2011 July 09 Saturday
Tim Pawlenty Or Half Sigma Right On Online Education?

A year ago on the Daily Show presidential aspirant and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty opined that online courses are the ticket to lower cost, greater convenience, and better education.

Do you really think in 20 years somebody is going to put on their backpack, drive a half an hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus and hear some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101? ... Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says, 'Show up at 9 o'clock on Wednesday morning for Econ 101?' Can't I just pull that down on my iPhone or my iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I feel like? And instead of paying thousands of dollars, can I pay $199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes?

Those views are similar to my own. You should be able to choose from many pre-recorded lectures on the same topic and watch lectures and interact with drilling software and tests at any time of the night or day. We need to move to that model anyway in order to best utilize findings of research into memory formation, testing, and learning. See more here.

Half Sigma just now says what Pawlenty said is stupid (click thru to see the stupid reference).

Education has been delivered by lecture for the last 200 years, so yes, I really think that 19 years from now it will still be the same.

Furthermore, thereís already a website where you can buy the same instructional material they use at college. Itís called Amazon.com. But no one cares if youíve read the textbook on your own and know the material. Employers hire based on credentials and not whether you actually know the material taught at college.

Yes, the credentials are important. But since when has online study prevented the earning of credentials? Real bricks-and-mortar colleges are increasingly offering online courses. Plus, more credible pure online educational institutions are emerging such as Western Governors University.

Students certainly aren't put off by concerns about earning a credential. From fall 2005 to fall 2006 the number of students enrolled in at least one online course rose from 2.3 to 3.2 million. By fall 2009 the number was 5.6 million college students taking at least one online course. When do we hit 10 million?

A few of his commenters think a college's study-friendly environment and the structure and deadlines of an in-person course.

I "taught" engineering at the college and university level for 37 years. I slowly realized that what I was doing was providing structure and discipline via deadlines and grades. I never taught anyone anything. They learned stuff by themselves because of the discipline and structure.

But some evidence suggests a large number of students can handle the online context and learn just fine: Online Students Perform As Well As In-Person Students. Even people enrolled in bricks-and-mortar colleges living at the campus are increasingly watching the lectures from their dorm rooms. What does that tell you?

I see the growth of online education as an inevitable market response to very high prices and inflexibility of institutions that are long overdue for reform.

On a related note see a couple of posts by Reihan Salam about a cheaper model for bricks-and-mortar higher education and another take on the choices elite universities make in terms of who they'll enroll. It seems clear to me that universities act like they know they serve a signaling function (our students are smart and motivated) more than an educational function.

The key to educational reform: find cheaper ways to provide the signaling function. This is possible because there are many alternative ways to demonstrate smartness that involve education. The key is to separate the testing from the course provision. Let someone test out their knowledge without having to pay tuition to the same institution as provides the test.

Update: Tyler Cowen takes a look at research economic research papers on how much of the value of education is a signaling function. The answer will depend on the market (e.g. US versus Britain), the IQ of the students and the eliteness of their schools, and which major each student takes.

Update II: Let me repeat: It is possible to find cheaper ways to do the signaling function that bricks-and-mortar colleges provide today. Other ways to demonstrate your intellectual prowess:

  • Earn degrees sooner. A math degree at 19 or a history degree at 18 demonstrates superior intellectual ability.
  • Earn degrees in harder subjects. Nothing like a physics degree to say "I'm smart".
  • Earn technical certifications. The top Cisco cert is good for a 6 figure income.
  • Write a book, especially in a subject that some industry thinks important. It is the route to a lucrative consulting career for many.
  • Write a great open source piece of software.
  • Write a blog on a difficult subject and produce sustained great content. A number of bloggers in economics have made names for themselves this way.

Is a degree from Western Governors University worth as much as a degree from Harvard? Of course not. But if getting into an Ivy League is out of reach then WGU can make more sense than quite a few other choices.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2011 July 09 08:47 PM  Education Online

Abelard Lindsey said at July 10, 2011 12:09 PM:

On-line learning works. However, Half-Sigma is correct about the credential game. The problem is accreditation of on-line learning. The current universities have oligopoly status. This was established after University of Phoenix was successful in its bid to be accredited. The accrediting agencies and state laws in many state will not allow a new university to be created and be accredited.

Randall Parker said at July 10, 2011 3:16 PM:

Abelard Lindsey,

But most people don't go to an Ivy or even to a second ranked college. Millions have a more pedestrian choice. e.g. Florida State or Western Governors University? For such people the signaling value of Harvard versus Brown versus Duke is irrelevant.

Also, some bricks-and-mortar colleges (especially in the WGU region I think) will accept online transfer credits from WGU. So one could do WGU for the first 2 years of classes (and much more quickly than by attending a bricks-and-mortar school) and then do the last 2 years at some bricks-and-mortar.

Take a bright 15 year old who has a choice between going to high school for 3 more years or starting to take WGU courses after his freshman year in high school. If he can start racking up college credits by studying all summer and even during his sophomore high school year and sophomore summer he could have so many credits that continued high school enrollment into the junior year could just not make sense.

Really, what's a bigger signaling advantage: Degree from UC Berkeley at age 22 or degree from WGU at age 18?

Ross N. said at July 11, 2011 6:13 AM:

How about the military programmed learning model? How is it that the experience of the military gets avoided in all the discussions?

Let's say you join the Navy and they send you to their nuclear technology school. You will learn with programmed learning methods. These methods were developed by the military to teach at the optimum level. All the other base functions of the student are dealt with. His food, and his personal life, and other distracting variables fade into the background. The military even goes so far as to keep their rooms cooled to the optimum level; the student has enough space; and there are breaks at proper intervals to keep the blood flowing to the brain. All that is before the student is learning the material, and the means to do so. The military provides every opportunity for the student to succeed, providing he has the innate ability to do so. That innate ability is filtered in advance through testing, so yet one more variable is reduced. The military leans toward success.

The education acceleration is about 2 to 1, where the military teaches at about 2X the rate of normal colleges. The main difference between college and military is the student doesn't have to do as much research. In other words, self reasearch at a normal college helps the student learn how to find info. But, even that is fading now, due to the internet age.

My question is, Why can't a motivated student go to an accelerated school if he chooses to? Why isn't that option available? Oh yeah, it is too expensive they say. But really, how expensive is it to house a student and feed them for a few years, relative to the return to society later. I content it is money well spent, and even necessary to an advanced society.

Canada had free eductation up to 1974, and they paid for it with their State bank. This was expensive 4 year colleges by the way. The lesson is that it can be done and has been done. The Canadian State bank was privatized by international money masters in 1974.

It all boils down to the money system, and we American's are like horses with blinders on. We cannot see an alternate reality because we are buried in our reality. The industrial revolution has been turbo charged, and we produce plenty of wealth. We can actually afford to send every Tom, Jose, and Chaneesa, to college.

Don't get me wrong, I like the idea that people can self learn with technology. For those who are shut out by circumstance, it is a great way to get an education. It just seems wrong that we as a society screw our human capital in order to send money capital away from the producers.

By eliminating the BS we could do a four year degree in two. We could pay for it by fixing the money system.

Lono said at July 11, 2011 8:55 AM:

Ross N.,

You speak of elegant solutions for an enlightened society we do not presently have.

I am interested in what it would take to create such a model society. Perhaps such a society could be created in a relatively isolated area and serve to help uplift other societies in a way similar to the Foundation in the Foundation novels. (which I happen to be re-reading at the moment)

Right now I am trying to gather allies who might be interested in creating a think tank to tackle such a problem - it seems however as though it requires people of a particular empathetic and idealistic bent to properly work on such a problem. For some time now I have been frustrated in my efforts to create such a body within Mensa - partly due to the way communication between members is tightly controlled in that organization.

If you (or anyone else here) are interested in such a discussion please contact me at tempcontactmeemail ATT yahoo DOTT com.

Randall Parker said at July 11, 2011 7:03 PM:

Ross N,

The US military service academies take 4 years. Other military schooling? I'd like to see evidence that really they teach twice as fast. Got some good comparative metrics? A friend who went thru US Navy training to become a software developer back in the early 70s said they just studied continuously for long months without the sorts of breaks regular schools have. But I haven't heard much else about it.

Note the research I pointed at on optimized learning. The key is testing more frequently at optimal intervals. That research has been well controlled and the results therefore seem trustworthy.

no i don't said at July 13, 2011 10:25 AM:

What we need is an education that is a little more socialist, like Finland. Cause the one in America continues to be so elitist that you have to have to wonder if the U.S. is still a republic.

solaris said at July 14, 2011 1:44 PM:

"Employers hire based on credentials and not whether you actually know the material taught at college."

Sadly, I think there are some employers who do act this way. It depends on the field you're in though. And in any case there is no reason why the rest of us have to organize education to suit those employers.

CamelCaseRob said at July 15, 2011 6:31 AM:

How do online universities prevent fraud? How do they know the student taking the tests is really the student who enrolled? This seems like a major problem to me.

solaris said at July 15, 2011 11:41 AM:

"How do online universities prevent fraud? How do they know the student taking the tests is really the student who enrolled?"

How do regular universities prevent fraud? How do they know the student turning in a paper is the same person who actually wrote it?

Ross N. said at July 15, 2011 6:18 PM:

Randall, I wasn't refering to Westpoint or other service academies that are essentially colleges. I was refering to military training schools. They pre-filter the students by giving them aptitude tests. Then they use programmed learning methods. This boils down to 1)Tell them what you are going to teach. 2] Teach them what you want them to learn. 3) Quiz them on what they learned.

Usually there is advance work to study the night before, then during the following day you are taught the material again, and then you do cognitive exercises on what you just learned. Often times there is hands on immeditely afterward, so there is mind/body kinetic learning that helps cement the knowlege in the noggin. If some students cannot keep up, they are washed out, or they wash back to a previous class. In other words, slow students who cannot keep up are eliminated as a variable.

The military doesn't jerk around when they teach, as they are highly motivated to get their students as proficient as possible as soon as possible. The average student in the Navy nuclear program has a genius level IQ. A nuclar sub, or even Aegis class cruiser sailor is well above the norm in IQ. So, between the high IQs and the sped up learning environment {no distractions, and high discipline), an amazing amount of learning can happen in a short time. I estimate 2X of a normal college.

With regards to software development or programming, I wonder if that subject can be accelerated easily? This seams to be more of a creative type function primarily dependent on an individuals aptitude.

Really, is there anything new under the sun when it comes to learning? The human brain is plastic, but its basic functions haven't changed for millenia.

I say, eliminate the distracting variables and you could make a speedy college. The college should use military style programmed learning methods. They open your head and pour in the info. Some subjects will need to stay with standard college methods, especially those that require a lot of research and reflection i.e. Science. But, there is no reason why we couldn't have a hybrid to get maximum bang for the buck.

Mercer said at July 16, 2011 12:07 PM:

Did Pawlenty do anything to make MN public colleges offer online courses? Did he try? A Governor could do far more on this issue then anyone else in the country.

CamelCaseRob said at July 17, 2011 10:43 AM:

Regular universities at least know that the person taking an exam is the person who has been sitting in class -- this is one of the things that instructors are expected to keep track of. Of course for beginning classes that are held in an auditorium that isn't true, but in 3rd and 4th year classes it is.

Randall Parker said at July 17, 2011 7:15 PM:

Ross N.,

At Washington U in St. Louis Henry Roediger's Memory Lab has done research on the value of testing as a tool for learning. I would be curious to know how US military quizzing intervals compare to what Roediger has found to be optimal. Repeated testing is more valuable than repeated reading.

solaris said at July 18, 2011 4:31 PM:

"How do online universities prevent fraud?"

I don't know specially about online universities, but a great many IT certifications (Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, etc) are awarded based on online testing. The test takers have to provide identification to prove that they are who they say they are. I assume that online universities do something similar. If they don't, the should.

This means that the online test cannot be taken at home from ones own PC. You have to go to a registered testing center, such as Prometric.

Randall Parker said at July 18, 2011 7:36 PM:


I think Prometric could easily expand into offering tests for chemistry, physics, math and the like.

What's key for educational reform: break it apart into separately purchasable pieces. The main pieces I see:

- Lectures.
- Tutorials and other interactive help.
- Quizzes which are for learning only.
- Tests to get certifications.

If the final step can be purchased by itself the market will produce the other steps by themselves.

Southern said at July 19, 2011 4:35 PM:

The best part of school for me and I suspect many others is the socialization, meeting lifetime friends and spouses. That will not be found on a computer.

solaris said at July 20, 2011 8:51 AM:

"The best part of school for me and I suspect many others is the socialization, meeting lifetime friends and spouses."

People somehow managed to make friends and get married in the days when college was restricted to a small minority. I'm sure they could do so again if college returned to its normal function of educating people.

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