Bryan Caplan  

Arnold on the Current State of Computers in Education

PRINT
From the Vault: My First Debat... Sumner's Common Sense...
Arnold writes:
Here is how I size up the current state of computers in education:

My reactions, point by point:

1. Note that in the music industry, the Internet has put record stores out of business. It has not put composers and musicians out of business.

Point taken.  But one of the main benefits of online education is supposed to be that everyone starts learning from very best teachers on the planet.  If that's so, then why wouldn't existing professors be more analogous to record store employees than composers or musicians?

2. Computers have a comparative advantage in repetition, distribution, and data retrieval and storage. Humans have a comparative advantage in interpersonal skills.

OK.

3. Lectures are a very weak teaching method. Distributing lectures on line costs little, but by the same token it provides little benefit.

I agree, but this raises a huge puzzle.  If lectures are so useless, why do professors spend more time lecturing than in all other teaching activities combined?  My story, of course, is signaling.  Lectures plus tests are a bad way to impart skills, but a great way for students to signal their intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to employers.

4. Teaching equals feedback. Some forms of feedback are repetitive (grading multiple-choice tests), which argues for computers, but many forms require interpersonal skills (grading essays), which argues for humans. Yes, computers are starting to learn to grade essays, but this is not yet their comparative advantage.

Most classes provide very little feedback of any kind.  In a typical social science class, TAs grade the homework, and the professor grades one midterm and one final per student.  How valuable can this homeopathic dose of "feedback" possibly be? 

Feedback admittedly seems more useful when students write papers.  But when professors actually make students repeatedly rewrite their papers, they tell me that students largely ignore professorial feedback.

5. Students learn from one another. Yes, entrepreneurs are trying to reproduce "social learning" over the Internet, but this is not its comparative advantage.

A minority of serious students learn from one another.  Most students barely discuss their coursework with fellow students.  I'd say that social networking websites stimulate far more social learning for intellectually engaged students than dorm room discussions ever have.  When I was an undergrad, I had to struggle to find students interested in discussing ideas.  And I was at UC Berkeley, one of the most elite public universities in the world.

6. I think that for (some) individual teachers, a "hybrid model" that combines human feedback with effective use of computers will win.

Does using PowerPoint count as a "hybrid model"?  If so, we're already there.  But the change seems pretty superficial.

7. In terms of effective education using a "hybrid model," I think that existing educational institutions will lose. Institutional adaptation tends to be inferior to individual adaptation. Tyler and Bryan will still have jobs in 15 years, even if GMU is effectively dead.

If you define "effectively dead," we have a bet.

8. Education has a very large Hansonian component. Politicians show that they care by rhetorically supporting education. Parents show that they care about their children by arranging for them to attend high-status schools. As I have said before, I think this is the element that makes the future of education so difficult to predict. Right now, the status of online education is low relative to the status of in-person education. If that "tips" at some point, so that it becomes higher status to give your children tablets and sign them up for online courses, then the institutions crumble quickly.

True, but I continue to think that Arnold's focusing too much on elite parents and too little on garden-variety employers.  In our society, college is first and foremost how students convince employers that they're worth hiring for good jobs.  We can imagine a tipping point, but I see no reason to expect tipping to actually happen. 

As usual, I'm open to bets.



COMMENTS (13 to date)
Gerald Diduck writes:

As an a adult student and life long self learner I say from experience that only about 15% of instructors, coaches, professors are great. That said this 15% is different for every student and thus there is a chance that all teachers have a role if they have an audience that feels they are one of the 15% that are great. However a well designed and integrated course once produced (just like a great piece of music) no longer needs the producer. The marginal benefit then all accrues to the efficiency of distribution. Sorry to say but the great disintermediator (internet/digital media) continues to wreck havoc on human jobs, including professors. College is mostly about societal signaling and not about efficient and effective learning.

Jonzeese writes:
Most students barely discuss their coursework with fellow students. I'd say that social networking websites stimulate far more social learning for intellectually engaged students than dorm room discussions ever have.
My experience confirms this in spades. However, there is a quality particular to in-person exchanges that seems unique - it is not so much that the added emotion coming from a social interaction supplements or even circumvents reasoning, but embodied exchanges as it were seem to very powerfully bring home basic intuitions. A motivated and talented online learner would be similar to an isolated 18th century thinker with a rich correspondence, but who has never met any of his contemporaries for free-ranging discussions in Parisian cafes. For all but a handful of brilliant eccentrics, something would be missing. I have no proof for this, but I suspect that as social animals we are hard-wired to consolidate our thinking in real-life interactions. Many people, when asked who most influenced their thinking, might cite a few famous authors, but also people they have known in real life, almost always people of lesser intellectual caliber than those famous authors. A real-life follower of Hume can be more influential for me than reading the original.
Shane L writes:

I'm a bit surprised by the claim that lectures are a poor teaching method, is there evidence for that? I find it much easier to learn when I have a lecturer who we can stop to ask questions. Often when reading an educational book I hit some concept I am not sure I understand and have to scramble around looking in the index or glossary for an explanation. Having someone right there to ask seems sensible; a writer probably can't anticipate all the questions students might have.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Our past experiences may be getting in the way. Here is one alternative point of view that may or may not translate to higher ed:

http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education.html

MingoV writes:

@Shane L: Lectures are inefficient for a number of reasons.

1. Most students do not learn well from listening. They need to read the information (handouts, textbook, or lecture notes) or see visual aids such as photos, illustrations, graphs, flow charts, etc. (I realize that lectures often include such visual aids, but some students are overwhelmed by the combination of spoken content, written content, and visual aids. See point 2.)

2. Lectures have one pace. Students capable of processing information faster are held back. Students who process information too slowly cannot keep up. Both groups are experiencing inefficient learning.

3. Some lecturers do not allow questions. When questions are allowed, some students ask questions solely to display their own knowledge. Other students try to play "stump the professor." The students who ask for clarification often are the ones who cannot keep up. The other students who do not need clarification waste time listening to the questions and answers.

4. The lecturer has to give a nearly identical lecture each time the course is offered. In contrast, a book chapter or computer teaching module can be used repeatedly without requiring more time from the author.


In my experience the most effective learning method for an intelligent adult studying complex subject material is reading about the topic and then participating in small group discussions overseen by a knowledgable facilitator who keeps the discussions on track and ensures that the participants cover all important aspects of the subject matter. I've been a participant and a facilitator in science and medicine courses with this format. Variations on this small group format include problem-solving sessions and case study discussions.

For less complex subject material, reading a well-written textbook chapter or completing a well-designed computer-based teaching module are highly efficient learning methods.

Tom West writes:

I'll keep with my claim that if there isn't a human being making an obvious effort to teach, most students won't be able to make the necessary mental effort to learn.

It's why, in my experience, most casual chess players drop a few hundred points in ability when playing a computer player, even if the stakes are theoretically somewhat high. (Very high stakes concentrate the mind...)

jseliger writes:

If lectures are so useless, why do professors spend more time lecturing than in all other teaching activities combined? My story, of course, is signaling. Lectures plus tests are a bad way to impart skills, but a great way for students to signal their intelligence, conscientiousness, and conformity to employers.

I think there's another component to this: lectures are very easy for professors, and for a long time professors have had virtually no real competition when it comes to the education game.

Now professors might start to have competition—from online lectures, if nowhere else—and we'll see if new entrants to an industry leads to changes in the way incumbents behave.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

"In our society, college is first and foremost how students convince employers that they're worth hiring for good jobs."

This is more correct: In our society, college is first and foremost how colleges convince employers that their students are worth hiring for good jobs."

Without this, you are missing an entire iteration of signaling processes that explain the relentless status competition colleges are engaged in, and the billions that they are wasting on status enhancing measures.

Glen Smith writes:

I'd say that those students who would only talk about their course work taught me the least. Of course, going to college for the social learning aspect is very expensive as you can learn those things in any town with a sufficiently large party population. The gym and the courts also were among the best learning opportunities.

Slocum writes:

If lectures are so useless, why do professors spend more time lecturing than in all other teaching activities combined?

Inertia & mindless tradition combined with an institutional need to maintain the illusion of value. Of course 300 student lectures taught by non-tenure-track faculty are already an incredible cash-cow for universities, but providing the students with recorded lectures (of better instructors) that could be watched (and re-watched) at their convenience would make the fleecing far too obvious (even though it would provide more effective learning). Most new undergrads don't realize their professor is, more likely than not, working on a temp contract and earning Walmart-level wages, but they would surely realize that recorded lectures cost the U virtually nothing.

Ken writes:

Having taken online courses taught by professor Thrun, I have a couple points that I believe are important. You don't watch the professor lecture. You watch his hands draw with computer pens. Focus goes way up as a result. During the lectures, you answer questions. About one per minute by entering your answer into boxes embedded in the video. This keeps engagement going and gives you feedback. Classes are typically 10,000 students, many of them participate in the forum. Rewinding a video is a huge benefit. The ability to go to particular topics (broken down into 2min segments) adds even more to review efficiency.

The fact that Stanford students stopped going to class because they learned more online says it all.

For employment purposes, people need to learn what they need to know to do what they want to do. The 'I graduated college' signaling function has lost its utility. I'm sure better signalling functions will emerge from new paradigms.

Justin writes:
If lectures are so useless, why do professors spend more time lecturing than in all other teaching activities combined?

Because lecturing scales well and one-on-one interpersonal teaching does not scale well. Lecturing scales so well, in fact, that - I'm not sure you know this - they are even putting lectures online!

Peter writes:

I disagree that lectures are a weak teaching method.

Weak lecturers may give weak lectures, but excellent speakers give fantastic learning experiences. Anyone who has listened to some of the Great Courses on tape knows this. Many people have learned a great deal by listening to a person share wisdom verbally.

Lecturing is a very effective teaching method when done by an expert lecturer.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top