Arnold Kling  

Technology and Higher Education Reform

How Food Stamps Increase Measu... Laboratories of Socialism...

I attended a dinner discussion on this topic the other night. Matt Yglesias raised two skeptical questions.

1. Since the invention of the printing press, distance learning has been feasible. At the margin, what does the Internet make possible?

On the issue of content delivery, is the Internet just an incremental improvement or is it a revolution? I guess the test is whether one superstar chemistry lecturer on line can satisfy pretty much everyone, or whether students are better motivated by a live lecturer who is not quite as good.

But I think that the real potential for the Internet is to speed up and improve the feedback loop. Married to artificial intelligence, the Internet can let you know quickly whether you are doing well, just barely keeping up, or falling behind. That could be huge. Khan understands that. Yes, the online lectures are cute, but they are only an incremental improvement. Taking advantage of AI in the feedback loop is the killer app, I think. Teaching equals feedback.

2. What is the point of reform? Right now, if an 18 year old wants to learn, what barrier is there that we need to remove?

I think our dinner discussion showed the need to think of higher education as a highly segmented market. Students differ along two dimensions. One is aptitude/desire for classroom learning. The other is primary motive for attending college.

We often think of college in terms of the elite model, where aptitude is high and the primary motive is status affirmation. In that model, the focus need not be on teaching. The high-aptitude students will (a) not be hard to teach and (b) motivate at least some professors to teach well. The main thing is that attendance at the school should serve as a status marker.

You are supposed to attend the right college today for the same reason that 150 years ago you were supposed to attend the right church or that 50 years ago you were supposed to join the right country club. Spend a moment contemplating the notion that an elite college is sort of a cross between a church and a country club.

Once you get away from the top n colleges, where n is probably between 100 and 200, you get into a tier where the natural aptitude for classroom learning is only middling. Can we lump everything below the top n into what one might call the second tier of higher education? Probably the classification should be more granular, but let me stick to just two tiers.

The primary motivation of students in the second tier is to get the credential: the teaching degree, the allied health degree, or what have you. The challenge for both students and professors is to get the students to complete their course of study. I would think that this would tend toward a competition to get away with as little rigor as possible in the process. To the extent that the credential confers automatic improvements in pay (as in many government jobs), the rigor should be driven close to zero. Only to the extent that employers demand actual substantive learning will any rigor be supported.

Getting back to Matt's second question, I do not think that technology will remove any important barriers to an 18 year old. I am skeptical that it will achieve the lofty goals that we have for higher education--making American workers more competitive in the global market place, blah, blah, blah. If anything, I think that technology ultimately will add to the advantages of those who already have a high aptitude for learning.

I think that higher education is one of those things that we are very enchanted about, like democracy and health insurance and regulation. A more realistic appraisal might be disenchanting.

[UPDATE: In an interview, Stephen Miller says,

I've looked some in my own work related to the external returns of education, at different percentiles... And then at the higher and higher ends, it's actually increasing --it's actually increasing greatly.

Miller asks me in an email whether I think there should be a common core curriculum in higher education. Of course, I would agree with him that the answer is negative. Young people have diverse abilities and diverse needs.]

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COMMENTS (23 to date)
RPLong writes:

In my opinion, #1 is the more interesting question.

In the 1800s, gasoline was a petroleum byproduct. When it was invented, people found a use for it, but it didn't contribute much to marginal productivity. It required additional technology to make gasoline the invaluable product it is today.

I look at the internet much the same way. When it first kicked off, its use was limited to certain kinds of electronic communication among large-scale firms. Gradually, we have discovered increasing uses for the internet, but in order for that to happen, we required new technologies like iPods, iPhones, e-readers, and so on.

With regard to education, I think we have yet to see the necessary "technological" revolution. Here I'm using "technological" in the Misesian sense, i.e. a methodological change. Online coursework still follows the traditional professorial lecture/graded assignments/written exam profile.

In other words, education is still using the same methods it was using 100 years ago. When a bright entrepreneur discovers a way to leverage new technology for new pedagogical methodology, that's when we'll really see the impact of the internet on education.

(May I suggest animated/interactive lectures on applied topics?)

Bob Murphy writes:

Since the invention of the printing press, distance learning has been feasible. At the margin, what does the Internet make possible?

Matt Yglesias' career.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

In answer to the second question: American credentialism. Credentials are the mechanism for funneling youth into middle-class positions, and the meritocratic rhetoric of credentialism justifies maintaining SES inequalities.

BTW: I was unable to find a wikipedia article for PSST. Could someone please provide a link? Thanks!

Jeff writes:
What is the point of reform?

Good question. Our current system does an excellent job of funneling taxpayer money into the pockets of leftist teacher unions and educrats, and their puppets in state and local governments. If you want to get a political blogger who found The Atlantic(!) too middle of the road to sign on to a serious disruption of this cozy little status quo, you're going to need quite a sales pitch!

johnleemk writes:


You might be interested to see that Krugman has written similar thoughts on how going to the right college is like going to the right country club or church:

"Today a place like Harvard is, as it was in the 19th century, more of a social institution than a scholarly one -- a place for the children of the wealthy to refine their social graces and make friends with others of the same class."

(His "today", though, was meant to be circa 2090, not c. 2010.)


I don't think there is a Wikipedia article on PSST.

johnleemk writes:

On rereading that article, it seems like Krugman also commented on question #1:

"Most important of all, the prophets of an "information economy" seem to have forgotten basic economics. When something becomes abundant, it also becomes cheap. A world awash in information will be a world in which information per se has very little market value. And in general when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less rather than more important. Late 20th-century America was supremely efficient at growing food; that was why it had hardly any farmers. Late 21st-century America is supremely efficient at processing routine information; that is why the traditional white-collar worker has virtually disappeared from the scene."

Kevin writes:

I started using the internet to learn AFTER college so that I could improve my skills on the job. The degree gets your foot in the door, but then you need the internet to acquire the skills to produce. I use and youtube to learn software and programming. I used MIT open courseware to learn linear algebra so that I could understand some of the analytics we do. Google can tell me if someone has already solved the same problem I'm working on at a message board.

So I think the internet is revolutionizing learning, but it is happening on the job after college for a lot of people like me.

Jim Object writes:

I'm going to keep it anecdotal.

I'm 30, but I didn't grow up around first-world, modern technology. I didn't use an email address until I was 21, and wasn't what you might call 'web-proficient' until 2004-2005. I was too embarrassed to say anything and managed to fake web-access through most of my undergrad.

The opportunities made available online sparked an interest for learning something specific, and made it accessible or pursuable. Some of these young (highschool-undergrad) auto-didactic cats really run away with the tools available to them. Many are very seriously well informed, and scholarly in their methods. From there, many move on to credential somewhere, or start a business we would not have otherwise imagined or been capable of starting. I did both.

But for the web, I would not be well informed or educated, university degree be damned. I would have never gone back to school but or the serious interest I developed in economics. There other topics I have taken up, sharpened, or returned to as well. I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten back into math, bless Sal Khan. I also more seriously pursued philosophy, history, software and web security... I could go on.

The first sparks of various academic interests would have died or been hobbies-at-best if I would have been relegated to combing through libraries for textbooks and treatises. I think some folks forget the poor access to information most people have. Also, I was lazy. The web gave me easy access. It gave me a supportive community of study partners. They help you along, and don't let you quit. Then, you pay it back to the next kid who reads his first Bastiat quote. Without the web, I would have been the marginal quitter.

Luckily, I have also developed a competitive work ethic.

For reasons all my own, I started a study group that read "Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market", including Bob Murphy's study guide. Upon hearing about this endeavor, the LvMI sent me free stuff! Hard copies of all the materials we were using, and more! We ended up with fits and starts and people coming and going, but many of us finished the book or are still working on it. When there was something 'above our pay grade', we could fire off a question to Bob, or any serious scholar who was available to chat via Facebook at that very moment. How else on Earth but the web!

"Uhh, Dr. Boettke... you got a minute to help twenty complete strangers understand the ERE as described by Rothbard in MES?"

Five seconds later...

"No problem."

Come on! That's un-freaking-heard of 25 years ago! Could I have looked Israel Kirzner up in the White Pages, and called him on my land-line to ask him about the effect of inflation on interest rates?

Now, my online stranger-friends have started similar endeavors on all kinds of topics. It's simply 'a thing we do.'

Coincidentally, if it weren't for Murph, up there, and Bryan, both of whom I found online, I wouldn't have taken this endeavor seriously. Their work changed everything for me. Without it, I wouldn't be writing this. In fact, I would bet ten-to-one I would be hung-over, getting ready to go wait tables somewhere.

Harvard owes you guys a commission. I owe you guys an advancement in the science of economics.

Dan Carroll writes:

I can think of 4 important changes from online education:

1. Economies of scale - the traditional educational model has been stubbornly resistant to cost reduction, even when experimenting with private charter schools and school choice. That is because the student-teacher ratio of about 30:1 (for junior high and up) seems to be the maximum before the system breaks down. This means teaching is labor intensive, and leads to highly variable and random quality of instruction. Online outsources the lectures, testing, and cirriculum, resulting in uniform (high) quality and increasing the capacity of live teachers by allowing them to focus directly on other tasks (like crowd control and tutoring). For self motivated students, the teacher is redundant. Thus, the cost of education are likely to go down, and potentially way down.

2. Variable and Custom Learning: in the current system, all students learn the same material, in the same way, and at the same speed, though limited segregation occurs with honors vs standard vs remedial. This, of course, is highly inefficient (egalitarian protests notwithstanding). In an online system, students learn at their own speed. This is revolutionary for actual learning and motivation - advanced students get challenged (instead of sleeping or causing trouble), and remedial students get help (instead of acting out and causing trouble). Further, the cirriculum can potentially be customized by learning style and preferred pedogogy.

3. Feedback loop - as Arnold inferred, students get instant feedback, which accelerates and facilitates learning.

4. Access to information - with the Internet, information is free. While we had books before, they were costly to find, ship, and store. For education, we relied very heavily on the instructor to choose what we should read.

Though I was an Economics major and have an MBA & CFA, since the advent of the Internet, ereaders, blogging, and other sources of information, I've learned more about Economics then I learned while in school, all by reading about 30 minutes per day.

We are in the very very early days of online education. Khan is more like an experimental prototype. We don't know if online with replace the traditional school or enhance it. We don't know if the government will block it successfully, unsuccessfly try to block it, or embrace it. We don't know how the system of certification and credentialing will work - whether we will get independent testing and evaluation or Harvard will still lock down the barrier to entry for elite status.

Floccina writes:

I think that the goal for technology in education should be to bring down the cost of educating.

I would like to see more useful things and less useless things taught but that has little to do with technology.

Barring a memory drug or some such thing like that, I do not think that we can teach people more or make them much smarter. But again I do think that we can teach them more useful stuff.

Floccina writes:

Also long distance learning has always been popular for learning things. It has only not been useful for getting credentials. If the internet can help solve that problem it would IMO lead to great cost savings.

I think that we need to change the way we speak and use education to mean learning and schooling to mean credentialing/testing/grading.

Like I like to say is education is free it is the credential(degree) that will cost you.

Becky Hargrove writes:

The unsettling thing about all this is that many who learn because they love to learn (and so use the easily accessable Internet as the latest tool) still have no way to integrate what they learn with others in practical form. Whereas those who learn what's necessary in order to get the paying job, sometimes have no love of learning itself. I have been in many homes over the years of those who learned for the sake of the paycheck, homes which had almost no books to speak of.

Arthur_500 writes:

What is the use of the Internet if you don't know how to use it? At some point individuals need to get the basics of how to use the technology.

What do I want to learn? Being exposed to others in a classroom or to activities associated with a scholastic environment can introduce something to me that is exciting. Not every 5th grader wakes up one morning and says, "I want to be an economist when I grow up." I din't know what an economist was until I was midway through my second degree.

Individual motivation kicks off an education process but my experience tutoring students who were involved in distance learning shows that there is something lacking. Even the most motivated individual can decide to quit.

Any experience is best done with imersion. Commuter students typically do not achieve as much as those in a traditional learning experience. This is most often because they are goal oriented to complete the tasks and get the sheepskin. They aren't interested in other parts of student life. They aren't interested in getting involved in something beyond what is necessary to graduate. They focused but this is also akin to tunnel vision. they also typically remain in their situation albeit with a college education. What do you think you can extrapolate regarding Internet learning?

Kevin Fisher writes:

I think Arnold's 100% correct in saying that A.I. is the killer app that's going to open up computer/online learning. While I do think feedback is a good product of A.I., I think he missed the key ingredient which would make it powerful. It is the ability to ask a question and get an answer.

Books are used to impart knowledge to students and its the main way they learn. Its strength is that they can go at their own pace, reread things that are confusing, stop and absorb the material and skim over the easy stuff. The downside is that if you can't figure the material out or get stuck the learning stops. This is where a teacher is helpful, they can ask questions and get clarification, this customizes it and gets them going. That is why asking a question is the key ingredient to A.I.

Imagination a "super" textbook on an iPad. It would have traditional text, videos, 3-d graphics that you could rotate and the killer app which would be the ability to ask it questions. If you were reading page 94 and couldn't quite grasp what the text was saying, you could ask about the key point you were stuck on and get an answer. It could be like Siri. Instead of Siri having general knowledge she could be programmed to be an expert on that particular textbook. She would know you're on page 94 and use that context to answer the question. I'd bet that Apple is working on that right now.

Steve Sailer writes:

Although Khan Academy gets all the buzz, let me point out that already has a full set of adaptive drilling online programs for K-12 math students. Its questions vary in response to how you did on previous questions. Mr. Khan's lectures are more charismatic, but it would be possible to combine Khan's lectures with Aleks' solid infrastructure of drilling to create a best of both worlds approach to your child's math education.

Unfortunately, a lot of other K-12 math programs, especially those sold to public schools, are junk.

Mark Michael writes:

Our current on-site universities are very expensive, given their large infrastructure, well-paid administrators, well-paid tenured faculty, low teacher to student ratios. As noted, getting the degree from an elite school is for many just a ticket to get into a profession. In theory, it certifies you have the knowledge, skills, discipline needed for that profession. But it costs an arm & a leg.

Charles Murray in "Real Education - Four simple truths for bringing America's schools back to reality," mentioned the idea of using professional tests as a way to certify that a student had mastered a certain level of knowledge and skills needed to enter the ground floor of a profession. That could be an alternative to the very expensive university education today.

They would couple that with taking a professional test developed by the industry/profession into which they were seeking entrance.

The Internet with its possibilities of interactive learning, immediate feedback using advanced programming techniques, should become a viable alternative to our existing universities, at least for enough students to put some competitive pressure on the "brick and mortar" schools.

Perhaps if companies/organizations hiring new employees had to pay more of the cost of their professional training of their employees, they'd become more interesting in less-expensive ways to learn. They'd support such innovative ways to teach using the Internet & professional testing.

As it is, society foots the bill for those very expensive brick-and-mortar schools, mostly via the taxpayers - or philanthropy. Scaling back public support would be a first step. Abolish the federal Dept. of Ed. Then let the states decide if it was in their interest to keep funding their schools at a high level. Statists would bemoan a "race to the bottom" by the 50 states! Good. We'd get back to a more free market system.

Lori writes:
You are supposed to attend the right college today for the same reason that 150 years ago you were supposed to attend the right church or that 50 years ago you were supposed to join the right country club. Spend a moment contemplating the notion that an elite college is sort of a cross between a church and a country club.

I don't know if it's a cross between these two things or a bit of incremental progress beyond both. Unfortunately, success is still more about who you know than what you know, but present-day colleges are at least a little more accountable to the public than churches 150 years ago or country clubs 50 years ago. At least for present day colleges, the procedure for applying, and even a rough idea of the criteria for admission, are published information. Churches and country clubs, even today, are sometimes overtly discriminatory, hiding behind the principles of "freedom of religion" or "freedom of association," respectively. Then again, perhaps debt peonage is a higher entry barrier than secret handshakes or whatever.

Bryan Willman writes:

Once again, some functions of education are being forgotten.

One function of sending 18yr olds off to college is for them to meet likely mates from a large enough pool of the "right" sort of people. The web is unlikely to displace that one.

A second function is exploration accompanied by physical labs. Yes, you could read and watch a lot stuff on the web that would tell you if you liked law or economics better. None of that will tell you how you feel about actual chemistry labs, actual biology labs, the reality of medicine (you know, blood...)

Anything you can not learn at the library you probably cannot learn from the web.

Bryan Willman writes:

I was wrong above. There are lots of things you can learn on the web you cannot practically learn at a library. (And remember, libraries can be very strong sources of knowlege.)

On reflection, the web is Very Different from printed books and libraries. I note the following very real differences, which are generally only visible to someone with very good quality internet access (i.e. broadband.)

1. Time to pursue a lead of inquiry can be seconds. So while I might receive a printed newletter from Arnold that suggests I go read Taylor, the friction to doing this in time alone might be week. For this blog post, it is order 1 second. Want to read Atlas Shrugged right now to see what people are going on about? Kindle - have it at hand in sub-minute time. (Slogging through it is a different issue.)

2. Rich content - music, animations, videos, adjustable graphs, various sorts of calculator.

3. Distributed social groups (see comments above) allowing people with like interests that are locally rare but globally numerous to interact with each other. I don't mean facebook (though that counts) but rather or the various blacksmith bulletin boards.

4. Data in a computer accessable form - which matters a great deal when I have a computer and facility with, say, excel. (Want to understand inflation better, just download the BLS data and study it directly.)

So no, the web is NOT just a fancier printing press, and bloggers ought to know better.

Lori writes:

Yup, there are things you can learn on the internet that you can't learn in a library, but the laboratory sciences, it seems, you can't learn with either. So, perhaps what people are paying for, besides "signals," and social access to eligible bachelor(ette)s, is access to equipment. Still horrible news for professional instructors, as it appears that the institution runs more on capital than labor. But capital is whomping labor in almost all industries. Depending on how the culture evolves re. things like the work ethic, a robotic takeover could be, as Marshall Brain says, painful.

NGee writes:

I believe the Internet has open doors of opportunity for everyone. The Internet has reshaped communication and provides free education. I use it everyday to access weather, news, sports and other personal interest. It allows me to expand my learning skills through on line encyclopedia, education videos as well as understand other countries and their information. The Internet has also allowed me to expand my social networking, such as email, instant messaging and chat rooms. The Internet allows me to look up and purchase merchandise or utilize financial services. I believe the Internet is a revolution.

Daublin writes:

The thinking on this thread is too focused on simply transplanting the university to the Internet. There are better ways to learn a subject nowadays:

1. Start with the Wikipedia article. It will usually teach you more about a subject in an hour than people in the 20th century were able to learn in a lifetime.

2. Next try doing a web search. You'll typically find all manner of material offering to teach you the subject in question.

3. If the material is still too dense for you, then perhaps look for YouTube videos. I put this here for completeness, but I haven't found it very useful in practice. Videos are for entertainment, or for filling time. If I really want to know about something, I find it by reading.

Aside from the methods, there is also the question of content. Much of what people can profitably learn nowadays is not offered in any sort of class that they're likely to take.

Walter Sobchak writes:

Arnold writes:

I am skeptical that it will achieve the lofty goals that we have for higher education--making American workers more competitive in the global market place, blah, blah, blah.

Quoth the Blogfather:

The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
Dubbed Reynold's Law

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