Some Skepticism about Online Education

I do not wish to rain on Alex Tabarrok’s parade, though I shall venture a few skeptical remarks about this latest pedagogical revolution. I have never been a fan of the traditional fifty minute lecture, not as a student on the receiving end nor as a professor on the handing out end. Nor do I have Luddite inclinations; more than thirty years ago I gave some of the first radio talks for the Open University—the British precursor of present day online education. It was founded in 1969, the brainchild of Jennie Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, the creator of the National Health Service. The OU embodied the British Labour Party’s wish to bring higher education to more than its traditional clientele of upper-income eighteen year olds, as well as the conviction of the day that the future of the British economy lay in hi-tech industry rather than what was later dismissed as “low value-added heavy metal bashing.”

Its students were already in employment, and could go at their own pace through a degree program of their choosing, advantages Tabarrok sees in current developments. It was never entirely free to users, although it was in the beginning very inexpensive; nor was it entirely revolutionary. Much like MOOCs today, it built on the model of the correspondence courses that had already enabled many thousands of aspirant working class students to gain professional qualifications, and added the then cutting edge technology of radio and television broadcasting. It did not revolutionize higher education, but it did a lot of good. More than a dozen years ago I also took part in a too-early and therefore abortive project for online lectures to be delivered by Oxford, Yale, and Stanford faculty.

I demur a little at Tabarrok’s picture of a higher education system dominated by large lecture courses. Fifty years ago, my undergraduate contemporaries thought lectures were mostly redundant, certainly as a method of handing out information. We read books and articles in learned journals, wrote essays, had them demolished by our tutors, and repeated the process until we graduated. Science students went to lectures, but that was another matter. Lectures were a distraction from educating ourselves; of course, the lectures of star performers like Isaiah Berlin and A.J.P. Taylor were another matter; that was a form of intellectual theater. And some lectures—Peter Strawson on Kant, for instance—had an austere elegance that was not to be missed. But the Gutenberg Revolution had rendered lectures redundant as a means of imparting knowledge; before the invention of movable type and the possibility of mass producing books, the transmission of knowledge (or mere speculation) depended on carefully constructed lectures, often dictated and transcribed verbatim, and students with excellent memories. After it, books ruled.

Oxford half a century ago was at the extreme end of highly personalized higher education, operating a tutorial system that depended on teachers willing to teach all the hours that God sent. But teaching in New York in 1967, at one of the CUNY colleges, I had classes of only thirty—classrooms couldn’t hold more than that—and they ran as give and take discussion groups with myself as a new professor giving the discussion what shape I could. The students’ papers suggested that they read both widely and deeply and were often capable of exact and merciless criticism. So, I am not absolutely convinced that arrival of the MOOC is going to rescue students from numbed inattention at the back of a lecture theater holding five hundred bored and reluctant fellow-captives. I am sure such places exist, but I’m not sure they are the norm.

The advantages of MOOCs seem to me to be obvious, though Alex Tabarrok does not dwell on those I’d emphasize. His vision of a utopia where we get educated wherever we can find a terminal, while universities and colleges are devoted to pure socialization, does not gladden my heart, perhaps because I’ve spent too many years in close proximity to drunk and noisy students. The great virtue of a system that can deliver excellent—we hope—courses wherever there is electricity and wi-fi, to my mind at least, is that it cuts the bricks and mortar costs of higher education very dramatically. Because Alex Tabarrok is so insistent on the pedagogical virtues of MOOCs, he rather understates the lower-tech possibilities implicit in the growth of the Internet. One that has a mildly distressing downside for those of us who like the feel of actual physical books is that anywhere in the world can in principle have access to almost every book and manuscript in every university library. It scales up the Gutenberg Revolution in a big way, and to my mind is quite as important as the opportunity of seeing Stanford professors doing their thing.

Since I think that education is about letting everyone who can benefit from it have access to whatever is feasible—two conditions that are frequently ignored in everyday higher education—I am more than friendly to the idea that the creators of Udacity and Coursera should enroll 160,000 students in a course on machine learning or software engineering. The completion rates of such courses are inevitably pretty low, but since the marginal cost of enrolling another student is close to zero, you still end up with many thousands of students having learned a good deal that they would not otherwise have learned, at a bargain price, with practically no investment in infrastructure, and not a lot of investment in human beings to grade assignments and provide feedback.

It’s obviously easier to construct such courses where the outcome is the inculcation of practical skills. Self-taught mathematics courses have existed for a long time, and it is not technically very difficult to create computer administered assessments for courses in programming and the like. Much professional education lends itself to the same techniques. The challenge to mimic the back-and-forth of a literature class is greater, but will be interesting in itself, and in any event the basic issue in any such class—“have you read the book and do you recall who the characters are and what they do?”—is not resistant to old-fashioned multiple choice testing.

I have qualms, nonetheless. One is that in over-selling the virtues of MOOCs, we may forget how much we can do to improve our everyday teaching. For instance, anyone asked to produce instructional material for a MOOC is asked to remember that there should be opportunities every few minutes for students to check whether they have kept up with what they’ve been told. But some variant on this is what every competent lecturer does; most do it informally, but many employ all sorts of hi-tech devices to help them do it, too. Another is that Tabarrok’s conviction that he has put into the can the best fifteen minutes teaching he has ever done has unmentioned but sinister implications. He may well be right about how good his lecture was. But ‘leveraging’ the best teaching suggests that an awful lot of people who presently enjoy teaching their students, like their students, and are in turn well-liked by their students, will now simply serve as teaching assistants to Alex Tabarrok or whoever is designated the purveyor of the truly excellent fifteen minutes. Who knows whether Tabarrok himself will survive the winnowing process? Will we now have teaching careers of the same length as the careers of most celebrities?

A third is that we shall exacerbate the tendencies of contemporary higher education to turn into a two-tier, or multi-tier, system in which the well-off and well-endowed academically and socially, receive personalized and individual attention, while everyone else gets a mass-produced and uniform product tailored to what the better-off and better-endowed believe are their needs. One recent MOOC involved the broadcasting of a course from the University of Pennsylvania in which you can see the twenty-odd students on the course in the room with their professor, interacting in the usual human fashion, while the unnumbered audience watches. I am not at all immune to the thought that the crumbs from the rich man’s table are better than simple starvation, but it would be nice to think that our technical ingenuity could be devoted to spreading the real intellectual riches of our civilization more equally than we have hitherto contrived to do.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Alex Tabarrok reviews why traditional education is getting more expensive; he finds that its productivity has not been able to rise as fast as productivity in other sectors. Online education offers a promising alternative, and he explains how, if done properly, online education can realize productivity gains along many different dimensions. He concludes that online education is disrupting traditional educational forms, and that it is not yet clear what new forms will emerge from this exciting transition.

Response Essays

  • Alan Ryan views online education as potentially beneficial for students of lower-income families, but he demurs somewhat: As a technology, lectures have mostly been obsolete ever since the spread of the printed book. And the tutorial system as employed at Oxford will not realize many efficiency gains by going online. Additionally, the ability to selectively view the best fifteen minutes of any current professor’s oeuvre bodes ill for the professoriate, whose careers may all become just that short.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan criticizes the “hypodermic needle” theory of communication, in which a communicator uses mass media to inject content into a passive audience. He argues that Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay is to some extent guilty of employing this theory. The true value of higher education lies not in injecting information, but in students’ and educators’ interactions. Online education can sometimes duplicate this process, but MOOCs are typically little more than “fancy textbooks.” While they have promise in some areas, we shouldn’t trust the hype.

  • Kevin Carey argues that the implications of online education are even more radical than Alex Tabarrok’s lead essay might imply. The introductory courses that scale well are almost certain to go fully online soon. Accreditation for online learning can’t be far behind, possibly by way of systems other than the traditional university credit. Little stands in the way of this shift except “habit, convention, and government regulation.” But afterward, the old university system may no longer be solvent.