Monday, May 28, 2012

The Business of Online Education

John Hawks is interested in putting his lecture on the internet [My foray into online education]. I'll eventually get around to discussing whether this is a good idea or not. Today I want to question his sources.

John Hawks quotes an article by someone named Robert Tracinski as evidence that online education is the wave of the future. Let''s look at that article.

Robert Tracinski writes for The Intellectual Activist, which describes itself like this ...
The Intellectual Activist is especially dedicated to understanding and promoting the revolutionary ideas of the 20th-century novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand — the great champion of the power of reason, the supreme value of the individual, and the unfettered liberty of a capitalist society. TIA serves as a forum for those who are working to gain a deeper understanding of Ayn Rand's fiction and philosophy and applying her ideas to gain new insights in every field of human knowledge.
Rober Tracinski has been called The Intellectual Leader of the Tea Party.

The article in question was published on a website called Real Clear markets: Bigger than Facebook. Now, I'm familiar with most of the leading education websites but this is a new one for me. I also know many of the experts in undergraduate education but I wasn't aware of Richard Tracinski before today. Oh well, if John Hawks thinks he's worth reading then I'll read the article.

Here's what Tracinski has to say ...
Let's put it this way: if you can build a $100 billion company by using the Internet to replace the college yearbook--imagine what you can do if you use the Internet to replace college.

That's what is just beginning to happen. It all became official when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appointed as its new president the guy who is responsible for MITx, the school's free online education program.
So far nobody has replaced the college textbook, as far as I know [Free/Cheap Textbooks for Students]. (Trust me, I would know if that happened.) That's not a very good beginning.

It's also not very encouraging that he brings up the MIT experiment since that has not proven to be very successful [On the Quality of Online Courses]. It looks like Tracinski has fallen for the standard hype that just because MIT offers free online courses, colleges are doomed.
What makes MITx so interesting is that it isn't just a bunch of lectures posted online. It also includes discussion groups and coursework and a certification program for completion of the work. My first thought when they launched MITx was that it's a little unclear how such a "certificate" differs from a "degree." In turn, that raises questions about how universities are going to be able to keep on jacking up their tuition every year and expecting that students go $100,000 in debt, when so much top-quality education is becoming available for free.
First, there's no evidence that what MIT is offering counts as "quality education." I doubt that Tracinski would know the difference between quality education and a teapot. Second, students who are willing to pay huge tuition fees probably see something of value beyond what they could get by sitting in their bedrooms watching a computer monitor. Maybe the pubs near Harvard Yard really are more exciting than your parent's house in the suburbs of Kansas City?

Thirdly, the discussion about online education goes far beyond the United States of America. If you're going to develop an argument based on capitalist principles then you're forced to ignore all those students in countries where high tuition fees aren't much of an impediment.
The article notes that the new president's main job will be to raise money: "Left unspoken were the unquestionable expectations for Mr. Reif as a powerhouse fund raiser. MIT raised $3 billion over the course of Ms. Hockfield's presidency, and the university is preparing to embark on a new capital campaign." Well, that's one potentially viable new business model: raise billions in donations so that you can use the Internet to offer a top-quality education to a huge number of people for free.
One thing is clear. If you're going to MIT for the sole purpose of taking classes on campus then why would you do that if the school claims to be offering classes of equal quality online?

That's one heck of a "business plan." Give up all tuition income and rely on alumni and businesses to fund free online education!
But there are other business models, too. Newsweek just reported on the start-up of Coursera, a kind of free, online Ivy League college.
"Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng believe the Internet should allow millions of people to receive first-class educations at little or no cost....

"So far they've signed up volunteer professors from Stanford, Princeton, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania. Coursera will offer 35 courses in subjects ranging from math and computer science to world history and contemporary American poetry. These aren't just videotaped lectures; they're full courses, with homework assignments, examinations, and grades"
Let's make one thing perfectly clear. No matter what you might think of online courses in the humanities, mathematics, and computer science. It's not possible to teach most science courses online. The labs are really hard to do when you are a thousand miles away from the test tubes, chemicals, centrifuges, and fossils. You simply can't get a quality education in the sciences without experiencing the lab component of the courses.

Of course, that's of no significance to Robert Tracinski because he probably doesn't think you need to be scientifically literate in order to get an undergraduate degree.
Note that this, too, is so far being run as a charity, though it is the instructors who are donating their time. But Coursera is also backed by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and the most interesting part of the story is that they're starting to home in on the central economic factor that accounts for the value of higher education: its function as a kind of corporate head-hunter.
"Coursera doesn't pay its professors, and it has yet to dream up a way to generate revenue, though as Ng says, 'If you're changing the lives of millions of people, there will be a way to make money from that at some point.' One possibility involves charging companies for helping them find qualified job applicants"
Consider what a radical advance this would be for young people: not only is your education free, but it includes a job-placement service.
Now I get it. It's bad enough that universities are coming under the influence of large corporations, now the goal is to cut out the middle man and just have the corporations directly fund a company to prepare their future employees.

I wonder if John Hawks realizes that anthropology might not be one of the courses that major corporations want their employees to take? It certainly looks like biochemistry is going to disappear since we can't train biochemists over a high speed modem connection.
It's certainly a much better deal than the old system. I just came across an argument that it's immoral to offer unpaid internships, which actually prepare young people for a career. Yet somehow it's considered perfectly normal to charge someone $100,000 or more for a degree from a college that has deliberately neglected to ensure that its service has any marketable value.
So the purpose of a university is to prepare students for a career but many universities are charging a lot of money and not preparing students for a career? We can fix this by offering free online courses designed and funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists—perhaps with the help of Ayn Rand and the Tea Party?

If this business plan is successful, it could do wonders for universities in Canada and other countries. Not only would we get an influx of liberal-minded American students, but our own graduates would become increasingly attractive to many American employers who don't buy into this corporate takeover of universities.
I don't know if either of these new business models--MITx or Coursera--is going to become the new model for higher education. Maybe both will be. But a lot of people are now at work on this problem, and they will eventually come up with the right combination to burst the higher education bubble and take down existing universities in the same way that the Internet has taken down the old newspaper publishing business.
I'm beginning to see why people like Robert Tracinski are so appealing to the American right wing. It's because they are stupid.

There's much more but I'm getting nauseous. Let me just close with this ...
One of the radical changes I think we will see is the decoupling of the humanities from technical and professional education. As it is, universities package together two forms of education with radically different economics. Scientific, technological, and professional courses teach skills that are judged by objective standards and have direct, measurable economic value.

The humanities, at best, have an economic value that is indirect and difficult to quantify. Perhaps it will make you more creative and a deeper thinker. Maybe Steve Jobs sitting in on classes in calligraphy helped inspire the Macintosh. But then again, the humanities departments are also packed with a bunch of charlatans who will waste your time with things like--well, here's an example. Check out a hilarious review by Joe Queenan of an impossibly pretentious and utterly nonsensical academic tome on the deeper meaning of that important subject, Harpo Marx.

As someone who came out of the humanities departments--I have a degree in philosophy--I assure you that this sort of thing goes on all the time, and your tuition dollars are paying for it. Obviously, there is no reason why they should pay for it, so eventually they won't.

16 comments :

  1. I wonder if John Hawks realizes that anthropology might not be one of the courses that major corporations want their employees to take? It certainly looks like biochemistry is going to disappear since we can't train biochemists over a high speed modem connection.

    This is precisely why I take this more seriously than you. Anthropologists can be easily replaced or ignored.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If that's true then why in the world are you lending credence to someone like Robert Tracinski?

      Delete
  2. It certainly looks like biochemistry is going to disappear since we can't train biochemists over a high speed modem connection.

    Why? You yourself stated repeatedly that lab work is not essential. Other than the lab, you know very well (or should know if you don't) that 95% of all biochemistry teaching is simply regurgitating some textbook. That certainly looks to be very amenable to online computerization (those with little self-discipline will suffer but that's probably only a good thing). In fact, all biochemistry students that I know invariably say that professor's lecture notes available for download is the most useful part of the course.

    John cites (indirectly) the study that shows that computers do at least as good a job as professors:
    http://www.sr.ithaka.org/research-publications/interactive-learning-online-public-universities-evidence-randomized-trials

    Do you think that this sort of evidence should at least prompt a pause and contemplation of the possibilities rather than dismissal of it all out of hand?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think I ever said that lab courses weren't essential for training/educating biochemists.

      you know very well (or should know if you don't) that 95% of all biochemistry teaching is simply regurgitating some textbook. That certainly looks to be very amenable to online computerization ...

      I agree. If you believe that this is a good example of education then online courses are just the thing.

      Do you think that this sort of evidence should at least prompt a pause and contemplation of the possibilities rather than dismissal of it all out of hand?

      What this "evidence" tells me is that undergraduate education is in horrible shape and needs to be changed. What it does NOT tell me is that examples of bad education should be made available free of charge online.

      Delete
    2. I don't think I ever said that lab courses weren't essential for training/educating biochemists.

      But you introduce an interesting twist here! (or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention to fine details). Training/educating *biochemists*. No, you never said that. I was talking of teaching biochemistry and kept in mind that you consistently maintained that it's not university's business to train *biochemists* on undergraduate level.

      http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2008/07/goal-of-science-education.html
      "The main goal should be to teach students how to think and not how to work at a bench."

      http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2009/09/education-vs-job-training.html
      "We think that the primary goal of a university education should be to teach students how to think."

      "a proper education in biology would focus on basic concepts with a view to teaching students how life works and how it evolved. Along the way, they would be exposed to critical thinking and scientific conflicts in order to learn how to think like a scientist. This approach emphasizes learning and thinking in the context of biology but it doesn't exclude lab exercises and other practical applications of biology. Those are secondary goals, not primary ones."

      http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2012/02/how-to-turn-university-into-glorified.html
      "It's quite possible to learn the basic concepts and principles without ever taking a lab course"
      <-- so according to you it IS possible to teach biochemistry without labs. Meaning that, in theory, a good online course can be a perfectly valid option.

      I do of course agree with you that undergraduate education is in horrible shape. I blame the system that you seem to consider appropriate: "scholarship" first, teaching last. For an illustration (which also does a fine job addressing the relevance of the labs as we know them), look no further than your own institution:

      http://biochemistry.utoronto.ca/undergraduates/courses/BCH471Y/images/class6.jpg
      http://biochemistry.utoronto.ca/undergraduates/courses/BCH471Y/images/class10.jpg
      http://biochemistry.utoronto.ca/undergraduates/courses/BCH471Y/images/class7.jpg

      The way the students have no idea how to hold pipetter properly is pure comedy gold. An equivalent of car driving classes would be sitting with the back toward the wheel and facing car's rear.

      Delete
    3. >so according to you it IS possible to teach biochemistry without labs. Meaning that, in theory, a good online course can be a perfectly valid option.

      And this is why you can't teach critical thinking online. I'm going to guess you've had "fallacy of false choice" shouted at you in thousands of threads in a thousand different ways, and never figured out how to reason critically. Those are not the only two options. You're not thinking critically, you're being argumentative. It's no surprise that being not having critical thinking skills, you also don't understand what it takes to them.

      Delete
  3. Rober Tracinski has been called The Intellectual Leader of the Tea Party.

    Ah, in other words he doesn't actually exist; a better argument could not possibly be written.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wonder how one can beleave education could be for free if it relies on billions in donations. It's just other people's money.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I find the fascination with Ayn Rand amazing. As a novelist, she wrote some of the worst fiction in history. As a philosopher, her views can be summed up very simply as every man for himself and let the devil take the hindmost.

    It is hard to imagine someone as intellectually vapid as Ms. Rand having such a wide influence in contemporary intellectual life.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. That's the best summary of Rand that I've ever seen.

      Delete
  6. Ayn Rand's choice of the railroad industry as her example of unbridled private enterprise free of government involvement couldn't be a better proof of her incredible stupidity. The railroads couldn't possibly exist without government appropriation, legally or not, of rights of way, eminent domain, permissions, subsidies, etc. and, especially, protection. That is true, to some extent of just about all transportation. Considering the imminent death of passenger service in many places due to the cessation of government support AS SHE WAS WRITING ATLAS SHRUGGED, shows she was entirely out of touch with reality. Look at the required position on smoking among her cultists as more evidence of that.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Online business education is using as a business by many people. They will give an education on internet and earn money from students.

    Mandrien

    ReplyDelete
  8. According to me your which business u thought now is a very good because of today online education ratio is gone very high, so that that is great thought for online business.

    slip and fall attorney milwaukee

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Online education is getting much appreciation these days. Often I found that people who are working professionals benefit from this a lot and take online education as a path to achieve their academic goals simultaneously they are working. Taking this as a context, I see online education system is on a high rise.

      Delete
  9. Hmm, what if someone used spambot commenting technology to participate in an online MITx type class? Would it pass?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Many universities are provides a online education facilities for their students. Online education business is a best option for doing successful business nowadays because many people are likes to get education from online education with recognized university.

    latest university news

    ReplyDelete