More on obsolete professors

A number of people wrote both in support and challenging my comments on obsolete professors. Fabio Rojas wrote:

My reading of university history is that academia has always been a superstar market, except for the three decades or so after WWII…Medieval universities were run by a small group of well paid elites, while much of the grunt work was done by low status lecturers. The German research universities of the 19th century were known for giving comfy chairs to a few stars, while privatdozents slaved away at abysmal wages. The only exception to this trend is post-WWII American higher ed. The simultaneous explosion of student enrollments and Cold War money meant that universities could afford lots of research scholars who could teach. Of course, that model is hard to sustain – already a lot of work is being shifted back to part time workers.

My hunch is that in 50 years, maybe less, the higher ed system will be very different. There will still be a core of elite research universities and liberal arts colleges, where people will pay to study with famous scholars, writers and artists. The rest of the educational system will move toward a University of Phoenix model – an elite core of administrators managing an army of part timers, distance learners, on-line learning, adult ed, etc. The traditional universities can probably maintain their monopoly on occupational certification, but the rest of the system will radically change.

Similarly, Roger Meiners wrote “I think you are correct about professors being nearly obsolete. My guess is that large state universities are the institutions due for the largest restructuring. The private schools, as inefficient as they are, still generally stick to their mission better.”

But my colleagues Robin Hanson and Bryan Caplan as well as Stephen Brown from the Dallas Fed all asked, If teaching by DVD is so great why haven’t we seen it already? After all, VCRs not to mention movie projectors have been around for a long time. Perhaps, they argue, there are efficiency reasons for the structure that exists today. Stephen writes:

Professors working collaboratively, but in decentralized manner may have substantial advantages in providing certifications (degrees) when compared against a system in which students watch pre-recorded lectures by the great teachers and then are tested for mastery by an administrator through exams–particularly if mastery cannot be well demonstrated by machine-graded, multiple-choice exams.

Robin and Bryan pointed to professors as a disciplinary device. The option of self-learning may in fact be self-defeating. (See also Amy Lamboley’s comment at Crescat Sententia). Moreover, if students attend universities to find mates then big lecture classes may not be such a cost after all.

Universities have been around a long time so caution is justified but it has to make a difference in the provision of education that I can today download to my hard drive 10,000 books from Project Gutenberg or search over 100,000 books at Amazon (another 60,000 are available from Google). Innovations often seem impossible or impractical until someone demonstrates the concept and then they take off. Yes, the last is a trendy reference to the Wright brothers – note that just days before they flew, Samuel P. Langley, Director of the Smithsonian Institution and head of a well-funded government project to invent the airplane, proclaimed the goal years if not decades away.