Is Online Education Likely to Prove a Complement or Substitute for In-Person?

With educational programs from K-12 to graduate school nationwide going online nearly instantly in the midst of a devastating pandemic, a vigorous debate has begun over whether, post-COVID-19, education will go back to being an in-person activity or will remain online, especially at the postgraduate level. My focus here will be on the latter, in particular law schools.

Prof. Josh Blackman writes, “This is the new normal. We are not going back.” Prof. Howard Wasserman believes students hate it and is in general more bearish on total transformation. My views here are very much subject to revision—events are moving fast, and more evidence will become available—but for the time being what I hope to contribute to the discussion is a framing device: the economic distinction between complements and substitutes. Coke and Pepsi are substitutes, keyboards and mice are complements, and bicycles and buses (and bourbon and soda) can be either complements or substitutes, depending on circumstances. We do ourselves a disservice when we assume online teaching and conferences are in competition with their live counterparts—in other words, that they are only, or mostly, substitutes.

Most innovations are complements, not substitutes. Online classes and conferences are, right now by necessity, substitutes for their traditional live counterparts. The extent to which they are perfect substitutes is highly contingent on other factors, on both the creator and consumer side as well as external factors. At some point, the necessity will end (we hope). I am skeptical online will end up being deemed close to the perfect end of the spectrum, but of course that conclusion is debatable.

If capacity really does get built out, such that a critical mass of the relevant agents becomes more comfortable with this mode even while acknowledging its limitations, I believe the likelier outcome is not outright substitution but rather new forms of virtual collaboration, essentially a new academic product category.

Your school has been thinking of offering a part-time certificate, LLM, or even JD program, but was concerned that faculty and students would have trouble finding a time that works for both groups? Or you were worried that one side or the other wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the technology? Now you have an option that both groups have been trial-running in their current jobs. To be clear, the experience will likely be of a different quality—and will need to be designed, priced, and marketed accordingly—but in the best-case scenario it will be better than what had previously been available via this medium, in most cases nothing. The same holds for products (whether or not money is exchanged) across the academic spectrum, such as conferences. Just as demand for legal education is higher than enrollment would suggest, latent demand for conferences is higher than attendance alone would suggest, because for budgetary, family, health, and other reasons, many people cannot travel to as many conferences as they would otherwise participate in.

Most of the above has been the case for years. The difference is an exogenous shock, which has forced the relevant agents to become familiar with web video technology in ways they could avoid previously (I certainly avoided it). That opens up a range of possibilities with varying (and shifting) probabilities, with the substitution of online for live classes and conferences as but one (in my view, a low-probability one). The optimistic case from an industry perspective—and I count myself an optimist here—is complementarity, while the bear case is a return to live-only.

N.B. A personal note: as I am on research leave this term, I am not teaching, and so have not experienced the transition as an instructor. However, I am auditing a class that went online, and would describe the experience so far as high quality but not a replacement. (I also suspect this professor is doing an unusually good job.) I’m also doing regular video calls with coauthors and colleagues, and am finding that a vastly superior substitute—for phone calls. Of course in-person is better.

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