Arnold Kling  

Computers, Education, and Comparative Advantage

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Bryan writes,


At risk of sounding extremely narcissistic, the key question for Tyler and me is whether online education is going to put the two of us out of a job. Our definitional conflict notwithstanding, the two of us both answer this key question with a resounding "no." For the sake of the world, I hope we're both wrong.

Here is how I size up the current state of computers in education:

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
J Storrs Hall writes:

One thing I haven't seen discussed a lot in this context is the "Mrs degree". One reason to go to college is to have a better set of candidates in the prime mating years.

It would seem at first blush that electronically-delivered lectures wouldn't fulfill that function at all, but consider an e-school which was modeled after a social network (as Facebook was modeled on a college social directory!). I don't think we've seen close to the best that could be done this way, and I suspect it could provide even more feedback than the brick-and-mortar school if done right.

As a kid, I'd rather be in the same physical location partying and hooking up; but as a parent, I might prefer to have my kid picking friends and mates more by intellectual interaction, i.e. online conversation, and less by pheromone count. --that and save $50 grand a year...

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Your point 4 is crucial here and is more true for more creative fields. It also implies that we undersupply apprenticeships and internships.

Over the last few years I "taught myself" to compose choral music. I took no courses and did not miss them; what you need of formal theory you can learn from a very short book and you do not even need to read all of that book. My teachers were the composer friends to whom I showed my early pieces and the singer friends who sang through them with me. Their feedback was indispensable.

John David Galt writes:

I am not at all convinced of point 3. Different kinds of presentation work better for different students. This variation extends to points 4 and 5 as well; one person's feedback or cross-learning is another's unwelcome interruption.

One of the better reasons to prefer an increased role for computers is that it allows individual students to tailor what they're getting (audio vs. video, speed, replaying parts, etc). I see no reason for any teacher to want to defeat that ability (unless you don't think the kids are motivated to learn the material -- and if that problem exists beyond grade school, that student probably shouldn't be in class).

I would say the biggest problem with using computers in education is testing. For pure book subjects it's safe to assume that test scores do a good job of measuring what the student has learned (unless he cheats, and if we assume he's motivated then a cheater is hurting only himself).

But in an artistic subject, human-judged tests may be indispensable, and live classes may be, too.

Something tells me that music and art in general may decline the way classical music has declined for the last half-century, and for the same reason: it's cheaper to produce machine-made trash that is good enough for what little taste the masses have left. I would love to be wrong.

blink writes:

To overturn higher education, the efficiency gains are going to have to be vast. Self-teaching methods (books, etc.) have long been available but underutilized. Similarly, teaching quality could often be improved by relying more on lecturers and adjuncts focused on teacher; the system encourages professors to see teaching as little more than a nuisance compared to their work as researchers.

The Hansonian point to keep in mind is that college is more about affiliating with certifiably smart individuals than about learning. This view provides a theory of *how* status is acquired that makes the current Caplanian signaling equilibrium extremely robust.

MingoV writes:

Online education does not equal unsupervised education. Online education will not become efficient unless experts create and organize the content, customize presentations of the content for different types of learners, provide interaction with and feedback to the learners (Kling's point 4), and develop and employ useful assessment tools so learners and educators will know if the content has been mastered. Online education will be a boon for dissatisfied educators who currently are forced into the impersonal and inefficient large lecture hall venue with computer graded bubble sheet multiple guess exams as the only assessment tool. The need for content-knowledgable people to grade writing assignments and essay exams will provide more online education-related jobs.

I created two self-paced, computer-based teaching modules to be used in place of lectures. Each required more work than writing a textbook chapter on the same topic. Educators who acquire the skills to create computer-based teaching modules could create them, sell them, and make more money than textbook writers if online, computer-based education becomes popular.

Michael Strong writes:

In a real education market, hybrid systems will evolve in which the right mix of computer and human will come into being for different subjects, age groups, demographics, and niches not imagined today.

In addition to feedback, human is critical for develop habits, attitudes, and cultural behaviors. Some of these will be shallow, such as manners; others will be sophisticated, such as critical thinking, or intellectual integrity, or human perceptiveness.

Insofar as market distortions recede (government subsidies and regulations, including occupational licensure), we will see increased demand for such hybrids, which will result in far more nuanced and refined forms of the human side than exist today. At present individual human educators are capable of developing subtle and sophisticated human capacities, but it is not possible to create name-brand credibility for such approaches to education.

Insofar as people believe that computers will play a dominant role in education, they completely fail to understand that much of real value-added human capital consists of habits, attitudes, and culture that are best transmitted human-to-human (whether via teachers, peers, mentors, or whatever). The notion that "education" consists primarily of the sort of academic content that may be delivered by textbooks and tests is largely an artifact of the dominant government presence in education and occupational licensing.

Ken Plahn writes:

From a technical standpoint, there are only two players currently in my view: Coursera and Udacity. MIT/Harvard is way behind as are all for-profits, community colleges...

I disagree on points 3, 4 and 5.

3) The 30,000+ students in the Artificial Intelligence class and similar number in machine learning class would say there was a huge benefit to the online lectures. Most of the students in professor Thrun's brick and mortar class at Stanford stopped going to class because they learned better from the online lectures.

4) The forums are an amazing source of feedback. As you discuss the classes on the forum, you get lots of feedback on where your source of confusion is coming from. Someone will almost always have an incredibly succinct way of explaining it to your satisfaction.

5) For the same reason as above. The comparative advantage is the number of perspectives and the 24/7 availability of feedback. I found that I could often post a question at anytime day or night and have intelligent feedback within 15 minutes or so.

More advantages: Rewinding and re-watching. Flexibility. Some courses are also self-paced.

I agree with those who point out that creative and social courses will be harder to transition.

jhone12 writes:

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Derek Scruggs writes:

The Internet hasn't displaced all musicians, but technology is definitely having an impact on classically trained musicians. Ballet companies and other musical shows are battling unions over using pre-recorded music instead of live musician.

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