Coursera

by Brian on April 18, 2012

I’m very pleased that my employer, the University of Michigan, has joined Coursera. The aim of Coursera is to provide free, online courses of something approaching university quality, to everyone. Right now it hosts courses from Penn, Stanford, Princeton, and UM-Ann Arbor, with possibly more schools to be added soon.

Faculty, at least some of them, put a lot of work into designing interesting and educational courses. And then those courses are delivered to, relatively speaking, a handful of people. This seems like a waste. With a little work, we should be able to deliver something like what we deliver to students to many more people.

Some of the things we do in teaching don’t really scale up. At UM there are a lot of writing intensive courses, where students get a lot of feedback on papers from draft stage to finished product. We can’t do that in an online course with thousands of enrollees. And there’s something to be gained by living in an academic environment as undergraduates at top universities do.

But some of the things we do, like lectures and quizzes, do scale up. And hopefully we’ll try to move some of them online in the future.

Most of my undergrad teaching recently has been in logic and decision theory, and Coursera already has courses in those subjects. So I’m not sure if anything I’ve done recently will be useful for this.

In the Fall I’m going to be teaching a freshman seminar on philosophy and developmental psychology, using Allison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby as the primary textbook. Seminars are exactly the wrong kind of course to convert to online courses, but if I develop a lecture course out of this, that might be something that does work as an online course.

This isn’t the only means by which online courses are being delivered. Yale has a number of courses being delivered through Open Yale, including two philosophy courses. And MIT OpenCourseWare has many courses, though not all of them include video or audio. So there are a lot of different approaches being tried. Hopefully in the long term we’ll learn a lot about what works, and in the short term we’ll be delivering valuable courses to many people who wouldn’t have been able to access them.

{ 80 comments }

1

Matt 04.18.12 at 6:44 pm

I received an email about this today or yesterday, and haven’t thought about it enough to have a strong opinion about it or other similar programs, but, for what it’s worth, here’s a skeptical take on at least part of the program:

http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/04/an-experiment-in-replacing-ta-labor-by-a-critical-mass-of-deputized-students.html

I don’t endorse the criticism, since I don’t know enough the subject, but thought it was worth noting.

2

Jonathan Weinberg 04.18.12 at 6:51 pm

This isn’t really the main topic of your post, but I’d love to hear more about what you’re going to be doing on the philosophy side of things with the Gopnik book.

3

Rob Reich 04.18.12 at 6:58 pm

These are exciting times in higher education, and it’s a great moment to be a first-rate university or a first-rate teacher; second-rate universities and second-rate teachers are about to be creatively disrupted. Coursera, Udacity, MITx, and other things in the pipeline are exciting developments.

But I don’t think it’s all roses. For the reasons Brian mentions, it’s not clear how vibrant a role writing-intensive humanities courses can have in this new online world. And I think there are important questions to be asked about why our best state and private (but nonprofit) universities should be allowing partnerships with for-profit start-ups like Coursera or Udacity rather than creating the online platform themselves.

Finally, while the idea that providing high quality courses for free to any student in the world with an internet connection has all kinds of obvious appeal, we should also worry about sending the business model of higher education down the path of the newspaper industry: the online world arrives, you offer your content online for free, customers come to expect online content to be free, and suddenly you’ve given away the store.

I wrote a bit about these things in January http://www.stanford.edu/group/reichresearch/cgi-bin/site/2012/01/25/some-questions-about-udacity-and-about-creative-disruption-in-higher-education/

http://www.stanford.edu/group/reichresearch/cgi-bin/site/2012/01/31/thrun-on-the-udacity-model/

4

Linnaeus 04.18.12 at 7:57 pm

the online world arrives, you offer your content online for free, customers come to expect online content to be free, and suddenly you’ve given away the store.

Or the customers become the product.

5

Henry 04.18.12 at 8:57 pm

Coincidentally, I’d signed up for Adamic’s course on network data visualization before reading this, partly because I’d like to learn more about this (and her work is first rate) but also so that I can see how this works from the inside …

6

Marc 04.18.12 at 9:07 pm

If you want to provide adult enrichment for a lot of people this could work. One way interactions are not the wave of the future in teaching, however, and doing actual work and getting critiqued on it is an important component of real learning. Neither are served by online approaches, which are to actual education as “say 1 for reservations” is to actual conversation.

7

peterv 04.18.12 at 9:32 pm

In support of Marc, “scaling up” is fine if all you are doing is broadcasting information, from a single speaker to multiple auditors. This seems to be the implicit model of almost all online education, perhaps because it is the model of most humanities education. But no matter how many TED talks you watch, nor how often, you won’t learn to be mathematian from them.

Lots of university classes, such as those in mathematics and computer science, are not merely broadcasting information, but teaching students to think in a certain way. To do this first requires the teacher to undertake a careful, and often very subtle, choreographed interaction of speech, action, and attention-directing, first saying something, then pointing to something (eg, an image on a blackboard or projector screen or a physical object or model), then doing something to the image or object, then saying something further, etc. For this subtle dance to work the teacher has to be able to read the faces of the audience, and respond, dynamically, to what those faces reveal. This multi-modal, multi-media interaction does not lend itself at all well to current online education technologies, and nor will it ever if those technologies remain focused only on a gradgrindian broadcast-of-information model of education.

Second, students only really learn to think in the desired way by the same means they learn any other skill – by doing it, and practicing a lot. No reasonable person would expect to learn to play the violin or tennis merely by watching online lectures, so why should anyone expect to learn mathematics or any other advanced cognitive skill that way?

8

Matt 04.18.12 at 10:06 pm

Finally, while the idea that providing high quality courses for free to any student in the world with an internet connection has all kinds of obvious appeal, we should also worry about sending the business model of higher education down the path of the newspaper industry: the online world arrives, you offer your content online for free, customers come to expect online content to be free, and suddenly you’ve given away the store.

You might be giving away the store to people who wish only to pursue learning for self-enrichment, but that’s not much. To turn that educational advantage into material advantage you generally need a degree, and the price of certification (as opposed to simple learning) will always be under institutional control. The occasional autodidact who could pass the bar exam without a law school credential is not allowed to practice law. Internet-reliant students who can demonstrate all of the skills and none of the certification of traditionally educated students will likewise have few job seeking advantages over peers who have neither certification nor education.

9

Ben Alpers 04.18.12 at 10:07 pm

Rob Reich @3:

These are exciting times in higher education, and it’s a great moment to be a first-rate university or a first-rate teacher; second-rate universities and second-rate teachers are about to be creatively disrupted. Coursera, Udacity, MITx, and other things in the pipeline are exciting developments.

You have a lot more faith that higher education is meritocratic than I do.

I’d say, instead, that this is a great time to be a successful teacher or a successful institution.

And, as is the case in the most of the rest of our economy, the structure of higher education is rewarding fewer and fewer people and institutions ever more lavishly, while threatening the rest of us in various ways.

I would thus agree with the much of the rest of the quoted passage, but I would probably choose a less positive adjective than “exciting” to describe these technologies…and I would definitely not use the adverb “creatively” to describe the manner in which they may disrupt the lives of most faculty at most institutions.

10

Alex K. 04.18.12 at 10:11 pm

“This multi-modal, multi-media interaction does not lend itself at all well to current online education technologies, and nor will it ever if those technologies remain focused only on a gradgrindian broadcast-of-information model of education.”

You should try taking some classes at Udacity. After the first few lectures, you will spend more time answering quizzes and programming than watching lectures.

Coursera has less interactive quizzes (it treats the audience more like adults rather than undergraduates with ADD) but the technology for frequent quizzes is certainly there.

Also, while it is not implemented in currently existing online learning, there is about zero technical difficulty in implementing an “adaptive” lecture, where the material changes in difficulty depending on how the student answers an interactive quiz. (The model here is the adaptive testing from various certification exams.)

So, the complaint that online lectures are not or can not be highly interactive is simply detached from reality.

11

leederick 04.18.12 at 10:27 pm

#7 – I’d have thought maths would be the perfect counter example – it’s one of the very easiest things to teach yourself. The way people learn is through problem sets. You try and problem, there’s a correct solution, and you can easily check your own work and see where you went wrong. It’s very difficult to grade your own piece of literary criticism and pull yourself up by your bootstraps when learning just from lectures and notes, but with maths that’s totally achievable.

12

Alex K. 04.18.12 at 11:25 pm

Another area where we can expect a lot of flailing around for a few years until the right model is found, is the organization of student study groups for online learning. There is a social aspect to learning, and for some people this aspect may overshadow others.

But once such a model is found, it can be replicated in any community — including communities that would never have had access to a quality education otherwise. On a shoestring budget you can replicate a working organization of study groups, you can probably even find good TAs. Now it’s also possible to peek into how world class professors organize their thoughts on difficult material, for free.

For online learning to really take off, these courses need high quality certification (meaning, certification that employers take seriously) but as of now only rudimentary certification exists for Coursera and Udacity. No technical difficulty exists for good certification though — it has been done for years in other contexts.

13

engels 04.19.12 at 1:08 am

You know there’s a saying: “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”. Maybe a corrollary for HiEd.Biz: “if free online courses could get you anywhere, they’d charge tuition”.

14

engels 04.19.12 at 1:30 am

Finally, while the idea that providing high quality courses for free to any student in the world with an internet connection has all kinds of obvious appeal, we should also worry about sending the business model of higher education down the path of the newspaper industry: the online world arrives, you offer your content online for free, customers come to expect online content to be free, and suddenly you’ve given away the store.

Commendable candour!

15

Nick 04.19.12 at 2:02 am

Leederick @#11 – There is a big difference between “maths” as taught in primary schools or even university service courses and mathematics as actually practiced by mathematicians. Problem sets that start by saying “prove that…” will not have a single right answer. (and it may not be obvious to a student why an answer to such a question is wrong, since after all, the proposition they are asked to prove is true.)

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engels 04.19.12 at 2:23 am

I’d have thought maths would be the perfect counter example – it’s one of the very easiest things to teach yourself. The way people learn is through problem sets. You try and problem, there’s a correct solution, and you can easily check your own work and see where you went wrong.

Next up, Leederick explains how one learns to be a professional tennis player by batting a ball against wall.

17

Marshall 04.19.12 at 2:54 am

I’ve been taking a Coursera class in Model Thinking, not with the idea that it qualifies me for anything, just for my own enrichment and yes, it has been enriching. Probably somewhere there’s a book that covers the same material just as well, but this is working very nicely for me. If we had a University out here in the sticks and they would let me drop in for some fee in fewer than four figures, I might well do that, but there isn’t and they wouldn’t.

18

Alex K. 04.19.12 at 3:25 am

Anyone who does not believe in the value of individual work in math (work on the lines described by Leederick) was probably not good in any math class except remedial math.

As for whether basic math and remedial math can be taught successfully online, millions of views of Khan Academy’s math videos suggest that people find them rather spectacularly useful.

19

Zingo 04.19.12 at 3:30 am

I am doing an online statistics masters and I had a look at the Stanford Machine Learning course when the instructor mentioned in one of his recorded lectures that he had taken it (presumably to see what the competition is doing). If I did a course like this there would not a problem with certification – people would just assume I had done it as part of my masters, and it would fill out some computer science options rather scantily covered in my statistics course. The upshot however is that I can see this as being of benefit to people who already have some background in related subjects, and familiarity with academic procedures. More privilege to the privileged.

BTW, great Australian cricket player Don Bradman did teach himself exquisite hitting skills by hitting a golf ball against a round water tank with a stick, but despite his inspiring example in a ten year online career I have had much more success in learning programming and applied maths (both with easily definable reinforcement loops) than with higher mathematics (Calculus online = Fail).

20

Omega Centauri 04.19.12 at 3:35 am

I think its a useful addition. But probably more so for near auto-didacts then Joe Averages. I did try to learn graduate chemical kinetics from some online lecture notes, but I didn’t have the confidence that I wasn’t missing perhaps some key insights to actually apply it professionally. I recommended my employer hire someone with actual domain expertise (which they eventually did). So I think stuff with maths type challenges can be a bit problematic, unless the customer has someone with domain expertise to consult with. Otherwise too many areas of knowledge seem to require the sequential build up of a base of knowledge, get one or more foundational skills wrong, and later on you can find yourself hitting a bottleneck. I think thats where having a mentor comes in. Someone who can tell you the hard news early on “you misundertand foundation skill X, and if you don’t get it your whole project of trying to become an expert at Y will founder later on”, and then come up with some way to overcome the issue. I suspect a lot of complex subjects may work this way, and getting through them without botching some of the foundational understandings may not be particularly likely without expert interaction.

So I think they are a great supplement to a more traditional classroom experience. I hope to get my twins who will be between Sophmore and Junior college level this summer to try a course or two. Maybe they can gain a leg up on the rest of their college careers? Maybe even good students can get 25-50% of the needed graduation credits via this mechanism. That would cut the overall cost of an education somewhat.

21

SN 04.19.12 at 5:38 am

@3: I wonder what you mean by creative disruption? One of the targeted attacks on higher education by the right is to go after universities that serve the middle and working class. It is in these schools where students desperately need–and are often being given–the specific hands on instruction/structured feedback that Brian mentions. The content and the expertise at many public universities is often on a par with what I see here in these online courses (and of course, as a student and professor in what are always thought of as ‘first rate’ universities).

I wasn’t sure if your ideas is that the elite universities will post videos of their professors speaking and syllabi and this will suffice for those not going to those universities? I am puzzled by your categories of ‘first rate’ and ‘third rate’ and whom you think these people are and where they are. Or whether you have any knowledge of the larger world beyond the top three universities–you would be surprised just how remarkably well educated those state university graduates can be.

I hope you will think beyond the market model that seems to dominate these discussions as it is extremely misleading when it comes to education.

22

F 04.19.12 at 6:32 am

The challenge for online courses is similar to the challenge for large (>100 student) classes, but more so. How do you get the students to actually think for themselves as opposed to absorb and regurgitate? Or is there going to be a different standard for online courses, where absorb and regurgitate is the end goal?

23

F 04.19.12 at 6:35 am

Or, more succinctly, are these courses going to be about learning or about training? Training is relatively easy en masse, but learning, not so much.

24

John Quiggin 04.19.12 at 7:21 am

The really disruptive education technology, enabling anyone sufficiently motivated and disciplined to learn anything at all, without a teacher, was the book. As the discussion above suggests, though, books are only a partial solution, and online courses are likely to make only an incremental improvement.

25

garymar 04.19.12 at 7:22 am

I could see taking a physics course online just to get a leg up before taking the course for credit at school. I would have done it for physics and calculus!

26

Jacob 04.19.12 at 12:20 pm

Garymar, that’s exactly what I plan to do over the summer.

With all this discussion of mentors, I thought it would be useful to point out that the internet is positively crawling with math and physics students (I suppose that’s what they are, anyway) who seem to legitimately enjoy helping anonymous internet users teach themselves math and physics. One can learn a substantial amount by just lurking around internet communities, and it has been my experience that if you do hit a brick wall, there are plenty of people who would be more than happy to help you get around it.

27

Barry 04.19.12 at 12:40 pm

Alex K. 04.19.12 at 3:25 am

” Anyone who does not believe in the value of individual work in math (work on the lines described by Leederick) was probably not good in any math class except remedial math.”

You’re making a comment against a proposition which nobody here has asserted.

28

Alex K. 04.19.12 at 1:15 pm

@Barry
I’m sure “engels” can explain himself further what he meant when he attacked Leederick’s rather sensible statement.

29

mds 04.19.12 at 2:32 pm

“Or the customers become the product.”

Indeed, as Inside Higher Ed noted:

The terms stipulate that Coursera may use “non-personal” information it collects from users “for business purposes.” They also indicate that Coursera may share personal information with its “business partners” so that registered students might “receive communications from such parties that [students] have opted in to.”

I know that the fight against reducing higher education to nothing more than a commodity is pretty much already a lost cause, but still.

30

straightwood 04.19.12 at 2:33 pm

It is intuitively obvious that the $50K/year gold-plated model for undergraduate education is inapplicable to the world population. Technological disruption of this unsustainable model is inevitable. The rear-guard action being fought against the new model is best explained by Marxist theory: vested interests have created educational dogmas that pronounce the new model unsound, unproven, un-etc.

Just as the average income of an American can no longer pay for the average cost of a new automobile, this limited income eventually will not be able to afford steadily rising bricks-and-mortar college tuition. Excruciatingly expensive four-year colleges are like the last grand ocean liners. They are magnificent to behold, and offer every imaginable convenience, but there is something new in the air.

31

Henry 04.19.12 at 3:03 pm

I was wondering when straightwood would pop up with his usual canned response, and rather surprised that it took him until comment #30 (the number of mixed metaphors varies slightly from iteration to iteration, but the argument is immutable).

32

ajay 04.19.12 at 3:27 pm

Just as the average income of an American can no longer pay for the average cost of a new automobile

Average new US automobile costs $28,400; median household income is $46,326.
In 1960 it was $2,600 and $5,620. Difficult to see how the one situation is affordable and the other not…

33

Omega Centauri 04.19.12 at 3:41 pm

I do agree with straightwood’s sentiments. But hoping that it will work out that way doesn’t make it so. Learning for the masses is still a challenging project, and at best this technology represents an incremental improvement in the efficiency of delivery.

34

Barry 04.19.12 at 3:46 pm

Alex K. 04.19.12 at 1:15 pm

” @Barry
I’m sure “engels” can explain himself further what he meant when he attacked Leederick’s rather sensible statement.”

Leederick is basically talking about learning math on one’s own. Engel’s is (from my interpretation) pointing out that that’s far from sufficient – if one doesn’t have feedback and help from other people, one is going to have an extremely hard time learning math from just problem sets. As somebody pointed out, learning proofs is hard, and proofs are frequently open-ended, so to speak.

IMHO, when somebody talks about learning a serious, complex intellectual skill on one’s own, they are usually wrong.

35

michael e sullivan 04.19.12 at 4:29 pm

Next up, Leederick explains how one learns to be a professional tennis player by batting a ball against wall.

Well, if Forrest Gump can do it with table tennis…

36

straightwood 04.19.12 at 4:31 pm

@32

Difficult to see how the one situation is affordable and the other not…

2012 ratio: 28,400/46,326 = 61%

1960 ratio: 2,600/5,620 = 46%

Do you see now? The delta is about $7,000 (if a car cost 46% of today’s income, it would cost about $21,300) . Of course lots of other middle class expenses, like college tuition and health care have also gone up faster than income, so that $7K is rather hard to come by. You really should read Elizabeth Warren.

37

michael e sullivan 04.19.12 at 4:33 pm

Henry: What’s really strange is that he’s got his data mixed too. The average american income, certainly can still pay for the average cost of a new automobile, and there’s no reason to expect this will change anytime soon. Higher ed, on the other, is already something that can’t be paid for by an average income, and has been for some time. Or, I guess it depends on what you mean by “pay for”. Do you mean pay back the loan over your lifetime? or over the average useful lifetime of the product you paid for? or out of pocket when purchasing?

38

straightwood 04.19.12 at 4:50 pm

@31

Forgive my inelegant prose. The argument is immutable because the numbers don’t change. The costs of labor-intensive university education are already beyond the reach of most of the world’s population and are becoming unaffordable even for the US middle class. That is why student loans are becoming the next giant financial bubble.

39

Omega Centauri 04.19.12 at 5:13 pm

But, $28Kplus for a car is far far from the cheaper, but still perfectly adaquate bare bones models, which come in well under $20K.

40

Salient 04.19.12 at 5:18 pm

What bugs me about responses like peterv’s is that (1) it’s not an accurate representation entry-level coursework almost everywhere, but the statement assumes that most students really are receiving that, and (2) it alleges that it’s possible to establish that deep a connection with every student in your classroom, and I don’t see that happening in a massive lecture hall. It’s basically alleging superlative abilities, and while peterv may have those, peterv should also be well aware that a huge chunk of the lecture coursework being presented to students is not expert faculty lecture, it’s lectures presented by graduate students like me who are doing entry-level research and who probably have received little to no training in the craft of teaching (out of three dozen plus grad students I’m one of two with any awareness of pedagogy or prior experience teaching). It really does sound like a description of upper-level courses where you have at most a couple dozen students and where those students have the core skills competence to enable a variety of more sophisticated interactions, but the comment was offered in the context of dismissing and disparaging online lecture material that is clearly intended to predominantly replace 100-level gen ed content coursework, for most of which it’s an unrealistically flattering description.

One very promising feature of recording lectures is the opportunity to recover and preserve teachable moments. Often enough, one student asks a bright and unexpected question that the whole class benefits from receiving a response to. During that time, everyone in the class is basically a spectator, so the types of benefits they receive from that particular exchange should be easy to make available in video. And for that matter, even if the video is only made available to a restricted set of students, the instructor benefits too. Ever get asked an insightful question, for which the wording matters, and forget the details before there’s a chance to write them down? Ever come up with an inspired impromptu response, and want to be able to offer that insight to future semesters, but you can’t quite remember the exact context?

The flip side of this is, of course, that videotaping lectures is devastating, and destroys — students in videotaped courses will lose the quasi-privacy of the classroom and become publicly responsible for things they say in class, which could have a chilling effect on discussion, and could also encourage students to treat their class as a public platform and put on a show. That’s a lot of anxiety to place on people who are there to benefit, but who become effectively conscripted as actors serving in the benefit of others watching the performance. For students who already feel nervous about wasting their peers’ time with a lame question, the “is everyone going to hate me for asking this” factor grows by an order of magnitude. It makes the classroom a less safe place to be wrong.

41

Salient 04.19.12 at 5:29 pm

Crap, after typing out that first paragraph I forgot to say what was relevant about it. Pro: A benefit of videotaped lectures of very good lecture-hall presentations is that grad students like me can watch them and effectively use them as how-to-educate instruction videos. Con: all we’ll be learning are mass-presentation lecture techniques that won’t help us navigate the more sophisticated choreography of upper-level coursework. Anti-con: we’re already not learning anything about how to navigate the more sophisticated choreography of upper-level coursework. Anti-anti-anti-con: yeah but learning from these videos might provide us with a false sense of generalized competence, which may lead us as professors to teach upper-level coursework using lower-level models; at least right now we are likely to emulate how our professors taught their upper-level coursework. And here I run out of gas; I don’t know what the anti-anti-anti-anti-con to all that would be. But whatever this discussion is, it should be about the courses that are actually comparable to those that will be taped; the reality of videotaped lectures shouldn’t be compared to a pinnacle ideal model of a classroom lecture.

42

SKO 04.19.12 at 6:16 pm

As someone who just came through what was supposedly a “1st tier” school (Mcgill), I really think Salient is spot on. My math courses basically required one to be an autodidact since the professors mostly just ignored the 50 people (in a 3rd year course, for 1st years its well over 200 at this point) in the class and wrote out proofs from the textbook. On the social sciences side large class sizes made any actual interaction practically impossible. As Salient said, the vast majority of students are just spectating.

What I want to add is that making the quality lecturers available to everyone would have been much appreciated. If the product is basically standardized and homogeneous anyway (all stats courses teach the same thing, ditto for undergrad chemistry) then why wouldn’t we try and make sure the “spectating” component is coming from the best sources available? There are a lot of terrible lecturers out there, I know I’ve had my fair share. Frankly, I expect in many instances I would have learned more watching lectures on Coursera than I did from actually taking the course on campus.

I realize it would be better if we didn’t have large class sizes, but with cost control practically becoming the zeitgeist I don’t see that changing any time soon.

43

Barry 04.19.12 at 6:25 pm

Straightwood: “Forgive my inelegant prose. The argument is immutable because the numbers don’t change. The costs of labor-intensive university education are already beyond the reach of most of the world’s population and are becoming unaffordable even for the US middle class. That is why student loans are becoming the next giant financial bubble.”

I agree. $50K for a degree which quite likely won’t produce an income much above $30K is a huge problem. What’s happening is that, like home mortgages, many of the players (starting with universities) have unloaded these financial ‘assets’ onto others, and the original customers haven’t realized just how deep in the sh*t that they are.

And this is all assuming that we don’t go into another recession (or rather, deeper) for a while, and that Wall St doesn’t blow up again in the next two or three decades, and that the current offshoring/globalization trend doesn’t keep up, hitting areas thought to be immune.

None of which are good assumptions.

44

Marc 04.19.12 at 6:30 pm

@38: And yet labor costs have not escalated, suggesting that other factors are much more important drivers for tuition. You apparently have an embedded assumption that we need to mechanize teaching because the labor costs are so high. What is this coming from? Because all of the data that I’ve seen points to capital construction costs and administrative overhead as the main factors, with both student to teacher ratios and faculty salaries dead flat over the past 30-40 years. University costs aren’t behaving the same way across the world that they are in the US, and public schools have risen faster than private because we’ve decided not to support them with taxes.

Analogies can be deceptive. Some tasks lend themselves well to automation and others don’t. We can make airplane reservations efficiently with computers, but it doesn’t follow that we can teach as efficiently with them. Some people do indeed learn well, and you’d get more out of these courses than reading a book. But others simply don’t, and there is no substitute for engaging with an actual teacher if you’re interested in learning.

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Alex K. 04.19.12 at 6:53 pm

“As somebody pointed out, learning proofs is hard, and proofs are frequently open-ended, so to speak.”

Obviously, there is a certain amount of hand-holding involved in the beginning stages of learning math. But a college level math student should be able to learn by working by himself on the path pointed out in class, with the occasional question to the TA.

If you can’t work on math without continuous assistance, then you need a high-school education not a college level one.

(And once again, even if a group of, say ten students, pays $40 per hour for a good TA , it takes a lot of such tutoring sessions to get to five thousand dollars per year per student in costs,which is an order of magnitude less than the regular cost of an undergraduate education)

46

SamChevre 04.19.12 at 6:57 pm

Marc @ 43

Would you have a link for that data? In particular, my impression was that “And yet labor costs have not escalated” is not true when looking at the ratio of “college teachers pay”/”college graduates pay”.

47

Walt 04.19.12 at 7:08 pm

I think once we replace actual students with Alex K’s ideal students then online education will work great.

48

Alex K. 04.19.12 at 7:24 pm

Let’s look at the case of the retail pharmacist in the US.

For foreign students of pharmacy there is a track to get a licence to practice in the US: you need to graduate from a pharmaceutical school that the US recognizes, you need to pass an equivalence exam (FPGEE), pass a TOEFL exam (which can be tough: there are stories of native English speakers failing to get the required speaking score — although, they were from Australia) work as an intern in a real pharmacy and pass the NAPLEX, which is an exam required from the US students as well.

Now some of those foreign pharmaceutical schools can be really poor — online lectures and tests from the best pharmaceutical schools in the US would be a definite improvement.

Yet, if the foreign student is good enough to pass the certification tests (FPGEE, NAPLEX) then he or she is perfectly qualified, both legally and in actuality, to work as a retail pharmacist.

And what is the difference between a foreign trained pharmacist who passed all exams and a US trained pharmacist? About $200, 000 in student loans.

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Alex K. 04.19.12 at 7:46 pm

“once we replace actual students with Alex K’s ideal students”

Last I checked, universities have admission standards too.

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bianca steele 04.19.12 at 7:58 pm

I don’t understand this debate. On the one hand, there are said to be some students who cannot understand math textbooks written at an appropriate level, or who cannot understand mathematics lectures delivered at an appropriate level, in order to do the problem sets–or who can’t understand them without above-average levels of handholding–yet who appear (I assume) to have the prerequisites. Certainly there are students who have managed to pass math courses with As and Bs (and observably only seem to have cheated enough to get their grade up a half-grade, or a grade at most), who seem able to talk about the material yet don’t seem to be able to do even the easy parts of the problem sets.

But on the other hand, there is the argument that people who can learn from textbooks (very often, math textbooks in particular) are learning something that is really not university-level stuff, and is wrong. There are lots of good arguments about how elementary level math instruction is misleading about upper-level math, or about how what professional mathematicians do isn’t well conveyed to people taking even second-year calculus. However, those good arguments don’t add up to, “if you were an A student in university math classes, learning largely from textbooks rather than lectures, the chances are very high that you know less about math than average.”

In computer science, back when I took courses, even with good textbooks at an appropriate level, the lectures could be very helpful, and there are a lot of textbooks that aren’t at an appropriate level, the way calculus textbooks, say, usually are. But again, this is very far from saying that interaction with a teacher over and above grading problem sets is important for learning math (it’s important if you want a grad school reference, presumably, but that’s not the same thing).

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Barry 04.19.12 at 8:06 pm

. 04.19.12 at 6:53 pm

Me: “As somebody pointed out, learning proofs is hard, and proofs are frequently open-ended, so to speak.”

Alex K: ” Obviously, there is a certain amount of hand-holding involved in the beginning stages of learning math. But a college level math student should be able to learn by working by himself on the path pointed out in class, with the occasional question to the TA.”

Which is not teaching oneself, and assumes a good background.

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Barry 04.19.12 at 8:15 pm

bianca steele 04.19.12 at 7:58 pm

“I don’t understand this debate. “

Standard netlibertarian: “I learned X by myself, so therefore everybody else can, and teaching is unnecessary”. Not: the person making the statement doesn’t need to actually know X at any serious level to make this, and having actually had massive help doesn’t interfere in making this statement.

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Alex K. 04.19.12 at 8:19 pm

I’ll use this sterile “debate” with Barry as an excuse to point out that I have a comment in moderation (presumably I used too many words with the root “pharma”).

@Barry
“Which is not teaching oneself, and assumes a good background.”

The shared context is learning in an environment which contains the resources provided by Coursera (or equivalent) and by what independent study groups could provide themselves. If you don’t want to call that “teaching oneself” then fine, but there is no substance to your nitpicking.

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Walt 04.19.12 at 8:21 pm

Is Alex K a Coursera employee?

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bianca steele 04.19.12 at 8:25 pm

Barry:
You can make up things you’d prefer me to have said all you like. Or you could notice that I was talking about a two specific groups of people: people who get into low-level university math courses unable to do the work (who won’t be helped much by online coursework), and people who could do the work in a university course if they had access to it, or who could make good use of a book on the topic if it was available, but who don’t have the resources available to them because they’re not in the small group of people universities serve (or maybe they’re just cheap). Then there’s the made-up group of people who graduated with undergraduate degrees and honors but who don’t really understand because . . . I don’t know, this accusation has never been explained when it’s been thrown at me . . . we don’t know the secret handshake?

56

bianca steele 04.19.12 at 8:28 pm

There’s another argument that may be feeding into it, as I said, about elementary instruction. I have no idea how fair that feeling is. I’ve overheard mothers of older children complaining, but usually not that their kids aren’t being drilled enough, more because the kids are being asked to think abstractly or discuss their reasoning in words. And there’s the whole debate over how elementary math should be taught. But that’s specific to math, and the more general argument engels and leederick referred to isn’t.

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Barry 04.19.12 at 8:30 pm

Marc 04.19.12 at 6:30 pm

” @38: And yet labor costs have not escalated, suggesting that other factors are much more important drivers for tuition. You apparently have an embedded assumption that we need to mechanize teaching because the labor costs are so high. What is this coming from? Because all of the data that I’ve seen points to capital construction costs and administrative overhead as the main factors, with both student to teacher ratios and faculty salaries dead flat over the past 30-40 years. University costs aren’t behaving the same way across the world that they are in the US, and public schools have risen faster than private because we’ve decided not to support them with taxes.”

Good point. In the end, it’s management driven.

” Analogies can be deceptive. Some tasks lend themselves well to automation and others don’t. We can make airplane reservations efficiently with computers, but it doesn’t follow that we can teach as efficiently with them. Some people do indeed learn well, and you’d get more out of these courses than reading a book. But others simply don’t, and there is no substitute for engaging with an actual teacher if you’re interested in learning.”

We recently had a post and a loooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng comment thread about that. In particular, there was this one guy, from a non-US country, who didn’t seem to understand that maybe, just maybe, education didn’t work like his field did.

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michael e sullivan 04.19.12 at 9:02 pm

straightwood: that’s the *average* cost of a car. It’s perfectly possible to buy excellent, serviceable cars that will last a good long time for less than $21,000 in 2012.

Even looking just at the averages, there’s a big difference between a 1960 car and a 2012 car. The average car bought today is expected to run relatively trouble free for 10 years and 100k miles doing nothing more than standard maintenance, and plenty of cars in the $20k range will do better than that. I can’t remember the last car I got rid of with less than 150k on it, and even then, they were salable to somebody who could do some repair work.

Very few of the cars built in 1960 could be expected to last that long without exacting maintenance and lots of repair. You may remember that they figured out how to make cars that last a long time around the mid 60s (lincoln, valiant/duster slant-6 engine), and most manufacturers decided they were a bad idea and stopped making them when the market consequences became clear (i.e. many people keeping their cars for 10-20 years). The japanese manufacturers were the only ones that kept making cars like that, needing something to distinguish themselves — once they took over enough of the market, the Big Three had to respond and by the late 1990s long lasting cars had become the norm.

Given how much longer the 2012 car can be expected to last, I suspect it’s actually cheaper than the 1960 car.

59

Marc 04.19.12 at 9:33 pm

@55: These are two very different questions. On the one hand, are these courses useful for people who’d like to just know more about something; on the other, whether they are a substitute for traditional face-to-face education. I have no problem with the former – after all, people learn from watching documentaries on TV too. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But we’re seeing a lot of evangelism about how face-to-face teaching is some sort of obsolete thing. In effect, a common argument is that the skills of a few super-teachers distributed online will supplant inferior teachers in traditional models, and that we can’t afford to pay all of those people anyhow. This is, I thing, very wrong on both counts. And part of the reason why it’s wrong is that this mode of education only works for a subset of people, and it’s inferior to learning from another real person face-to-face.

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Marc 04.19.12 at 9:40 pm

@46: A good quick summary is at

http://chronicle.com/article/faculty-salaries-barely-budge-2012/131432

The actual study is at

http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/comm/rep/Z/ecstatereport11-12/

There is more substantive historical work on student to teacher ratios as a function of time that I can dig up if relevant. But the bottom line is that they’ve barely budged. You can also use the mean salaries – even if you add in a 50% fringe and assume no contingent faculty, or an average assistant professor with an average 16:1 ratio, you get ~6K/student/year in direct instruction cost. Comparing this with current US tuition and fees is pretty stark.

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leederick 04.19.12 at 10:03 pm

“And yet labor costs have not escalated, suggesting that other factors are much more important drivers for tuition.”

Googling around costs a distance learning BA Political Science from Penn State at $495 * 123 = $60.9k and a distance learning BSc Politics and International Relations from London University £3,384 * 1.6 = $5.4k. I don’t think technological efficiency or staff costs explain the difference, it’s basically a culture of political willingness to provide affordable education.

Also – how sure are we really that online learning is cost reducing? There’s frankly very large hardware requirements over paper and pencil learning and extra staff time requirements in terms of web maintenance, contact and sometimes specialist software. I’m not sure tacking on online learning options actually reduce costs compared to the sort of distance learning that London External or the Open University would have been doing 20 years ago.

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Alex K. 04.19.12 at 10:19 pm

“In effect, a common argument is that the skills of a few super-teachers distributed online will supplant inferior teachers in traditional models, and that we can’t afford to pay all of those people anyhow. This is, I thing, very wrong on both counts.”

If you’re right, then there is absolutely no reason not to encourage the development of such online learning initiatives. It may help some people and it poses no threat to the current system. It also gives an option to those that do not have access at all to quality education or those for whom such education is prohibitively expensive. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

63

SamChevre 04.19.12 at 11:34 pm

Marc @ 60

Thanks for the link. What I’m really looking for, though (and I’ve been looking for a while) is something that compares salaries and benefits now to the 1950’s or 1960’s.

For example, when C.S.Lewis was made a fellow of Magdalen College in 1925, his salary was 500 pounds. If I’m calculating correctly, a building laborer made about a quarter of that. But I have no idea what a “typical” college graduate made.

Building laborer earnings from http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~alan/family/N-Money.html#1264

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AcademicLurker 04.19.12 at 11:42 pm

It’s been possible both to broadcast lectures live and to distribute video recordings of lectures for decades now and yet the promised eclipse of classroom instruction hasn’t occurred.

Are there arguments in favor of recorded online lectures that are substantively different from arguments in favor of selling taped recordings and doing grading via mail? That is, arguments that don’t boil down to “But…it’s on the internet!”

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Alex K. 04.20.12 at 12:02 am

“Are there arguments in favor of recorded online lectures that are substantively different from arguments in favor of selling taped recordings and doing grading via mail? That is, arguments that don’t boil down to “But…it’s on the internet!””

1. The point of the new crop of online offerings is that they add certification to the free information. This would be the most substantive difference, if implemented well.

2.The lectures offered come from the top universities in the world.

3. I pointed out earlier in the thread that there are all sorts of ways the lecture can be made (and has been made to some extent) more interactive, and there course comes with some (now rather rudimentary) structures for student to student interaction and the possibility of semi-interactive “office hours.”

That’s about it.

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Barry 04.20.12 at 1:17 pm

“The point of the new crop of online offerings is that they add certification to the free information. This would be the most substantive difference, if implemented well.”

Agreed. (of course, ‘if implemented well’ is a rather large caveat)

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AcademicLurker 04.20.12 at 1:43 pm

The point of the new crop of online offerings is that they add certification to the free information. This would be the most substantive difference, if implemented well.

Since the primary function of elite institutions is social and the value of their degrees is largely dependent on their exclusivity, I’m finding it hard to believe that they will start handing out those degrees to anyone who signs up for and completes what is basically a fancy version of a correspondence course.

Whatever certification Harvard decides to grant to folks streaming their online lectures, I think we can be sure it will be of negligible value compared to an actual Harvard degree.

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Alex K. 04.20.12 at 2:00 pm

“Whatever certification Harvard decides to grant to folks streaming their online lectures, I think we can be sure it will be of negligible value compared to an actual Harvard degree.”

I don’t think online degrees are any threat to Harvard and equivalent. Ivy league universities sell a luxury good (among other things, direct access to say, Nobel laureates) and they will do just fine.

There are plenty of students (perhaps the majority) who go to college in order to make a living. Earlier I gave the example of pharmacy schools: graduates of rather poor non-US schools are able to practice as pharmacists if they pass some standard tests. Conditional on passing those tests, these people are still good at their profession.

If students would be able to use online courses and certifications to qualify for taking those standards tests, it would mean less financial pain and more opportunities for a good life for those would not have had a chance to it.

Computer science is another area where the difference between an online degree and a brick and mortar degree is potentially minimal — yet more opportunity and less financial pain.

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Alex K. 04.20.12 at 2:02 pm

(The moderation system ate my post which had some “pharma” words in it)

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bianca steele 04.20.12 at 2:40 pm

Computer science is another area where the difference between an online degree and a brick and mortar degree is potentially minimal—yet more opportunity and less financial pain.

Just for the record, in my opinion the importance of online courses for computer science is that this is an area where continuing education and self-education are often expected, where people who are working in a field without having important coursework (like an Algorithms course) can often benefit from picking it up later, and so forth, where postgraduate “certification” is nonexistent in some areas (and arguably should be nonexistent, though there’s a wish in some quarters for a way of telling whether someone really knows what they say they know), where there is a strong interchange between industry and academia in both directions, and where the places that offer advanced instruction in the more cutting-edge areas are limited. Breaking this down to a choice between “traditional” teaching (which is what? Jedi Master stuff?) and “we don’t need no stinkin’ school bond issues” makes no sense, unless one or the other of those two things is all one really wants to talk about.

71

John Protevi 04.20.12 at 3:04 pm

Sam @63: this has some good stuff here: http://www.centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Trends_LaborForce.pdf

One take-away: Growth of administration (1987-2007)
– 17.6% faculty increase relative to enrollment
– 35% management increase relative to enrollment

72

ragweed 04.20.12 at 9:49 pm

“The really disruptive education technology, enabling anyone sufficiently motivated and disciplined to learn anything at all, without a teacher, was the book. As the discussion above suggests, though, books are only a partial solution, and online courses are likely to make only an incremental improvement.”

Books are good, but the problem with books is that there are an awful damn lot of them, and reading them all is impossible. What one really needs is a syllabus – something from someone with a reasonable amount of respected knowledge in the field who can say “read this book and this book, a few chapters of that book, and these critical articles.” A few problem sets or questions can help as well.
The prime advantage of some of these online courses is that they offer some structure and guidance for what to learn. Of course, one can also find myriad syllabi that professors post online, and hang around the right blogs to get much the same thing.

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ragweed 04.20.12 at 10:10 pm

“Just as the average income of an American can no longer pay for the average cost of a new automobile, this limited income eventually will not be able to afford steadily rising bricks-and-mortar college tuition. Excruciatingly expensive four-year colleges are like the last grand ocean liners. They are magnificent to behold, and offer every imaginable convenience, but there is something new in the air.”

I am not sure I understand the point here. The internet is going to replace a progressive tax structure and ample funding for public universities? Inequality is a social problem (tied to power relationships) that cannot be solved by technology.

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Marc 04.20.12 at 10:18 pm

@71: Most of the faculty increase was a recovery from a severe drop in the mid 70s – mid 80s. The level is almost identical to that in the early 70s.

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John Protevi 04.20.12 at 10:26 pm

Marc @74: thanks, that’s an excellent point.

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John Protevi 04.20.12 at 10:28 pm

Follow up to Marc @74: do you have a link for that? I want to expand my list of go-to studies on these topics.

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engels 04.21.12 at 12:56 am

Books are good, but the problem with books is that there are an awful damn lot of them, and reading them all is impossible. … The prime advantage of some of these online courses is that they offer some structure and guidance for what to learn.

Clearly it’s impossible for a book to do this….

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Barry 04.21.12 at 12:12 pm

“The prime advantage of some of these online courses is that they offer some structure and guidance for what to learn. “

Except that there are ‘an awful damn lot of them’. :)

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Katherine 04.23.12 at 11:43 am

Lots of university classes, such as those in mathematics and computer science, are not merely broadcasting information, but teaching students to think in a certain way.

I think you’d find that a lot of teachers of the humanities would say that this applies to their subject as well. I imagine quite a few would argue they are doing more than just “broadcasting information”.

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ragweed 04.23.12 at 6:44 pm

@ 77 and 78,

Well, true – one can start with book A and proceed onward with footnotes and bibliography and “recommended readings”. And it does take some filtering and knowledge to select the right sylabus as well. But I find it useful to be able to look at what is assigned for an MIT class in Real Option Analysis, or a graduate level class in economic history at U Mass Amhurst. For a variety of reasons I will probably never be able to go to grad school at a hub of economic heterodoxy, but I can at least get and idea of what they are reading, and a few lecture notes wouldn’t hurt either.

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