Sunday, September 13, 2009

Annals of online education

A bunch of links, all of them interesting. Key take-aways:

  • internet will do to universities what they have already done to newspapers -- either decimate them or make their (commercial) life miserable.

  • these are early days, so expect a lot of experiments [I especially like the comparison -- I don't recall where I saw it -- with TV's early days when radio programs were beamed with a picture].

Okay, on to the links.

  1. Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly: College for $99 a Month

    Traditional universities are complex and expensive, providing a range of services from scientific research and graduate training to mass entertainment via loosely affiliated professional sports franchises. To fund these things, universities tap numerous streams of revenue: tuition, government funding, research grants, alumni and charitable donations. But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

    But this arrangement, however beneficial to society as a whole, is not a particularly good deal for the freshman gutting through an excruciating fifty minutes in the back of a lecture hall. Given the choice between paying many thousands of dollars to a traditional university for the lecture and paying a few hundred to a company like StraighterLine for a service that is more convenient and responsive to their needs, a lot of students are likely to opt for the latter—and the university will have thousands of dollars less to pay for libraries, basketball teams, classical Chinese poetry experts, and everything else.

    What happens when the number of students making that choice reaches a critical mass? Consider the fate of the newspaper industry over the last five years. Like universities, newspapers relied on financial cross-subsidization to stay afloat, using fat profits from local advertising and classifieds to prop up money-losing news bureaus. This worked perfectly well until two things happened: the Internet made opinion and news content from around the world available for nothing, and the free online classified clearinghouse Craigslist obliterated newspapers’ bedrock revenue source, the want ads. Suddenly, people didn’t need to buy a newspaper to read news, and the papers’ ability to subsidize expensive reporting with ad revenue was crippled. The result: plummeting newspaper profits leading to a tidal wave of layoffs and bankruptcies, and the shuttering of bureaus in Washington and abroad.

    Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. [...]

  2. Zephyr Teachout in Slate: Welcome to Yahoo! U:

    Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise—a degree, a better job, access to brilliant minds and training in the art of thinking. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. You don’t need to be in the classroom to see a slide or find links to books about the controversy around “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe,” and you don’t need to be in the room to ask questions about the classifications of staff in the basics of hotel management. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses, free articles, and openly available syllabi online—plus books that can be searched and borrowed from libraries around the world. The amount of structured information is already astounding, and in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54)-year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online History of the Chinese Revolution classes, complete with video lectures, syllabi, take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature.

    But the demand for college isn’t just about the yearning to learn—it’s also motivated by the hope of getting a degree. Online qualifications cost a college less to provide. Schools don’t need to rent the space, and the glut of Ph.D. students means they can pay instructors a fraction of the salary for a tenured professor, ask the instructors to work from home, and assume that they will rely on shared syllabi instead of always developing their own.

  3. Steve Lohr in NYTimes: At your fingers, an Oxford don:

    SINCE the 16th century, the ideal of education has been the tutorial system pioneered at Oxford and Cambridge, nurturing young minds one to one, inquiring, prodding and encouraging. The tutorial method, research shows, is a proven winner. But it is also highly elitist, hardly a system for educating the masses. So the drive for public education, in America and elsewhere, required a very different model — of one to many, with the teacher standing in front of a classroom, working from a textbook and lecturing. Education moved from a bespoke craft to a more industrial approach.

    Today, though, 21st-century technology carries the potential to nudge mainstream education back toward the 16th-century vision of one-to-one tutoring.

    The Internet, high-speed networks, powerful and lighter computers, and clever software for video, collaboration and simulations on the Web all help. Equally important is a maturing understanding of how to use wisely the new digital tools in education. The goal, proponents say, is to open the door to more engaged, interactive and personalized learning.

  4. This one is not really about online education, but about the economics of large scale higher education. Ron Lieber in NYTimes: Why College Costs So Much:

    ... “Fine arts has studio-based production, so capital and facility costs are high,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the nonprofit group Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, speaking of colleges in general. “Piano tutoring is pretty much one to one in a room with a piano. Pianos are expensive. Agriculture is expensive because of the lab costs, which means a barn.”

    An English student, however, is generally a profit center. “They’re paying for the chemistry major and the music major and faculty research,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it in institutions, because the English department gets mad. The little ugly facts about cross-subsidies are inflammatory, so they get papered over.”

    About all Mr. Weiss will say about this is that he agrees that Lafayette needs to do a better job of discriminating between the things it can and cannot do well. He is too good on the politics to single out any department. But there is little doubt that he and administrators like him will need to give up on some foreign languages, minor sciences or parts of the arts pretty soon.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Its probably like "online courses" in those huge UG classes at IITs just as in the west.

  2. L said...

    Assuming the online degree has the same validity as a regular one, there is no monetary reason why anyone would go to college. But for many people, college is not just about learning, it is about making friends, finding a social world into which one can enter, the first time one is out in the world making a life of ones own. So undergrad education online will make a generation of social misfits.

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    It seems that this is a flexible system which will be useful in some subjects if carefully implemented as the first article suggests. As L pointed out before:
    there are problems with teachers and it may circumvent such difficulties and perhaps help teachers too.