MOOCs versus Traditional Classrooms: How Do You Judge Nonscarce Goods?

I’ve seen a spate of recent articles about the difficultly of applying traditional metrics to MOOCs. The general thrust of these articles is one of two things:

  1. MOOCs are vastly superior to regular classes because they reach many more people.
  2. MOOCs are vastly inferior to regular classes because the drop rates are astronomical.

I find both claims somewhat problematic. The fact that private institutions with stringent admissions, a culture of classwork, and high per-unit prices have a much lower drop rate says more about the structure of college education versus the structure of free educational materials available on the internet than it does about instructional quality. If you get into a college, pay for it, and associate with students, you are likely to finish your classes. If you are educating yourself a la carte and there’s no penalty to start or quit a class, you can be expected to start more classes and finish only those you really like.

So drop rates aren’t really a good comparison for traditional versus online learning options. Let’s say I have an open-enrollment, free MOOC and it signs up 100,000 students. If only 10% finish, I taught 10,000 students!

And what of the variety? When you choose a college it is often for the totality of their course offerings — the more in your fields of interest the better. But when you can switch institutions at no cost all the institutions of the world are open to you. Isn’t there value in that vastly expanded course catalog / idea marketplace?

So before we go demonizing MOOCs as education for the waffler and the flake, perhaps we should interrogate whether collegiate learning environments ought to be more open and more encouraging of experimentation in learning styles and disciplines. Both are at least equally valid conclusions from the data.

The Phenomenon of Cultural Slowdown, Or It Took This Long To Come Up With MOOCS?!

Here in the futurist community it is standard practice to seize upon some fun new technological advance coming down the pike and then prognosticate on the societal implications. And often this type of over-eager thought experiment is justified. After all, as we’ve seen with cell phones, adoption can sometimes happen shockingly fast. The self-driving cars that are currently confined to labs and controlled experiments really could find their way onto the road in surprisingly short order. In which case, we are more than justified in aggressively discussing them now.

However, we should remind ourselves that just because technology makes something possible, and even desirable, doesn’t mean that said thing will occur on an expeditious timescale. Let me illustrate with a personal example.

In 1999, when I was still in high school, I took an online class offered by the University of California, Los Angeles. It was a creative writing class, and at that moment in my life, it was the best class experience I’d ever had. The professor was excellent. The other students were excellent. I got great and useful feedback on the stories that I wrote, and all from the comfort of my home computer.

It seemed obvious to me then that the future of education was online. That there was little need for classrooms when you had the internet. That education, after all, is just the transmission of information from one individual to another, primarily via text and voice. These were tasks the network could easily handle. Surely, I thought, education was going to be transformed by technology and the internet within a decade!

Alas. Ten years later my utopia had not come to pass. In fact, I had stopped ranting about how computers would change education. I’d gotten tired of people’s incredulous responses. I’d realized that my pontificating on technology trends only tended to alienate people and ruin otherwise pleasant gatherings. Moreover, I’d made peace with the fact that apparently I was wrong. Technology had not transformed education. People were still using the same poorly written textbooks and paying for the same overpriced universities. As a professional tutor, I’d witnessed firsthand many absurdities. My favorite example was a widely used math textbook that explained its concepts using math more advanced than the actual math being taught. If you think about that, it’s not unlike teaching someone their ABC’s using Shakespeare as a guide.

Then one day someone said to me, “Hey you should check out Khan Academy. It’s like what you’ve been talking about.” And so I checked it out. And was initially disappointed. This was the future? Some hastily made Youtube videos? At this point I had at least ten years under my belt consuming online tutorials. To me, learning was a big part of what the internet was for. So the fact that some guy named Khan had collected a bunch of videos in one place did not seem new or revolutionary. From my perspective, this type of knowledge dissemination had been going on for a third of my life.

But in truth, there was something new going on. Because thanks to Khan and others, the potential of online education was finally being recognized by the mainstream. Culture was finally catching up.

Today we have a lot of buzz about MOOCs or massive open online courses. And this development is exciting, because it represents a major step closer to the full service online education I’ve always imagined. So why did it take so long to get here? The technology has not been lacking. Remember: the ability to transmit text, audio, and even video over the network has been around for a long time now. I had a fulfilling online class experience back in 1999. Rather, things seem to be happening in online education today because finally people are getting more culturally comfortable with the idea of learning in front of a computer instead of in a classroom.

In fact, there is still a lot of innovation that needs to occur. I’m convinced gamification and personalization are the main ways to continuing improving education, and I know I am not alone in this opinion. But designing such systems requires skill, money, and most importantly willpower. Again, technology, as I see it, has been more than sufficient for a while now. It is human motivation that has been lacking.

So the lesson from this is a cautionary one. It is an obvious point perhaps, but worth remembering: When it comes to technology, just because something can happen soon, doesn’t mean it will. Even if the thing in question is highly desirable. Technological progress is fast, but cultural progress can be very slow indeed.

Is the US Close to Maxed Out on Education?

Mark Lewis writes:

“In 1930, there was a lot of potential in the US public for improving skills through education. Most people were undereducated. They hadn’t reached their potential because they didn’t need to and were advised against it. Somewhere around the 1950s, kids were being told that they really needed to graduate from High School to find jobs. By the 1980s, you needed to go to college to get a good job. By 2000, college wasn’t seen as the key to the good jobs, it was the key to almost every job. We had moved into the information age and High School counselors were telling students that if they didn’t get some college they were doomed to lower-end jobs.

“One result of this is that the US is probably close to maxed out on education. There are inevitably some things that can happen to help certain students go further. There are definitely things that can be done to make the whole process more efficient. However, I don’t think this is an area of huge untapped potential. I don’t see any technology that is going to take current High School dropouts and turn them into Ph.D.s in STEM fields…

“I think the stories from the Occupy movement of people who had degrees and couldn’t find jobs are a parallel to the kid in the 1920s who was told to drop out of school and start working the farm. While it is easy to take a condescending view of the 20-somethings who racked up a whole bunch of debt majoring in some field from the Humanities and can’t find a job today, doing so is not only non-productive, it really isn’t fair. Those kids grew up being told that they should get a college degree in something they loved and that would get them a job. That advice has worked for decades. The people giving the advice didn’t lie, they simply didn’t have 20/20 foresight into the future. (Something it is impossible to blame people for.)

“There is a difference between today’s Occupiers and the unemployed farm hand of 1930 though, the unemployed farm hand had a lot of untapped potential when it came to education. The youth of today typically don’t. Yes, they could go learn something different to give them more desirable skills, but I fear that doesn’t scale the same way. Plus, many of these people chose the direction they went because they found that those other areas (which might be better for jobs) didn’t work well for them.”  (link)

I mostly agree with the basic premise here. The only clarification I would add is the limiting factor may not be people’s intellectual capability but their interest and ambition. I actually have a lot of faith in people’s potential when properly educated. But harnessing one’s potential requires willpower and drive that may be in short supply.

In other words, there are probably lots of people who intellectually speaking could become STEM field Ph.D.s but never will, because they lack the desire to follow through with such a field of study. So the next educational challenges will not only be about transferring knowledge, but also about finding new ways to incentivize people and make the learning process fun. For this reason I expect future education to increasingly take the form of games. The educational problem could be seen as a game design problem.

However, the bottom line remains the same. We are probably not going to be able to address the upcoming automation revolution with education alone. And the previous industrial revolution may have limited lessons to teach us in terms of providing a blueprint for the way ahead.

Online Certificates vs. Offline Degrees: Just A Marketing Distinction?

BBC News reports that MIT is launching its first fully automated course:

This is not a “watered down” version of the campus course or “any less intense”, says a university spokesman. The main difference is that the MITx version has been designed for online students, with a virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and videos that are the equivalent of a lecture. It is expected to take 10 hours per week and will run until June.

Elsewhere in the article it reports that MIT is making a distinction between online “certificates” and offline “degrees.” Naturally! Imagine how upset paying students would be if they discovered their degree was no better than some freeloading online upstart! But as these online courses get better and better, what will be the distinction really? Other than just a distinction in name? Eventually such a distinction may become absurd, like taking a product, stamping “premium” or “luxury” on it and then selling it at ten times the cost. But then I suppose that sort of thing happens in the marketplace all the time…

Perhaps it will be more like the difference between consumer and pro software. The online courses will be missing key features. You’ll take a test and not get the grade you want. Then you’ll click the “retake” button and a window will pop up that says, “This feature is only available to physical MIT students. Click here to apply for next semester.”

Seriously, I doubt it would go that way. But I’m trying to point out some huge looming questions on the horizon for higher education: How much is the prestige of an “official” degree worth? What is the monetary value of actually being on campus?

It’s hard for me to imagine that these two items—prestige and physical experience—will be enough to continue justifying currently inflated tuition costs. But perhaps I am wrong about that. Perhaps I underestimate the things people are willing to pay for. In any event, it will be interesting over the next decade to see if all these online developments have the effect of lowering tuition at all. (Or at least slowing the relentless rise of costs.)

Pros and Cons of the Online Learning Experience

Blogger Scott Young is in the process of trying to complete MIT’s entire four year computer science program online in just twelve months. In his week ten video, he summarizes what he perceives to be the pros and cons of this online, self-directed learning approach:


  1. You set your own pace, experience better learning “flow”
  2. Way cheaper
  3. No bureaucracy to deal with
  4. Brings out your own intrinsic curiosity


  1. Hard to find complete curriculums online for many subjects, as opposed to just scattered courses. (Defeater: More and more learning resources are going online every day.)
  2. No direct access to help. (Defeater: There’s not necessarily much access to one-on-one help at many real-space universities. Also, some help is in fact available online in the form of forums, etc.)
  3. Few objective criteria available for evaluating yourself. (Defeater: People are working on this issue. Hopefully it will be a solvable problem in the near future.)

In the end, Scott Young comes out as overwhelmingly positive regarding his experience. The price differential alone is so enormous that one can easily overlook many of the minor drawbacks. In my case, I think the biggest thing I’d miss about not attending a university in person is the social experience. But I’d be perfectly willing to expend a tiny bit of effort and manufacture my own social experiences, if it meant not being saddled with crippling debt!

Abundance of Links — Virtual Therapists, Skip College, Gamified Brain Research, Legally Autonomous

1. Should Even Therapists Be Worried About Their Jobs Now?

A virtual programmable human will role play with adolescents and adults to teach social and assertiveness skills to prevent and treat depression. “We think this will be especially helpful for kids, who often are reluctant to see a therapist,” Mohr said. The program will allow them to practice these behaviors in the safety of virtual space. Existing online interventions for teens “look like homework,” Mohr noted. The virtual human feels like a game, making it more likely to engage them.

2. Another Promising Way to Bypass Higher Education Costs

Skip college, work at a startup. Enstitute wants to help establish this type of real-world experience as a credential. It’s working with recruiters from large technology companies to set up interviews for entry-level jobs with program graduates that would give them a chance to compete directly with college graduates. “I’ll put money on it now that our fellows will outperform any green college graduate,” Ittycheria says.

3. More Ways Games Can Help Speed Up Research

Using a new site called Eyewire, MIT will ask users to track a neuron’s path by coloring in each axon (tendril). In the future, MIT will roll out another “game” which challenges users to find the synapses. The end result will be the connectome (a tome of connections) of the mouse’s retina.

4. The Uncertain Legality of Driverless Cars

“Suppose that most cars brake automatically when they sense a pedestrian in their path. As more cars with this feature come to be on the road, pedestrians may expect that cars will stop, in the same way that people stick their limbs in elevator doors confident that the door will automatically reopen.”

Abundance of Links — Digital Destruction of Textbooks, The Effects of Self-Driving Cars, Not Worth Stealing

1. Apple’s Plans to “Destroy” Textbook Publishing

“We know that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs was working on addressing learning and digital textbooks for some time, according to Walter Issacson’s biography. Jobs believed that textbook publishing was an ‘$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.'”

2. The Future of Car Tech: Efficiency, Automation, and Sharing

I’ve done a lot of thinking about self-driving cars but for some reason I overlooked the effects on insurance. Self-driving cars should very rarely have accidents, so one might expect a steep drop in insurance premiums?

“All told, the changes may not best the leap from horses to cars, but they are big enough to undermine many of the legal systems we rely on for things like insurance, not to mention criminal law. If a car doesn’t require a driver, can a 12-year-old “drive” to his friend’s house? Can a drunk person drive home from a bar? How will insurance work if people share driverless cars? Courts and legislators will be sorting those out for years to come.”

3. Physical Media Products are No Longer Worth Stealing

“Thefts of entertainment products like CDs and DVDs have collapsed in England and Wales, to the point that they are now taken in just 7% of all burglaries in which something is stolen (see chart). They are now targeted no more frequently than are toiletries and cigarettes.”

Abundance of Links — A Dead Profession, A Troubling Graph, A Bunch of Scanned Textbooks

1. Add “Projectionist” to the List of Obsolete Professions

“For more than 120 years the projectionist has been integral to the cinema-goer’s experience. His tool is an elaborate machine which displays 24 still pictures from the film strip onto the screen every second. His job is monotonous and tedious. It also involves plenty of skill. But it is a dying craft.”

2. Andrew McAfee Posts New Technological Unemployment Graph

“When I look at this graph I see evidence of the computer age everywhere. Current labor force woes are not because the economy isn’t growing, and they’re not because companies aren’t making money or spending money on equipment. They’re because these trends have become increasingly decoupled from hiring — from needing more human workers.”

3. More Ammunition for an Educational End Run

“In about 7 days, BenchPrep can convert any textbook, say one on Calculus that sells for $50, into an interactive course it can sell for $100. That’s still much cheaper than taking a class in person. The publisher gets paid royalties on each course sale, and Rangnekar says BenchPrep plans to be cash-flow positive by June. New partnerships with more publishers will add 50 more courses to its library in the coming months.”

A Response to Salman Khan’s 2060 Education Predictions

In the above video, Salman Khan of Khan Academy makes predictions about the future of education. When I first saw the title of the video—”Year 2060: Education Predictions”—I braced myself to disagree since I usually find fifty year predictions to be too conservative. But early in the video, Khan reveals that many of his predictions will probably happen “quickly over the next ten years.” So I suppose he is just allowing himself a forty year margin of error.

Within this modified time frame, I agree with much of what Khan predicts. It’s a good video with a lot of interesting ideas. However, I do have some issues to raise.

Khan predicts the rise of a new “creative class” composed of artists and innovators. Given enough time, most of us will be members of this class. He arrives at this conclusion in a logical way: routine labor—both mental and physical—is increasingly being automated, so the only thing left for humans to do will be more creative tasks. Education will follow suit by preparing people to do these more creative jobs.

I agree with this assessment to a point. I do not doubt that in the future more people will be freed up to pursue creative activities. However, I don’t think this new reality will necessarily have anything to do with work or education in the traditional sense. As all artists know well, creating something new or interesting in no way guarantees that you will be compensated for your work. When people predict the rise of a creative class, they rarely stop to ask the attendant question: how many creators can the market really support?  When it comes to appreciating art, we all have limited attention to donate. Just increasing the supply of creators is all well and good. But if we expect those creators to be paid, then we somehow need to increase demand as well, and it’s not readily clear how we’re going to do that.

In contrast with art, more practical innovations are always in high demand. But the process of innovation is difficult and in many ways mysterious. Education can help set the stage for innovation, but education on its own is far from sufficient. At times education can even be opposed to innovation, since education often reinforces established thinking through the use of a fixed curriculum. Even with the right education, can we reasonably expect the majority of the population to make a living as innovators? Or is true innovation, almost by definition, the domain of the few?

The most promising source of employment I can imagine might be research. Perhaps we will employ a lot of people to do research, as a calculated gamble. Only one person in a thousand might come up with something useful, but if that one discovery is fruitful enough, it could pay for the whole enterprise. It’s a plausible model, but could it provide full scale employment? Again, I’m skeptical.

I say none of this to detract from the inherent value of education. What I am questioning  rather is the tenuous relationship between education and employment. Leagues of professionals will tell you that what they do in their career has almost nothing to do with what they learned in school. Moreover, plenty of our most successful people (innovators and artists in particular) never bother to complete higher education. Future technologies can certainly help to repair this disconnect between education and work, and this is no doubt what Khan has in mind.

But maybe this disconnect isn’t a problem that can or should be fixed—especially if we see massive disruptions in the job market. Maybe education will shift toward being even less utilitarian. Instead of career training, perhaps future education will be more explicitly just a source of entertainment, enrichment, and status. This wouldn’t necessarily undermine the basic structure of Khan’s vision, but it does reframe the issue.

Later in the video, Khan suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that in the future teachers will be valued more. I find this possible, but in no way certain. He makes some interesting arguments for this proposition, but I think he leaves out a key consideration, namely the effect of “superstar economics.”  Armed with the best possible technology, a few master teachers could extend their reach to where they effectively fulfill the needs of increasingly large numbers of students. Need I point out that on Khan’s own website, the architecture is built around essentially one teacher: Khan. When one superstar teacher serves an extremely large “class”, that’s great for the superstar teacher and not great for the employment prospects of teachers in general.

(video via Derek Yu)

MIT Announces New Free Online Education For All

MIT, long an innovator in open learning initiatives, recently announced a new, potentially game-changing system that will be available sometime in 2012. It’s called MITx and it is a completely free online education system. Why are they doing it?

“M.I.T. has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage M.I.T. coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best M.I.T.-based educational experience that Internet technology enables,” said M.I.T. President Susan Hockfield in the university’s press release.

That statement (and its relentless repetition of the institution’s name)  seems to me like MIT thinks the reputation-building effects of being the provider are going to make the endeavor worth it. This is the optimistic side of technological progress; as technology gets better it becomes trivially cheap for institutions to simply provide the services that we used to pay for, for free. For now graduates of this online program receive only a certificate, not a degree, but all it will take is a shift in social norms to make those certificates just as valuable as a degree is today.