Gates, Thiel, Summers, and Thrun on on-line education

by on January 30, 2013 at 5:17 pm in Education | Permalink

The video is here, Thomas Friedman moderates, and for the pointer I thank MG.  I have yet to view it (starting right now), but it is fair to call it self-recommending.

observor January 30, 2013 at 6:36 pm

the video constriction is a little annoying, for those of us who can read fast, von neumann bottleneck and all that.

Rob January 30, 2013 at 8:18 pm

Could Thomas Friedman be more out of his league here?

DocMerlin January 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Compared to what?

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 3:44 am

Peter Thiel

Hoover January 31, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Amusement at 7:20 when Friedman fishes unsuccessfully for a statement that girls are denied equal access to education in Pakistan.

Further amusement when Friedman fishes unsuccessfully to hear the girl’s teacher disapproved of her going online to learn.

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 1:32 pm

He’s fine, and enthusiastic. But…Peter Thiel.

Steve Sailer January 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

In Evelyn Waugh novels, you can always tell if a character is going to turn out to be a total loser doomed to complete failure if he mentions that he’s taking correspondence courses. But, obviously, MOOQs are completely different! For one thing, they’ve come up with an ugly acronym.

Eric January 30, 2013 at 10:47 pm

There’s a Simpsons episode where a guy who had a tough childhood and struggled for everything gets a degree in nuclear physics through correspondences courses. He gets hired at the nuclear plant and butts heads there with the happy-go-lucky Homer who of course has no education in nuclear physics. And he dies horribly at the end of the episode when he gets electrocuted at the nuclear plant.

This is sort of like a common cultural trope. I think people have a basic level of social/political intelligence evolved over millenia of social living that correctly tells them that correspondence courses and the like are generally dead ends and for losers, and that they’d be better off trying to develop connections or using whatever connections they might have, no matter how small.

Guest January 31, 2013 at 1:00 am

But his life was only horrible because he became jealous of Homer Simpson. If Grimes had accepted that Homer’s attitude towards life and general incompetence then Grimey could have slowly climbed the ladder of success. He probably would have done quite well during the German reign over the plant. The moral of his life was to take care of your own life and not hate on others, especially if they are dumber than you. And share your pencils.

Dan Weber January 31, 2013 at 12:05 pm

That wasn’t the moral. It’s an extremely controversial episode, an in an interview about it the writer said:

We wanted to do an episode where the thinking was “What if a real life, normal person had to enter Homer’s universe and deal with him?” I know this episode is controversial and divisive, but I just love it. It really feels like what would happen if a real, somewhat humorless human had to deal with Homer. There was some talk about the ending—we just did that because 1. it’s really funny and shocking, 2. we like the lesson of “sometimes, you just can’t win”—the whole Frank Grimes episode is a study in frustration and hence Homer has the last laugh and 3. we wanted to show that in real life, being Homer Simpson could be really dangerous and life threatening, as Frank Grimes sadly learned.

Guest January 31, 2013 at 5:00 pm

He wasnt just a humorless human. He was a deeply proud and jealous one. Hence both his contempt for Homer’s intelligence and his jealousy at the supposedly lavish life Homer lived despite an apparent limitation of his intelligence. It literally drove Grimes insane after his plot to expose Homer’s stupidity failed. No ‘normal’ person goes insane because an idiot they dont like has a better life than they do.

Non Papa January 31, 2013 at 8:05 am

Yes. This isn’t exclusive to MOOCs, which (somewhat unfairly) seem to be the one higher ed innovation garnering all the press/pundit attention. I imagine this is because MOOCs are the only innovation with which high-prestige universities have deigned to experiment, mostly because there is no expectation that they will offer their most valuable assets (credit, degrees).

Competency-based learning, unbundling of general education, and (to a certain extent) adaptive learning are all, at present, correlated with undesirable educational programs marketed at poor, adult, and middling-quality students. That’s not to say that serving those populations is bad, only that StraighterLine, Western Governor’s University, Excelsior College and all the other real innovators are not penetrating traditional higher ed markets very quickly.

Urso January 31, 2013 at 11:04 am

Also Grapes of Wrath. Rose of Sharon’s loser husband says he’s going to take correspondence courses and become an electronics repairman. Tom wisely notes that, of the people he knows who took correspondence courses, not a single one finished. (The husband ends up ditching the family in the middle of the night).

Of course, Tom’s experience was solely with prisoners who, as I understand it, still make up an outsized percentage of people taking correspondence courses.

RM January 30, 2013 at 10:02 pm
VTprof January 30, 2013 at 10:18 pm

The intro is a hoot. People assume that higher ed is about transmission of information. It is – not from professor to student, but between students and prospective employers. Students need to know that a given educational process will get them a job. Employers need to know that a given applicant can do a job. A college’s reputation provides information in both directions. Education done freelance/a la carte would pose huge information challenges for both students (which combination of courses/tutors will get me a job) and for employers (which combination gets me good employees). College reputation resolves these informational challenges, and are paid to do so. Banks play (or are supposed to play) a similar informational role in finance. Sure, top universities with high reputational capital are launching MOOCs. But they can either serve 10,000x more students, or keep their informational role intact, but not both. A MOOC-patchwork degree, even from top universities will be worth the inverse of the number of people getting such degrees.

Guest January 31, 2013 at 1:04 am

Only to some extent. In technical fields it wouldnt be too difficult to set up a sample test. Certainly things like law and non-quantative aspects of finance are safe for the credentialism but in software or engineering? And if colleges adopt things like Wisconsin, where you can challenge a course then how would an employer even know that the prospective employee isnt someone who spent their weekends drinking their brains out? Theyll just see a bunch of As in maths and physics.

Ed January 31, 2013 at 2:25 am

While I’m skeptical about this stuff as well, I see a role here for a big name college (HYP) whose function is to audit or vet online courses offered by other institutions. The student completes some aggregate of courses pre-certified by the big name college, or the big name college looks at the student’s portfolio and sees if it meets their standards. All for a hefty fee charged either to the student or to whoever is providing the online courses. The employers then don’t look at the online courses themselves, they look for the certificate or diploma from the university that has audited the courses. Eventually this institution stops offering courses itself.

Dana January 31, 2013 at 1:29 am

This was rather more balanced than I expected, once you get past the “11-year-olds-will-become-physicists-overnight-now-that-we-have-the-internet” presentation. Gates and Summers especially provided some thoughtfully skeptical assessments of the gospel preached by the online ed evangelists.

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 4:22 am

Summers’ football analogy is interesting. I’ve made a similar analogy separately for both education and football where I say “imagine a guy walking into a banker’s office and saying: I have this idea for a new business where we build a multi-million dollar stadium and then people drive hours and pay a hundred bucks to watch sports” or “I have this business idea where people move out of their house and away from their home for 4+ years and pay tens of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper.” Both guys would be laughed out of the banker’s office…and yet.

But is the football analogy right for schooling? After all, the vast majority of people don’t go to football games. And it’s pretty popular on TV too by the way.

Dana January 31, 2013 at 11:41 am

The popular answer to this question seems to be that people want or will benefit from both or a combined or blended approach. I personally hate sports analogies, but to extend the football analogy to my point you’d look at something like Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington. It’s indoors, its got giant TV screens (with instant replay?) so you can see all the action, and all kinds of food option (which are absurdly expensive I’m sure but whatever). At the same time fans get the emotional (and in the classroom intellectual) benefits of being there with other fans, seeing and almost participating in the action (and in the classroom you are actually participating). So you get the best of both worlds. I’m not a psychologist but I assume this is an important part of the motivational impulse, the sense that you are actually part of the (learning) process. For the vast majority of students who aren’t 11-year-old geniuses or Jimmy Wales’ kid or you and me (who spend our “fun” time reading and commenting on an economics blog) that sense of personal/emotional/mental investment in the learning process is vital to the motivational impulse.

Silas Barta January 31, 2013 at 1:26 pm

“A piece of paper” is a completely inappropriate level of description for a college diploma that fails to account the role it actually plays in the real world. You should instead have said, “a certification that they have some weighted combination of desired employee characteristics”.

Oooh, not so goofy now, is it?

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 1:31 pm

Well, a little. But at the dawn of such a business were it to be created today that piece of paper would hold very little of the cache we think it does in our world, just as a new sport would have difficulty building up the fan base, loyalties and rivalries of currently popular sports.

jk January 31, 2013 at 2:24 am
Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 3:48 am

You guys who doubt this stuff seem to me either very cynical or very optimistic. I don’t see much learning in current education. Maybe the newcomer will fail to displace the incumbent. And that will be a very sad day.

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 4:17 am

I suspect I just understand the situation differently than most people. While many people seem to be skeptical about the forms these things are trying, I’m convinced with the technology will allow some improvement to emerge. It is also about what Peter Thiel talks about when decomposing education into things like learning and tournament. In graduate school for example (and highly competitive undergrad fields), since it is so predominately about tournament (in my experience) failure is often seen as a feature rather than a bug. I mitigated this by complementing my classes doing exactly what Bill Gates was skeptical of, I got the material beforehand and knew a lot of the stuff before taking the class. It did not replace the formal classroom, but mitigated the tournament in favor of learning.

Andrew' January 31, 2013 at 4:30 am

Here is one question (of many) that would help predict success. Let’s say college costs $100,000 cash and $100,000 lost opportunity cost by the student. Employers don’t seem to care that you spend $200,000 and 4+ years out of the workforce.Why? Does the new technology help new things emerge to make them care?

Employers also send you to many courses for learning compared to your pre-employment courseload. So, they don’t think much of the pragmatic learning opportunities or they don’t think much of potential learning. Maybe the shortcomings of education to the student are features for the employers. That would be depressing to learn.

jseliger January 31, 2013 at 11:49 am

Has anyone produced a transcript yet?

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