A Response to Participants

Alan Ryan and Siva Vaidhyanathan suggest that I have engaged in unfounded hyperbole, while Kevin Carey says I have not been radical enough. I am pleased to occupy the middle ground. To review briefly I suggested that online education has the following advantages:

  • Leverage of the best professors teaching more students.
  • Large time savings from less repetition in lectures (students in control of what to repeat) and from lower fixed costs (no need to drive to university).
  • Greater flexibility in when lectures are consumed (universities open 24 hours a day) and in the lecture format (no need to limit to 50 minutes).
  • Greater scope for productivity improvements as capital substitutes for labor and greater incentive to invest in productivity when the size of the market increases.
  • Greater scope for randomized controlled trials of educational strategies thus more learning about what works in education.

Siva Vaidhyanathan does not disagree with most of these points, but he does confidently insist that the classroom is special, so special that it dominates the above considerations.

The classroom has rich value in itself. It’s a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions.

As Kevin Carey notes “I would find this more persuasive if I had not taken many traditional college courses myself.” Vaidhyanathan counters that:

The cartoon Tabarrok draws of higher education being a series of huge lectures taught by less-than-master professors does not accurately capture the diversity of higher education in the United States or the world.

Here Vaidhyanathan seems not to know the facts, for the facts are that a large majority of college teachers in the United States today are adjuncts, and they are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. At the undergraduate level a majority of courses are taught by adjuncts and graduate students, especially the large, introductory courses. Adjuncts are often teaching heavy course loads for low pay on a part-time basis, sometimes even cobbling jobs together from multiple universities. Part-time faculty alone make up nearly half of all college teachers, and although some are great, part-timers are less likely to teach in the participatory style that Vaidhyanathan extols. As one study (pdf) put it, (see also here):

When compared with full-time faculty, part-time faculty advise students less frequently, use active teaching techniques less often, place a lower priority on educating students to be good citizens, spend less time preparing for class, include diversity in their teaching less frequently, and are less likely to participate in a teaching workshop.

Even more importantly, Vaidhyanathan’s poetics simply assume what was to be argued, namely that the online experience cannot duplicate the offline experience or offer its own set of rich values. Why can’t students in the online world also try ideas on for size, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions? As soon as one asks this question, Vaidhyanathan’s objections disappear in a puff of smoke. Here is Carole Cadwalladr, a reporter from the Observer writing about an online course in genetics:

And that’s when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking—and answering—questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There’s one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they’re so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

Rather than contrasting offline with online, I am more interested in how online can complement and improve traditional education methods. Instead of either-or, let’s think about flipping the classroom or other techniques that can take advantage of the best of both worlds.

I’d also like to see more comparisons and more empirical evidence. Here’s a question. How large does the typical classroom have to be before an online classroom is superior? Five students? Thirty? One hundred? My answers are that a philosophy seminar with five students is going to be better face-to-face. In a class of thirty, I’d take a good online class over a typical offline class. In a class of one hundred I’d take online every time. What do others say? Where is the dividing line and why?

Some 30% of students today are already enrolled in an online course. Do Ryan and Vaidhyanathan think these students are making a mistake in giving up the magic of the classroom? What should students with full or part-time jobs do? Which students and which classes should go online? Blanket statements don’t seem useful here. I think Econ 101 would work well online. Plenty of math and stats classes will work well online and will be even better accompanied with interactive tools and tutorials. As an economist, I think on the margin rather than in terms of absolutes, and at the current margin I see online being highly productive.

We do need more studies of offline, online, and blended education models, but the evidence that we do have is supportive of the online model. In 2009, The Department of Education conducted a meta-analysis and review of online learning studies and found:

  • Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  • Effect sizes were larger for studies in which the online instruction was collaborative or instructor-directed than in those studies where online learners worked independently.
  • The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Online learning appeared to be an effective option for both undergraduates (mean effect of +0.30, p

Vaidhyanathan is correct that online education is much more than MOOCs, something that I also emphasized in my article. But I don’t understand why he castigates MOOCs. Vaidhyanathan argues that MOOCs “pander to the broadest possible audience” and “condense and fracture course material and present it in the pithiest, shallowest form.” Really? Consider the syllabus from edX’s course 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics:

The course introduces engineering in the context of the lumped circuit abstraction. Topics covered include: resistive elements and networks; independent and dependent sources; switches and MOS transistors; digital abstraction; amplifiers; energy storage elements; dynamics of first- and second-order networks; design in the time and frequency domains; and analog and digital circuits and applications. Design and lab exercises are also significant components of the course.

…To keep pace with the class, you are expected to complete all the work by the due dates indicated. Homeworks and labs must be completed by the Sunday of the week following the one in which they are posted. Weekly coursework includes interactive video sequences, readings from the textbook, homework, online laboratories, and optional tutorials. The course will also have a midterm exam and a final exam. Those who successfully earn enough points will receive an honor code certificate from MITx.

In order to succeed in this course, you must have taken an AP level physics course in electricity and magnetism. You must know basic calculus and linear algebra and have some background in differential equations…

Somehow I think “you must have some background in differential equations” is not pandering to the broadest possible audience.

I am actually less bothered by the factual content of Vaidhyanathan’s claim—surely some MOOCs are shallow—than by the lack of comparison or analysis. Shallow compared to what? Compared to the best offline course at MIT? To the median course? Again, the issue is on what margin. Or is Vaidhyanathan claiming a link between the medium and message? Does online education have to be shallow? If so, why?

Vaidhyanathan also asks “How do we know that the best teachers are the ones doing the MOOCs?” I am tempted merely to list some MOOCs and their teachers; Sebastian Thrun, father of the Google chauffeured vehicle, on artificial intelligence; Sergey Brin, founder of Google, on search algorithms; Anant Agarwal, winner of MIT’s Smullin and Jamieson prizes for teaching, on computer science. Yes, I think we have some grounds for thinking that these are good teachers. That approach, however, would also be non-analytic.

Online education allows the best teachers to teach more students. Online education also allows the worst teachers to teach more students. What grounds do we have for thinking that the best will dominate? Let’s do the proper comparison. In a world with more online education, will more students be taught by better teachers compared to a world with less online education? I think the answer is yes. First, online education will increase options. Students at smaller colleges and universities, for example, will have access to teachers from other universities including Harvard, MIT, George Mason (of course!) and others. I have enough trust in the students to think that, by and large, more options will lead to a greater demand for better teachers. Admittedly, it’s not guaranteed. Pauly Shore, after all, is a movie star.

In addition to the general benefits of choice, I agree with Vaidhyanathan that MOOCs are like “fancy textbooks.” So let’s consider the economics of fancy textbooks, say the iPad textbook Life on Earth. The sample chapters are stunning—the text features animations, in-text videos, and gorgeous photos and illustrations. Now, given the investment that has gone into this textbook, who would you get to write the chapters and set the structure and tone? A poor teacher? Unlikely, as that will reduce the value of your entire investment. Instead you want to match high quality capital with high-quality labor, i.e. you want to partner capital with a great teacher—perhaps even with one of the greatest biologists of his generation, perhaps even with a two-time Pulitzer winner for non-fiction, perhaps even with someone like E.O. Wilson, who is in fact the author of this textbook. (FYI, the general principle—the best wants to work with the best—is called O-ring production and you can find a lecture on that topic at MRUniversity.com).

As Kevin Carey writes:

…the latest online courses are being developed by teams of specialists with rich budgets and advanced production tools. Watching them be constructed is something to behold. Subject matter experts debate content items point by point, virtual laboratories are created, and cognitive tutors are fine-tuned to lead students toward the most useful materials, depending on their academic progress.

Is online education the greatest innovation in education in the last 500 years? We will see, but given the potential cost savings, the reasonable results on teaching outcomes, and the potential for much greater growth, there is a sound basis for moving forward.

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.