Arnold Kling  

The Education Revolution

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Charlotte Allen summarizes a lot of recent developments that I think are going to change higher education.


It's happening, almost overnight: what could be the collapse of the near-monopoly that traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities currently enjoy as respected credentialing institutions whose degrees and grades mean something to employers.

Read the whole thing. Here is what I see as four technologies coming together:

1. The use of YouTube for bite-sized lectures, as famously demonstrated by Khan Academy but widely used by others. (When I put up my statistics and economics lectures, what I quickly found was that each topic already had several competing lectures on YouTube.)

2. Video conferencing. Using this technology, it is easier to attend two seminars in different cities than it is to walk to two seminars on the same campus.

3. Artificial intelligence for assessment. It's about more than just grading multiple choice tests. Something like ALEKS.com can grade numerical answers. A software course can grade you on whether your program works. My guess is that with sophisticated statistical software one could grade short-answer questions.

4. Real-time natural-language interaction (like the i-phone's Siri). Now that I have "flipped the classroom" in statistics and I walk around giving students helpful hints, I think that my hint-giving could easily be automated. A student could talk into a phone, either to ask a question or describe a thought process, and the automated assistant could give the most appropriate prompt.

I see the potential for a dramatic reduction in the labor intensity of teaching. I think we are at a point in education that reminds of what the Web felt like in 1994. A lot of excitement is coming, and change will sweep through faster than most people expect. Traditional colleges seem poised to be the Borders Books of the next round of technological change.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Bill Hocter writes:

The second and third order changes should be fascinating. We live in interesting times!

Jonathan Bechtel writes:

I hope you're right.

Cyberike writes:

Not so fast. These changes you mention can improve education for those who actually care to learn, but you are forgetting (or don't even know about) the large segment of our society who simply do not care about getting or being educated.

Actual learning takes work. You cannot understand the condition of our schools until you understand that not only are there a large number of "students" who will not do that work, the policies and procedures we have put in place to deal with what educational leaders perceive to be the problems in our schools (standards, teacher accountability) make it easier for students to get by without doing any work.

The educational system we have in place right now actually teaches kids to be lazy. Every single one of you college professors out there have stories to tell about how hard it is to get students to learn, but I need to remind you that you are NOT seeing the students that give public school teachers the most problems. Those kids don't make it to college.

What kids want is learning that does not take any effort. These technologies go in that direction, and I have to ask if that is really the direction we want to go if our goal is to improve education.

The Snob writes:

So, the university of the future will consist of something like 1,000 undergraduates, 20 professors, and 980 assistant deans, deputy chancellors, vice-provosts, and coordinators?

While I'm a techno-utopian by nature, a stupendous amount of the inflation in the cost of higher education can be traced to administrative bloat. IIRC, direct teaching costs have grown rather modestly over the past couple decades. Bringing the student-bureaucrat ratio back down to its level in 2000, let alone 1980, could reduce costs by double digit percentages. Plus, this would winnow the ranks of precisely those people with the most vested interest in preserving the current structure.

Glen Smith writes:

The problem is that the primary reason for getting a college degree is not to learn but to signal fitness for employment. Learning is easy if what you are leaning is cool or obviously useful to you. The only time self-discipline is required is when you must change states (for example, getting out of bed and firing up the right lecture). Using my experience as an example, it is very easy for me to study physics because most of it is cool to me. Even though I find much of accounting pretty dry, it is easy for me to study because I can see why I need to know it. OJT is also a good way for ME to lean things because it has an obvious connection to my paycheck.

Daublin writes:

For the "hints" part, one way to do it is to have a flow chart of questions the user can ask to get progressively more information. One role for teacher types in this grand new world would be to build good flow charts.

Hint flow charts should be as effective as the original teacher is, and they require basically no AI.

SWH writes:

There is reason to believe that the relevant revolution that will most impact education at the college level is the social/communication revolution. In a growing number of college campuses student-led education with social component motivation is a growing business.

see: www.studyedge.com and www.tutoringzone.com

Learning requires emotional involvement.... something that is difficult to produce without personal contact. Distance learning and learning without personal contact is likely doomed to failure with most students. Learned professors will be replaced not by learned machines, but by the good teachers that will be available in the education marketplace that is being created by students.

How the signaling value of traditional education institutions fit into this....?

aretae writes:

I concluded that #3 was the killer feature about 4 years ago. I built a prototype that did solve that problem (in math), but it didn't scale right. I'm still refining.

Waldo writes:

I always like watching John Houseman in The Paper Chase; polished and proper; sophisticated and intellectual; demanding and exacting. Two essential elements in education, decorum and propriety, are already severely wounded, and will soon be killed off forever. The image of someone in pajamas, sitting in bed, eating chips and sipping a beer while watching a lecture on YouTube, isn't exactly my idea of education.

Dave writes:

There is a Kaggle competition right now to build an automated essay scoring system:

http://www.kaggle.com/c/asap-aes

Jim writes:

Arnold, as one of my favorite economists and bloggers, I urge you to further radicalize your position; for perhaps 90% of students, 4 years of college was always unnecessary and wasteful.

First, I agree that formal education is susceptible to great structural change, although large employers are addicted to the status quo, and for 'elite' positions the network benefits of the institutions are very large.

But since the world is changing so quickly, as is technology, your example above may be inappropriate in that most of our education is arguably more efficiently gained in inter and intra organizational networks (Hausmann and Hidalgo). In a work environment, the student is embedded in the vocabulary and cultural and real-life tableaux of the organism which will employ her, even as it changes.

Co-op programs are only a band-aid, albeit a semi-workable good one.

Greg writes:

you are wrong.

the changes you describe will change education VERY little. this is because technology in education is just a gimmick. in all my years of education there have been only TWO piece of technology which were helpful and NONE of them had anything to do with education: wikipedia and amazon.com.

amazon is great for finding good textbooks while wikipedia is great for quick reference: i always use it to look up definitions in mathematics which i do.

but there is NO alternative to the heart of education: sitting down with a book and doing every single question in the book.

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