Online Education and the Market for Superstar Teachers

I have argued that universities will move to a superstar market for teachers in which the very best teachers use on-line instruction and TAs to teach thousands of students at many different universities.  The full online model is not here yet but I see an increasing amount of evidence for the superstar model of teaching.  At GMU some of our best teachers are being recruited by other universities with very attractive offers and some of our most highly placed students have earned their positions through excellence in teaching rather than through the more traditional route of research.

I do not think GMU is unique in this regard–my anecdotal evidence is that the market for professors is rewarding great teachers with higher wages and higher placements than in earlier years.

The online aspect, which enhances the market for superstars, is also growing.  Here from a piece on online education in Fast Company are a few nuggets on for-profit colleges which have moved online more quickly than the non-profits.

Today, for-profit colleges enroll 9% of all students, many of them in online programs. It's safe to assume they'll soon have many more….for-profits are the only sector significantly expanding enrollment — up 17% since the start of the recession in 2008….the University of Phoenix, which with 420,000 students is the largest university in North America.

Interesting explanation for why for-profits still lag:

Since there are no generally accepted measurements of learning in traditional higher education, the proxy for the value of a diploma on the job market is prestige. Rankings like those of U.S. News & World Report depend on reputation; spending per student, including spending on research; and selectivity — a measure of inputs, not outputs. On all these measures, for-profits come up short.

But how long can we expect the inability to measure to protect academia when there are big profits to be made?  Robin Hanson would argue that most of what is going on is signaling, i.e. that prestige is what is being bought and sold and not prestige as a proxy for some other measure of quality.  No doubt there is some truth to that but there are plenty of fields, dentistry, engineering, computer science where measurable quality matters as well.

It's true that the university equilibrium has lasted a long time but that doesn't mean it can't break down very quickly.

Addendum: Bryan Caplan laughs but Arnold Kling has the right idea.


A 'superstar' teacher making online material with TAs doing the human interaction seems similar to a textbook writer with teachers for human interaction.

Just wait until we have the first person with a degree from an online university running a major corporation. Or large bank. Or in the White House.

Then we'll see the tables turn.

Oh, btw: Do you believe we'll see the military academies go all online?

i might have considered becoming a teacher if it was just a matter of explaining things to a room. it's not, though. i think zamfir got it right. learning from a textbook and learning from a lecture where you can't ask questions are pretty much equal in aggregate, with some people helped more by lecture and others by book.

re: hiring these superstars, if what you are doing is putting their lectures on video or internet, why wouldn't renting the product be cheaper than giving a lifetime of tenured security to the person? the answer is probably: copyright, intellectual property, and licensing fees. meaning that the professor in question will have to bargain away their intellectual property as part of the deal.

now what's missing are systems (computer or people) who can teach by interaction where interaction is necessary. that's a whole lot of cases. i used to follow this closely about ten years ago and the answer was that it was too hard. but maybe it's getting better?

I think the textbook argument is valid except that we are moving toward a multimedia world.

Textbooks that include online content, including video full lectures, will become more common.

Online drills are often better for the student, with immediate feedback.

But will that raise or lower the salaries of professors who will act as TA's at the local college?

For basic intro classes how much does it matter. At many colleges they just farm out those classes to adjuncts and grad students.

I have a friend who is a professor both at a state university and at DeVry institute. She claims that her DeVry students are on average, far more motivated and far more demanding of her, in that they push her to be a better teacher, questioning her analysis and ideas more. In her opinion, this is because the DeVry students are footing their own bills, or working along side schooling. They don't have time or money to waste, and since prestige isn't important to them, they don't seem to have any myths about the prestige of their profs being related to profs' teaching ability. It isn't an online education that they prefer, either. They want a teacher to interact with, but with advances in telepresence, the for profits will probably get there first.

The personal experience of university will continue to matter for people whose parents want them to meet a good mate. That's what the prestige counts for. But as parents discover that hardworking, intelligent, financially stable prospective mates got their degree from DeVry, they will be more likely to go there.

OK, dumb question, but how would you measure teaching ability? I'm all for rewarding excellence in teaching, but I don't see any obvious way to evaluate it.

These comments make me wonder what type of educational experiences their authors have had - they must have been quite poor. Sure I've seen (and delivered myself) poor classes and teachers, and these exist both in the classroom and on-line. But anybody who is serious about teaching knows that a mass-delivered "superstar" is not the same thing as a good teacher. Tapes of great courses have been offered for decades and the lectures are quite good - but not the same thing as a good educational experience.

I tend to agree with the commentors that favor a hybrid model where we reduce the classroom time, but make the interactive classroom a necessary and better used part of each course. But I reject the idea that technology is the main impetus to the changing the nature of higher education. It is a lack of imagination to concentrate solely on the delivery of education and not the content. Interdisciplinary team-teaching offers qualitatively better opportunities for learning and technology has little directly to do with innovations along these lines. But these comments would suggest that people still believe that education is about conveying a set body of knowledge from one group of people to another. If anything, technology appears to be reinforcing this limited and jaundiced view of education. How about a little creative thinking and imagination?

how does any of this relate to teaching a basic skill like essay writing?

Yes but...

As mentioned above, who's to say that universities will a. survive altogether, b. be the best adapted for the move towards footless learning. Indeed, those multemedia classes are pretty inexpensive to put together, why should a super start professor accept to share his revenue while he could perfectly move towards independence and merely sale his package to various universities (like textbooks).

So universities could quickly be taken out of the picture, at least as primary providers of knowledge. However star-ridden any given university is, I'll still be better off building my own professors portfolio on my own, in which case the university would be brought to the level of a mere aggregator and supervisor of my effort.

I would highly recommend John Sperling's biography. University of Phoenix is doing for education what Wal Mart did for retail. It's not going to take over, but you are going to know that it's there.

And UoP's returns have been much better.

As a PhD who loves to teach, I support this trend :)

Phoenix and a few other for-profit institutions were frequent recruiters at the NH community college I attended, and what struck me was the much higher tuition for a much smaller selection of classes - yes, they did offer the 3rd/4th year classes needed to get a four year degree, but the degree was in some nondescript area like business, and nothing that was either practical, nor nothing that was in the tradition of the classic liberal education.

The argument that the technology is offering or delivering the promise of "the master teacher for all" falls flat in my view when the technology isn't delivering slightly worse for substantially less cost, or delivering the same for less, or significantly better for the same price. Or alternatively, offering the unique widely for a standard price.

Instead what I see is the educational equivalent of selling today a 486 computer running W98 for $800 with a few proprietary office programs.

Let me know when any school offers Intro to Sculpture, Masters Class in Water Colors, Stage Craft, Organic Chemistry, Microbiology, Soil Mechanics, Materials Testing, Plastics Mold Design, etc., on line....

Alex, could you clarify whether you feel this would be a net positive or negative for our society? Should we encourage this trend?

My initial thought is that it would be a positive for society in that it would lower the cost of "quality" eduction and (hopefully) lead to lower income inequality.

However, decidedly negative for the "average" professor; and money-managers for university endowments.

Disclosure: Have two degrees from a high prestige 40k/year Ivy-league institution.

Master of None, I agree with you. Good for society overall but bad for the average professor who will lose status, pay and independence.

Online classes are a sham. No student who cares about who his professor is for any reason higher than "who's easiest" would pay for such a thing.

Whoa... I think we are neglecting the social aspect of education - and I am NOT talking about learning to play nice with others.
As a professor teaching second year students in a biomed program, I tell them to find a spot in a lab if they want to follow a research path. Being around people actually talking the talk for hours and hours each day is a great way to learn - in fact, I believe that humans are "programmed" to learn this way (yes, subject to dispute).
I can't imagine the number or types of class experiences that can compensate for this type of experience.

Similarly, being around other students at similar levels who are motivated has an enormous effect - the students talk over the material at lunch, etc, correct each other's mistakes, get new ideas... This is fundamentally why I believe that e-learning can only go so far.

I am surprised how little discussion there is about the lack of student accountability in on line classes. At some point the media will come to realize that there is massive cheating in on line courses and there will be a major scandal.

In the short-term, no-credit online courses will be used to support or develop brands of all kinds, including high-end Hansonian signallers and University-of-Phoenix remote suppliers. Some courses will showcase pedagogy; others, expertise in a particular field. Watch for schools to exercise more control over content and production values.

I don't think these for-profit places will replace major universities since state universities never replaced the Ivy league places. Wall St. will always hire graduates from Ivy league places almost exclusively.

A for-profit degree will always be worth less than your *first* 4 years work experience. If you need a night school degree later, fine. A for-profit degree may also be good deal if you are poor and dumb. If you are poor and smart, get a scholarship for a more prestigious place. A few poor & smart people will continue succeeding as IT, software developers, etc. without degrees, btw.

I think state schools have become unsustainably dependent upon adjunct and TA labor already. Adjuncts and TAs are so prevalent now only because society says the humanities are not important enough to warrant respectable salaries. *But* now math and physics departments are using armies of TAs and adjunct lecturers too! Anyone who knows that much mathematics is wasting their talents by adjunct teaching.

To rephrase, society prefers that humanities professors tell their students "No, never become a writer, artist, academic, etc., just get a job." Otoh, we'll see a shit storm when mathematicians and physicists start saying this because fewer mathematicians means losing many economic battles with Europe and China. Who invented the atomic bomb, cryptography, etc.?

I suspect congress will eventually pass laws mostly barring schools with federal grants from hiring lower wage adjuncts in the sciences. All Ivy league schools would lobby *for* this legislation, only the state schools will oppose it, but the scientists themselves will support it. There will also be massive pressure to partially replace TAships with better preparation for industry jobs. UCLA's math dept. recently won an award from the AMS for doing exactly that.

In any case, our obsession with hiring PhDs for teaching effectively high school level classes has always been rather ridiculous. A master's degree more than suffices for teaching undergrad calculous classes. We expect that a PhD qualifies you for research or high level industry work, not teaching. Of course some PhDs must teach, since upper level undergrad courses are potentially very tricky. Sure, you need a PhD teaching Quantum Mechanics I, but not for just AP Calculous.

For most people, teaching is best used as a brief stepping stone towards far deeper understand of critical core material. Georgia Tech has been hiring undergraduate students as TAs for math and comp.sci for over 20 years. Why not institute a 1 semester TA requirement for the honors programs at high level state schools?


I wish your prediction of an impending online market for superstar teachers would come true, but I doubt it. I feel like I have a unique perspective on this issue: I currently teach online classes for the University of Phoenix and I have 3 degrees from Ivy-caliber universities.

First of all, Jack's question of how do you measure teaching ability is spot on. I'd like to think that I'm an excellent teacher. I do receive very positive feedback from my students but this is a shaky metric. I bet if I gave them all As then my feedback scores would be even higher.

I know I'm far better than the large majority of college professors I ever had (although, no doubt, I'm dumber than most of them). Traditional univerisities do not select teachers for their teaching skill; they select them for their research skill, right, the potential of the professor to "advance the study" of their area of expertise and bring prestige to the school. The correlation between research skill and teaching ability is, I would guess, non-existent. Don't get me wrong, I'm the biggest school snob you'll ever meet (throughout my career I have found that, on average, the people who went to East Tennessee Juco are no where near as competent as those who went to MIT. . .), but one thing going for the online universities is that they select teachers only for their teaching skill and not their research ability.

Teaching doesn't pay jack. Let me be more specific: the teaching part of teaching (subtracting research efforts) pays jackshit. I wish an online market would develop for superstar teachers, but how do you measure teaching ability and who would pay the teachers the fat salaries?

I went to what most consider a top school. I learned a great deal from the TA's. But that was in large part because that is where I did the problem sets. Technology can now substitute for some of that feedback.

Listening to a lecture is often necessary but rarely sufficient.

thanks for all

oh, i left out one point.

if you want to increase productivity of education, the people who really _should_ be getting the $ are the ones who can figure out how to do that with the 20th-90th percentile teacher being the predominant employee, because that is and always will be the most common case.

If superstar teachers handle the formal instruction, doesn't that give the non-superstars more time to focus on imparting knowledge in smaller educational groups?

My take on distance education: learning is at least as much a social process as an intellectual process, at least at the undergrad level.

Teaching is a 'personal selling' job. And with current communication/information technology, distance interactions don't have the emotional-social bandwidth.

Somewhat strangely, I think the proper analogy here is religion. Television has enabled some super-star preachers to reach massive audiences. But many religion consumers need the 'personal touch' of having a live human being in front of them.

As with all careers, I think the expansion into the online space will ultimately be a great thing for teachers. Web work seems to be the great equalizer when it comes to salaries, opportunities, etc. Down with logistic barriers, up with ethernet! :) My take on distance education: learning is at least as much a social process as an intellectual process, at least at the undergrad level.

I think Ben is right, although there is some compensation for teaching ability.

What matters more than writing, however, is getting grants and research money. It pays for administrator salaries and graduate research assistants

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