2012 July 04 Wednesday
Tyler Cowen: Higher Education Next To Get Overturned

Alexis Madrigal relays a quote from Tyler Cowen speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Tyler expects education to get mauled (my term, not his) by the internet.

Look at the music industry. It's been completely overturned by the Internet. My vision of the world is that everywhere will be like the music industry, but we've only seen it in a few places so far. Journalism is in the midst of the battle. And higher education is probably next.

Why should people get paid to individually relay information to small groups of people? It is incredibly expensive, wasteful of the time of those receiving the info, and very inconvenient. You've got to be near where the class is taught. You've got to go at the appointed time. The lectures for a course are spread out, 2 or 3 days a week over several weeks. What if you've got a career and other time demands? The quality of the delivered lectures is all over the map. The colleges expect you to apply to be admitted and even pay for the privilege.

Why deal with all the many downsides of higher education if all you want is, say, 25 or 30 hours of lectures, preferably by someone really good at explaining each topic? Why not be able to choose among many competing sources of lectures? Why not be able to watch the lectures at any time of your choosing?

Online courses seem to offer the most value for smart kids born to parents of modest means. For dual income parents pulling in a half million dollars per year a $50k per year private college is affordable. But for parents making $50k per year or less (especially if parents are divorced and therefore paying for 2 households) even state colleges are too expensive.

David Karpf responded to Tyler on Huffington Post, expecting less disruption, at least in the short term. Karpf also responded in the comments of Madrigal's post:

But I'm pretty confident on this one. I study disruption for a living (in the political advocacy/nonprofit space). We see the same disruptive pattern pretty much everywhere. Old industries (read: universities, record companies, newspapers) slowly adopt new technology. New competitors (read: University of Phoenix, napster, blogs) adopt it much faster. The old industries remain pretty much intact, at least partially because we've built a set of social institutions around them (read: parents' and employers' college expectations, recording contracts, press freedom protections). Change in the old industries shows up after their revenue streams become seriously threatened (CraigsList/Google-driven changes to classified ads).

So the question is how fast will the expectations about higher education shift among parents and employers? I see a migration path where some kids will earn part of their credits online, especially for the first couple of years, and then finish at a bricks-and-mortar school. I also expect working people will shift their continuing education online much faster than kids in their teens and twenties. One's time is much more valuable once one is already in a skilled occupation. So adults in the workforce have a greater incentive to go online to save time and gain schedule flexibility.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2012 July 04 10:45 PM  Education Online

Zamman said at July 5, 2012 9:49 AM:

"The colleges expect you to apply to be admitted and even pay for the privilege."

I know man, at least when you apply for a job you expect to be paid for your services. Sometimes I think that humans enjoy being pushed around.

dearieme said at July 5, 2012 12:31 PM:

I've never really understood how lectures survived the coming of mass produced books.

Seminars, yes. Tutorials, yes. But lectures?

P.S. I notice that all such discussions ignores the question of how teaching labs are to function.

Mark said at July 5, 2012 1:19 PM:

The lecture method of education has really been obsolete since the invention of the printing press. If education had been privately provided instead of mostly provided by government, I think there would have been much more variety of delivery methods. Maybe the purpose of government schooling is not actually to provide education? Maybe the purpose of government schools is to instill social conformity rather than education and taking children away from their parents and herding them together and setting up a teacher as the authority figure may be accomplishing that. In every totalitarian society, don't you see mass gatherings where the leader gathers together and harangues his subjects and aren't government schools just the same thing on a smaller scale?

Old Bruin EE said at July 6, 2012 10:55 AM:

> Old industries (read: universities, record companies, newspapers) slowly adopt new technology. New competitors (read: University of Phoenix, napster, blogs) adopt it much faster.

I don't doubt that on-line and alternative education can compete against established universities, but I highly doubt that University of Phoenix will be one of the leaders. The internet is filled with complaints about their aggressive recruiting and deceptive practices which result in unprepared students signing up for classes, only to drop them part-way through, yet still be liable for the cost of the tuition. While they try to recruit faculty from industry professionals, the level of material taught still leaves much to be desired because the classes are so compressed. They try to make up for the abbreviated instruction cycle with "learning groups"; groups of students get together to learn from each other. It's not a bad way to learn, but UoP relies heavily on group projects in which groups of students turn in a class project and receive the same grade. This often leads to slackers and malingerers being carried along by the more industrious; instructors prefer it because it leads to less time required for grading.

Overall, I think a for-profit on-line university in the mold of UoP leads to more abuses than education, as both the university and the instructors act in their own self interest at the expense of the students.

Steve Sailer said at July 7, 2012 7:11 PM:

"Tyler Cowen speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Tyler expects education to get mauled (my term, not his) by the internet."

So, why is Tyler speaking in person at the Aspen Ideas Festival at a remote location in the Rockies? Why don't all the people who pay a lot of money to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival just read his blog for free instead?

A said at July 7, 2012 9:26 PM:

I suspect that the point of free or cheap online education will be to create a pool of relatively skilled workers in some of the poorest countries in the world. You know, places with open sewers where people sleep on dirt floors and where lots of these people have Internet access! (The way things are headed, this might refer to parts of the U.S. soon.)

Now that there’s talk about these schools offering certificates, and, “connecting employers with students,” I think my suspicions are being confirmed.

So, companies will still be hiring people from slums and paying next to nothing for the labor, but, maybe a person who got a certificate in the free computer science curriculum from the College of Knowledge will be selected for a job over someone who doesn’t have a certificate.

In ten or twenty years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the majority of paid work in companies, that is, work that isn’t done by machines, being done by these “certificate” holders. They’ll live in ever expanding slums, autonomously policed by RoboCops and drones. They’ll have fast Internet and there will be Superbowl commercials about how great all of it is.

I suppose that positive wildcard outcomes are possible from this. Some people will figure out how to start their own businesses with the knowledge they gain from the free online classes. Most, though, will just feel lucky to be able to show up for any paid work at all.

I have no idea what’s going to happen to people who are still attending classes on campus and buying those $200 textbooks. Sure, there will be a few slots somewhere up in the skyscrapers for engineers and managers, but the machine will always, and I mean, ALWAYS, be gunning for them. For most, it’s going to be like the house flippers who couldn’t find a greater fool that one last time as the Ponzi scheme came down. There are millions of people out there with $20K, $50K, $100K or more sunk into worthless degrees… How is that situation going to unwind?

Get busy, boys and girls. Your new career in a building with a suicide net awaits. If you’re lucky.

Free products and services usually exist to monetize, in some way, the people who use them. In this case, the goal of the free courses is to create a larger pool of qualified workers to fill a dwindling number of positions, driving labor costs down.

So, if you want to take free courses, go for it. But if you’re thinking that it’s going to give you an edge in the market, remember that the thronging, jobless hordes have the same idea.

ZZMike said at July 20, 2012 9:30 PM:

The lecture style of "I talk, you shut up and listen" has long since passed into history. Nowadays it's "I'll try to explain this, and if there's something you don't get, let me know and we'll go over it a different way".

Books are nice, but even Plato didn't think much of them, because you can't talk back to them and ask questions.

There was a story recently that internet education is getting better than the traditional (read "since the 14th Century) model.

But the problem is still that of feedback. Learning in a group environment is still better than learning alone - mainly because you get to hear what the others get, and don't get.

Regardless of all that, I'm a steady consumer of "The Great Courses" courses (some on CD, some on DVD, some on both).

The other side of "education" is the cachet it brings to a prospective employer. A Harvard degree will open more doors than one from the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. It used to be that a high-school degree counted for something - but with a 40% dropout rate, with diplomas granted for sticking around for 4 or 5 years, that degree doesn't mean much, and employers are looking at college degrees the way they used tgo look at high school diplomas.

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