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.
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.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.
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.
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.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.
"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"
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.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.
"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.
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.