Arnold Kling  

Educational Disintermediation

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Felix Salmon writes,

Stanford was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building a new physical campus in New York City -- but it isn't willing, it seems, to help Thrun build a free virtual campus which could reach the whole world. That's a dereliction of its educational duty. But where Stanford has failed, surely some other elite university will step in. Thrun is taking a bold step here. Let's hope he soon gets the support, if not of Stanford, then of some other college. Like Harvard, or Yale, or Oxford, or Cambridge. They're exclusive places now. But they don't have to be, in the future.

Read the whole thing. Pointer from Alex Tabarrok. Salmon is referring to Sebastian Thrun, who co-created the Stanford online artificial intelligence course.

My reaction to Thrun working independently is to celebrate rather than lament. Do I want the future of education to be tied to Stanford, Harvard, etc.? Absolutely not. I want to see educational disintermediation, in which students and teachers connect directly. With disintermediation, we will need new ways to identify quality teachers and successful students. Just as on the Internet search engines needed to figure out how to identify quality web sites and online market sites needed to figure out how to identify quality sellers. Let's develop new reputation systems for new teaching methods, rather than try to bolt the old Ivy League brands on to educational innovation.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Jonathan Bechtel writes:

I would think Bryan would have a field day with this article.

If college is all about signaling, then isn't Stanford performing its statutory obligations very well by rejecting the online class?

Randy writes:

I want to see the same. The question I have is why has it not already begun? - at least not to any great extent. What would be the tipping point?

David B. Collum writes:

I would also like to see fewer traditional college degrees and more target-specific education. I am not convinced we need more college grads in the usual sense. I happen to teach and do research at the institution that benefitted (we hope) from Stanford's failure to move to NYC.

GU writes:
"They're exclusive places now. But they don't have to be, in the future."

LOL, he doesn't understand why people want to attend elite universities (espcially at the undergraduate level).

Sir Edwin Drake writes:

I don't think Udacity or any other free, online education program will be a big threat to Stanford. Udacity gives education to everyone, Stanford sells reputation and name recognition to elite students (i.e. people who are already educated/would obtain the same raw information from any institute). Lord knows our culture doesn't suffer from a lack of free information. Sure, maybe its not always organized efficiently for a student, but students can educate themselves if they are motivated. No, students pay for proficiency certitfication and name recognition not information.

Having said that, it doesn't make sense for Stanford to reject Udacity. It is no threat and it would do wonders for publicity. And they could recruit many bright students for its certification and reputation sales department, verifying student's potential much more effectively than the ACT does.

guthrie writes:

@Jonathan, GU, I think that's the right track. I don't think Arnold has to worry about the Ivy League entering this market because it's too 'pedestrian'. These schools bank on their 'exclusivity', so I highly doubt the independence Thrun's project, or any similar, would be in danger.

NahuelPan writes:

@ Jonathan Bechtel

It is difficult to think about a governance structure that can replace the colleges in their current form. At least in their signalling function. Students that can freely shop around for professors and professors with no job security in the form of tenure would be similar to suspected criminals (sorry for the analogy) that can shop around for the most lenient judge and judges that can find themselves out of work if no suspected criminals pick them.

However, with the current technological advances, should the teaching/learning and the signalling/judging be done under the same roof or by the same person?

In my elementary school district I can say that parents are often doing the teaching (with the help of Khan Academy and IXL) and the school mostly provides the curriculum and signalling services. I have a friend that tranferred his kids to private school because he was fed up with having to teach the concepts that in public elementary school had been merely 'presented'.

Becky Hargrove writes:

You're right, the sooner that education can be seen as something happening outside the classroom, the better. But we will know we have really arrived when people are willing to validate one another at local levels based on self-education. The ultimate possibility from that would be the wealth creation of countless knowledge-based communities, which would be desirable places to live based on what the local people have created in terms of knowledge wealth and participation.

PrometheeFeu writes:

This is amazing. I took the AI class and I must admit I didn't complete it. The problem is that I have a full time job and early on in the class, I got hit with a couple big projects at work and fell behind. I think the next step is to break out of the linear class format and allow for more variation in pace.

Andjuar Cedeno writes:

How is online higher education any different than online newspapers? Aren't both devaluing their product by giving it away for free. How do online degree from one institution differentiate themselves from other online degrees?
Also online universities will reward a smaller number of scholars as small brick and mortar institutions find they can't compete with cyberspace. Also how do online universities replace the social experience of brick and mortar institutions?

Essen writes:

The world is inexorably moving towards open and online disintermediation of education. Thankfully it will be impossible to put the genie back into the bottle. IMHO, the value of education is its intrinsic content and the method of delivery and not the name and fame of the deliverer.

See how the tide of online (and free) education is swelling:

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