed to be something else for a year. The people I saw every day that year were writers, the professors whose opinions I valued were writers, the people I drank beer with and argued with and dated were writers. And by the end of the year I was able to call myself a writer without feeling like I was half-kidding; not because I’d written a draft of my novel but because I’d lived in Writerworld for a year.