Arnold Kling  

Notes on the "campus tsunami"

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David Brooks writes,

The early Web radically democratized culture, but now in the media and elsewhere you're seeing a flight to quality. The best American colleges should be able to establish a magnetic authoritative presence online.

My thoughts:

1. Do not equate "quality" with "incumbents."

2. The MIT's and Stanford's of the world have some advantages. Deep pockets. Great business connections. Smart professors and leading-edge technologists.

3. They also have some disadvantages. I could argue that they do not really know what teaching is. They know how to guide students about what they should learn on their own. That the students then learn this stuff tells you a lot about the selection process of the admissions department, maybe not so much about the teaching process of the faculty. They also will face organizational conflict, so that while part of the institution may want to go full speed ahead, the rest of the institution will be dragging its heels. Why do we think that Thrun left Stanford? And by the way, I signed up for coursera to taste a sample and...nothingburger.

4. I am not afraid of Silicon Valley VC's, either. They have one or two buzzwords (e.g., "gamification") and their typical herd mentality. I think VC money helps when the solution is obvious and you need to be the first company to get to the finish line. I am not convinced that having a VC breathing down your neck is a real help when you need to putter around in your metaphorical garage.

5. "How can we translate college into the online world?" is the wrong question. Education is not going to experience one gigantic conversion from analog to digital. Instead, legacy institutions are going to be pecked to death. One company will tackle a little piece of the problem here, while another company will tackle a little piece of the problem there. I think where we will end up is with education that is disaggregated, rather than replacing the aggregations that we now know as schools with equivalent online aggregations.

6. I am thinking of getting into this education start-up game. Not with A Means A, but with something else entirely. At this point, everybody except my wife is telling me not to bother trying. But that was pretty much true with my last start-up, and it turned out she had better insight.

[update: Joshua Gans got what I think are the key take-aways from efforts to just throw existing courses on line. One is that putting a lecture on line is no great feat, because lectures are not such great teaching tools to start with (See also David Friedman's comment on this post). Another is that student homework serves as a teaching tool and as an assessment tool, but often the latter use gets in the way of the former. My start-up idea is based on these insights.

Instead of starting by asking, "how could I lecture to and asssess 100,000 students?", I start by asking, "How would I teach if I had just 1 student?" If you had one student, you would never give a long lecture, or even talk for 5 minutes without interruption. You would iterate--give explanations, give exercises, give hints, give more exercises, and when you know the student is ready, move on to the next topic. I want to think in education in those terms.]

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COMMENTS (14 to date)

I think the future of online education is courses and projects. It's hard to see how to disaggregate below the course level. Projects are nice because they show rather than tell the abilities of the student. The only real benefit of grades is that it makes sorting students by ability easy.

But who cares if comparing grades is easy? The real issue is getting a high-quality signal rather than an easy-to-measure signal. Projects win in the end.

I'm putting my theory into action with Nathan's University. I'm teaching programming language implementation online in a class. The project is "create your own programming language". It's not a startup, it's just me teaching the class and figuring out what works and what doesn't.

I would totally sign up for "The Arnold Kling Institute of Economics". As would thousands of others, probably.

Thank heaven for the wise, alternative views of women.
If you proceed, then you could write another good book like your "Under the Radar".

Vladimir writes:

At the risk of indulging you fishing for support, I encourage you to try your hand at this education start-up game. I am excited about the expansion of online learning opportunities. Your outsider-perspective may well contribute positively to this trend.

Tom West writes:

I have to say I agree with the rest of the world on this one. I think current evidence show just how important teaching students cheaply and well is to the overall education system (including all players: producers and consumers): namely, not a whole heck of a lot.

Being able to somehow teach online students cheaply and effectively will only undermine a minor support of the current educational edifice. Certainly not enough to motivate people to change.

Things won't change until they *have* to change. Once there's only 1/2 to 1/4 the current amount of money available for education (both grade-school + post-secondary), *then* we'll see some real change. Until then, nobody will voluntarily go through the wrenching agony that such a huge change would entail.

(Same for the American medical system.)

Chris Koresko writes:

David Brooks: What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.

This is the key point of Brooks' article. Newspapers and magazines are getting clobbered as their business model, which rested largely on dominating the means for distributing printed information, is obsoleted by the Internet. Now they're being forced to compete not only with new kinds of media, but also more directly with each other. And a lot of them are finding themselves redundant, especially those who have gotten into the habit of rewriting articles about news gathered by their competitors.

Everybody's talking about the fact that one really good lecture can be recorded once and replayed everywhere at any time. Brooks is right to focus on how the other aspects of teaching need to be re-thought as well. He points out that professors will be able to outsource lecturing and focus more on one-to-one interactions with students.

Beyond that, it's pretty hard to tell what the long-run optimized solution for education in the age of the Internet is going to look like. I suspect the main issue is going to be recognizing teaching quality and getting the incentives right for both educators and students. I agree with your notion that better AI will soon enable student papers to be graded automatically, and that that's a big deal.

All of this is going to be very disruptive. There are huge gains to be made here. Propping up the incumbents as they suffer economic and social losses would be a big mistake. There is sure to be strong political pressure to do it.

I wish you much success in your venture.

Hoover writes:

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Cyberike writes:

As someone who is creating online educational content, I see a few problems that no one is addressing. One big problem that is, surprisingly, just as entrenched in highs schools as college, is that teachers have spent years developing their own content, and are not only most comfortable with their own stuff but truly believe that their material is what is valuable and important for students. They are not going to easily be persuaded to change to content developed by others, particularly when it is driven top down.

The content that I have seen developed by states or districts for general use is almost universally poor. Like anything created by committee, the content ends up being little islands of instruction, with the topics not being very well integrated together. It becomes boring to students and frustrating to teach. Oh, and you are given limited time to cover this material whether students get it or not.

For public schools in particular, the situation does not look very promising. Tom West mentions cost, but he has it backward. States are developing content NOW, and they are doing it on the cheap because of budget constraints. Quality suffers, and in many states (like Texas) there is a political aspect that has to be considered in order to get whatever content is developed actually approved.

I'm afraid that the results of these poorly financed and poorly developed online courses will lead to poor results which will negatively influence the perception of online classes, that they do not work.

And I have not even addressed the real problem for online classes, that they require more work from students themselves. Our current educational structure provides no motivation for (most) students to perform that additional work. Until we solve that problem, on line education will be a niche industry, at best. At worst, it will be branded a failure without even having had a chance to succeed.

blink writes:

Point #3 is very important and the primary reason I believe most of the online platforms (Coursera, Kahn Academy, etc.) are much ado about nothing. For the type of people/students likely to benefit from these courses, we are talking about a small marginal improvement over a time-worn approach to self-education: reading books.

Kevin L writes:

I've been trying to compare this to social media in my mind. I feel like the level of aggregation fluctuated a lot. There were ISP-offered personal web spaces, Geocities, blogs, and now there are several big aggregate sites, Facebook being the most influential if not the dominant site.

I think with online education, aggregation and dis-aggregation will also vary and neither will be a given. But this is good, because it shows the market is at work and people's wants are changing what is supplied.

Jonathan Bechtel writes:


I've been reading your blog for the better part of 6 years, and I would join your wife in suggesting you try your hand at an educational startup.

I for one would be very happy to guinea pig the product with you and evangelize on your behalf.

Do it!

David Friedman writes:

Two points:

1. More or less the same arguments that imply that the universities will be destroyed by the web also imply that the mass lecture should have vanished a little while after Gutenberg. On the face of it, a book is unambiguously superior to a mass lecture, although not necessarily to more interactive forms of teaching.

But it didn't happen, and it would be worth figuring out why it didn't happen as part of designing a more successful second round.

2. The new technologies enable at least two quite different forms of inexpensive education. One is online education. The other is education via computer programs, in particular games. I made an attempt at a primitive version of the latter a very long time ago, when I wrote some programs to go with my Price Theory text. You can find a description of those and some related projects, all pretty much dead at the moment, at:

Imagine, for a different version, a massively multiplayer online game designed to teach a language. In the early stages, the NPC's speak mostly in English, with bits of (say) French where the context makes the meaning obvious. As the player moves up levels, the fraction of French grows.

R. Pointer writes:

I did part of the coursera course offered by Scott Page. I need an intro into models and I thought this would be useful. I found it was but only limited help when I wanted to apply those models.

I actually would prefer a book to the online course. The lectures were constructed well but not deep enough for actual usefulness. I would do better having attempted a modeling project rather than learning a little bit about a whole bunch of models.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I want to mention J. Michael McBride's incredibly excellent organic chemistry class from Yale. Even if you are not interested in organic chemistry, he weaves together the story of the history of chemical discovery, and keeps his class asking the question and then answering: "How do you know"?

For example, he performs an experiment done by Ernst Chladni in the 1780's laid the groundwork for the understanding of modes of vibrations of surfaces that reflect themselves in solutions of the Schrödinger equation for the quantum wavefunctions of electrons around the atom.

On the other hand, I find most of the Kahn Academy classes pretty amateur. They all could use some time in the edit suite, at least to get rid of the "ummms". Of course, I respect the fact he's put so many courses online.

sourcreamus writes:

The problem is that online instruction needs motivated students and motivated students are doing fine in the current system as they would in any system.
The market is motivated students who are not doing well in the current system. Maybe adults who have graduated from law school and have trouble passing the bar exam. Or med school graduates studying for certification exams.

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