Monday, November 19, 2012

“Technology’s Latest Frontier – Education”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Technology’s Latest Frontier – Education”
November 19, 2012

Technology has long been identified with certain locations, and often with specific universities: Route 128, outside of Boston, in the 1960s and ‘70s; Silicon Valley, outside of Palo Alto, for the past three decades. The former was associated with MIT and Harvard; the latter with Stanford and Berkley. The technically gifted entrepreneurs, who have changed our lives in so many ways, were nurtured by some of America’s great universities. Yet the schools that nurtured those technological geniuses continue to function pretty much as they did in my father’s day.

In fact, Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason, director of research at Independent Institute (a think tank in California) and participant at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design,) notes, in a piece posted last week, “Why Online Education Works,” that instruction at Oxford today is little changed from when the University was founded in 1096. In partial explanation, Professor Tabarrok writes: “Productivity in education has lagged productivity in other sectors of the economy, because teaching is so labor intensive.”

That may be changing. A week ago, I cited the fact that last spring a single on-line electrical engineering class at MIT attracted 155,000 students, more than ten times the entire student body. Clay Shirky, a writer and professor on the effects of internet technology on society, recently noted that an online course at Stanford – Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI) – attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it. One of the two professors teaching the course, Sebastian Thrun, said of it: “Peter [Norvig] and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.” Incidentally, Stanford has a total on-campus enrollment of less than 20,000.

Myriad challenges face college administrators, some of them perhaps more intractable than online education. Last week I attended a lecture by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, authors of a recent book, Mismatch. The book deals with a subject that no one wants to discuss: how affirmative action has hurt the very students it was designed to help. The authors are not calling for an end to affirmative action, but for more transparency on the part of universities who accept these students. Their findings conclude that too many minorities are accepted into programs for which they are not prepared; with some students finding themselves at the bottom of their classes, which can have the effect of damaging their self-esteem. Letting accepted students know how others have done who entered the college with similar GPAs and SAT scores may allow the student to better determine if this is the college he or she should attend. A loss of confidence, in such situations, often leads to self-segregation; thereby worsening a problem affirmative action was designed to counter. Mr. Sander and Mr. Taylor, moreover, hold out little hope that their recommendation of transparency will be adopted. Like so many recalcitrant problems, there are no easy answers.

In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, in an interview, Greg Lukianoff, a young lawyer and president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spoke of the lack of free speech on today’s campuses. Administrators and professors claim to support diversity, but not when dissenters are deemed politically incorrect. A book I wrote of last week, Sex and Man at Yale by Nathan Harden, deals with the confused response from universities when the rights of students in academic pursuits conflicts with gender treatment and behavior. The example he uses is “Sex Week at Yale,” during which purveyors of sex products are invited to speak at the university. They have the tacit approval of the college, despite the fact that so much of which is shown and discussed is demeaning to women. Mr. Harden writes: “Pluralism may allow for a maximum sense of academic freedom; but, on the other hand, Yale lacks the cohesive moral framework religion once provided.”

College is not solely about education. Some see a diploma as simply a means to an end – a license permitting a better job. Others look upon college as an opportunity to break family binds, to create their own persona. For many, if not most, it is four years that stand between family dependence and personal responsibility. It is a time to grow from childhood into adulthood. The cocoon that is university life usually provides life-long friendships – not something most would willingly forego – but it is not the real world. Fifty years ago, the draft provided an alternative for young men, as a place they could spend two or three years after high school, as they readied themselves for work or university. In a sense, modern university life has deferred the maturing process. Technology may be changing that.

The cost of a four-year college education is also forcing change. A good, private college will cost about a quarter of a million dollars over the four years. That is almost six times the average annual income ($44,259) for a 2012 college graduate who was able to find a job. Unfortunately, in 2012, about half of all graduates were unable to find fulltime work.

On-line learning is not a substitute for the whole college experience. Football games, coffee shops, fraternity parties, hooking up, and one-on-one meetings with professors are all part of college life. However, the current model is not leverageable in an increasingly expensive environment. If the optimum number of students in a class was fifteen 100 years ago, it still is. That is not the sole explanation as to why tuition costs have risen at roughly double the rate of inflation for the past three decades, but it is one cause. Ballooning armies of administrators, supported by unions, are another.

The United States still has the best universities in the world, but other countries are gaining ground. In US News’ world’s ranking of universities for 2012, eleven of the top twenty-five universities are located outside the U.S. Consequently, foreign students still flock to the U.S. in record numbers. About 3.5% of the 21.6 million students enrolled in American universities in 2012 are from outside the U.S., a 6% increase from 2011. (Of course, at more elite universities, the percentage of foreign students is far higher. For example, foreign students at Harvard and Columbia comprise 20% of their respective student enrollments.) As a means of competing for the global student, many American universities now have campuses across the world.

Professor Tabarrok compares online courses to the movies, and traditional teaching (what he calls offline courses) to plays. Plays are performed in real time. Mistakes cannot be corrected. Movies, in contrast, are prepared in advance and can be shown simultaneously, or at the viewer’s discretion in the venue of his or her choosing. Like newspapers, colleges must learn to survive in a digital world. Last week, I wrote of Khan Academy, which has become the world’s largest university, claiming 10 million students around the globe. Before this year’s rise in massive open online courses (MOOCs,) 2.75 million students in the U.S. took online courses. Those 2.75 million people represented about 12% of students at degree-granting American universities. For example, Coursera, a start-up online education company that has enrolled 1.35 million students in its free online courses since it began last April, is, according to a report in the New York Times, more than doubling its partner universities to thirty-three. Brown, Columbia and Wesleyan will be joining Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.

Education in the developing world is increasing at an impressive rate. Over the next fifteen years, India expects to see the number of students rise from 12 million to 30 million – an event that would require a thousand new universities. In the past fourteen years, China’s student body has grown six fold to 6 million today. Professor Tabarrok asks, rhetorically, will they implement the Oxford model of 1096, or will it be the new online model?

Two factors (and I am sure there are more than two) are creating an increasingly competitive environment for our young. First, the pervasiveness of technology has allowed for the wider use of on-line teaching, where the world’s best teachers can give lectures that can be delivered anywhere in the world, at the convenience of the student. That is going to help the aspiring student who is either too distant or too poor to attend a traditional university. Second, the emergence of developing nations has increased the pool of potential students, creating competition for college placements and for jobs in the global market place.

Traditional universities will persist. Real college experience, as I noted above, is almost always a positive one. Life-long friendships are formed. Physical universities provide sanctuaries for serious research and debate. However, they may become even more elitist, in the sense that one consequence will be relatively fewer on-campus students. Like other traditional businesses and institutions, the digital revolution, along with rising demand and prohibitive costs, are forcing change. And, like all changes, the transition period will create anguish and stress. Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction is as applicable in academia as it is in business.

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