A fourth and hybrid perspective on the future of on-line education

In a very good blog post, Bryan Caplan lays out three competing perspectives.  But he leaves out a fourth:

Select groups, such as adult continuing education, military officers on ships, precocious 12-year-olds, or perhaps middle class students in Kenya who can’t get the real product, will follow an exclusively on-line model.  But most students will not, at least not in the United States.  College still has considerable consumption value, fraternities improve your job prospects, instructors help motivate, and face-to-face contact imprints a lot of learning on our minds.  Still, there is far too much duplication of lectures and universities are being squeezed by personnel costs.  State governments face rising Medicaid costs and 78 percent or so of students are in state systems.  Lecture duplication will be significantly reduced, and instructional time will be spent…instructing…rather than repeating canned lectures ad nauseum.  Imagine that ten years from now one-third of all lectures are delivered on-line in one manner or another, perhaps with some later in person commentary.  Students may watch those lectures with an instructional aide present to address questions or to show them how to press the “Play” button.  There will be no need for employers to fundamentally change which sources they respect for personnel certification, although possibly some upstarts will arise in corners of the market where quality can be measured by tests.

You will find two critiques of my views on on-line education here, and here, but neither represents my views correctly.  They all take on-line education to be an all-or-nothing prospect.

At the end of his post Bryan writes:

* When I talk about “online education,” I don’t just mean students at existing brick-and-mortar colleges taking some classes from their dorm rooms.  I mean students enrolling in virtual colleges instead of physical colleges.

I would say he is defining away the most likely model, namely a hybrid model which has a significant on-line component.


Traditional college will survive in the 'ergonomic' niche of the pseudo-natural break where 18 year olds transition from living with parents to education to moving for employment (or moving back in with their parents).

Everything else will be infltrated by the advantages of education models that don't require you to move into a walk-in closet and go into lifelong debt.

I live in Ann Arbor. Most of the kids living in the 'student ghetto' are, as you'd expect, students at the University of Michigan. But a non-trivial fraction are commuter students studying at the community college or Eastern Michigan while others are kids who are working and not currently going to school. It would be really no stretch at all to throw online students into the same mix. So college towns may remain draws for college-age kids, even if a growing fraction are taking their classes online instead of at the university.

It's ironic that you were paid to fly to Aspen to deliver your critique of in-person lecture-based education as a lecture in-person at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Indeed, the Aspen Ideas Festival is run by the TheAtlantic.com, which is increasingly an on-line entity, yet they've found it profitable in recent years to sponsor old-fashioned lectures at a remote and expensive spot in the mountains.

Perhaps the appeal of college is rather like that of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

It is worth noting how wealthy an audience it took to support that. Most of the people "consuming" the idea (which is about a hybrid model) are doing so on-line.

However, most of the people *that matter* are consuming it the old fashioned way. People at the top drive trends.

I'm not sure the "hybrid model" is what people think of when they think online education. They think about paying $5,000 a year for some online lectures that they watch while living at home. Not paying $50,000 to watch lectures from their dormitory.

So it seems attending the Aspen Ideas Festival is a status good signalling wealth, intellectual bent and free time. The people watching online are consuming the idea. This seems to be data supporting the status good perspective of traditional college education.

If you think about the Aspen Ideas Festival as the purpose for people coming togething in person to hear lectures or jetliner served airport, it sounds incredibly expensive and inefficicent.

But, if you start with the assumption that you have a whole bunch of bored rich people who are in Aspen because they've invested a big chunck of their disposable wealth in a condo there for the ski season convenience, and don't want to spend their vacation staring at the screen that they do when they are at work, who have almost all experienced years and years of college lecturing and kept doing it because they didn't dislike the experience the way that people who didn't go on with their educations did. And, these peole, as a result of their real estate investment, find it a route of least resistence to hang out there for reasons other than skiing as well when they are on vacation, then the event makes more sense.

People are going to the remote and expensive spot in the mountains to see the Aspen Ideas Festival (well, some people are, but that isn't reallly the point), the Aspen Ideas Festival is being conducted because people who would be there anyway need something to do that entertains them outside their condos or winter homes, that taps into the beauty of the setting that enticed them to buy property there in the first place.

Cowen is clearly correct that a hybrid form is the most natural result. Some courses (particularly intro or survey courses) are amenable to the online model, some are not. Some students will prefer online courses, some will not - and for different reasons including social ones. Some students will find intro classes not worth the time of attending lecture since the lecturer is merely reading the book anyway. Others may find that book confusing and require further explanation. And so on.

There are certain courses that can be effectively done 100% online. Probably not many degree programs, but those programs usually have at least some courses that are more cost-effective online than off.

And this will cause college to not cost $50,000 a year.

The point of college is to exclude. Period. RWCG put it best:

I’ve basically given up on trying to follow along with the Bryan Caplan-led discussion on Econlog over whether college is ‘signaling’. But I realized that I don’t even know who to root for.

Look, the middle-and-above classes have a natural, understandable desire to bequeath an Advantage Stamp to their children with their wealth. (What else to do with wealth?) Naturally and understandably, they wouldn’t want to spend $200k’ish on the thing if the Advantage given by the Stamp depended solely on the actual talents, brains, and efforts of their kid. What good would that be? No, to have any value, the Stamp has to work on some baseline level, independently of the particulars of their actual kid. So it seems axiomatic that college is, at least in part, about ‘signaling’. If college didn’t have at least some signaling component the middle-and-above classes would just demand some other wasteful service or credential which did. They will go out and purchase some Thing that differentiates their kids from the others. It doesn’t have to be college but if it’s not they’re going to waste their money on something else.

This dynamic may be what underlies the ‘occupy’ resentment, with its focus on student loans and lack of opportunities (read: six-figure high-status white-collar opportunities) for graduates; as the value of education has been diluted by federally subsidizing universal college attendance, many are finding the Advantage Stamp they thought they’d purchased (with borrowed money) to be not so valuable as they’d been led to believe. The frustration is understandable and it’s fair to point to the misguided campaign to universalize college as a culprit.

But let’s say the Caplanites win this debate and halt that project. The demand for the Advantage Stamp would not go away. Either college is what currently serves this function, or something would have to take its place (and would be equally unshy in clamoring for public funding to purchase it). Would that thing be better for society than the four-year-summer-camps we’ve already set up? I’m not optimistic. At least college as an institution has some history going for it. Do we really want to find out what sort of Alternative Advantage Stamp will be cooked up (and then demand federal funding) by people like, say, trust-fundee Edward T. Hall III in Occupy laboratories?

Terrific comment.


I agree. It also is quite an ironic take on the occupy movement, in that the people are alleged to be rebelling because of lost privilege. In this reading, "We are the 99%" becomes a complaint, because they actually expected to be, say, the 15%.

Excellent concept. One area I'm personally interested in is the value of internships as an Alternative Advantage Stamp. Most (all?) engineering schools have co-op programs. This model should be extended into other subject areas as well as community colleges, trade schools etc.

Half the interns at my company are the children of people connected to the company. In Europe the idea of an inherited job is much more accepted.

"The point of college is to exclude. Period."

Lots of people get nothing out of college but social capital that they didn't have when they walked into its doors (or would have acquired anywhere as a natural consequence of growing up in any decent environment).

But, colleges absolutely also provide value added technocratic impartation of new knowledge, and that is something that an online format is particularly well suited to do. Online formats are great for learning statistics or the labels of anatomical structures or quantum physics.

I don't think Caplan or you are thinking radically enough. Higher education is due for a massive change - not just a few online courses sprinkled into the regular coursework or new online degree programs that look like the old programs except that they are online.

We need to question the entire premise of the educational system. I would make the following points:

- A system that expects children to choose a lifelong career at the very start of adulthood, and then spend four years of their healthiest, most productive time studying their chosen field may have worked in the industrial age where people tended to find careers and stay in them, but it's dubious in the information age where jobs are fluid and many people change careers multiple times in their lives.
- The value of signaling has been declining as we push more and more kids into college and therefore reduce the exclusivity of a college education. This is going to do the most damage to liberal arts and general studies programs, but affects everyone.
- The duplication of effort and the waste of resources in today's colleges is astounding. It's also sad and inefficient that the world's best professor may only get to share his teaching gifts with a few hundred people per year, instead of with millions.
- At best, the degrees and courses being offered by colleges today are only loosely coupled with the actual needs of the economy.
- An education is gained when you have a teacher on one side of a desk (or screen) and a student on the other. The college itself is just an intermediary and these days it's a rather poor one, soaking up the majority of the educational resources in non-educational activities such as feeding the bureaucracy and maintaining increasingly expensive, overbuilt facilities.

The internet is all about disintermediation. Record companies, real estate dealers, brick and mortar video distribution companies, book stores, magazine publishers - all of them are learning that in the internet age there's not much need for people or companies who inject themselves between producers and consumers. Why should traditional colleges be different? Colleges were necessary when students had to be in the same room as a teacher to get an education. In the internet age, I'm not so sure. Certainly some educational activities need to be hands-on and directly supervised. But not all, or even the large majority.

Try this for a possible radical change: In the future, edumatch.com (a company I just made up) creates a new model of 'micro-education', in which people can study specific subjects and get credit in an educational 'matrix'. The matrix is made up of branches representing various disciplines and sub-disciplines, and degree-equivalents are determined by how many course credits you have in the various qualifying branches.

Edumatch then partners with educators to validate then list their courses as qualifications for the matrix, and with companies who will hire people who meet certain job requirements based on their matrix. The companies in turn rate the employees they hire, and edumatch feeds the ratings back into the database and comes up with 'ideal' matrices for a specific company. This is a dynamic process, constantly being fine-tuned by real-world results. Eventually, optimal educational paths for specific industries will be discovered.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a job, you can feed in your own educational matrix, which could be made up of college work, corporate training, online education, mentored apprenticeshop jobs - whatever has been certified by edumatch or by a new standards body for education. Edumatch then matches you to the companies whose own demand matrix closely match yours. It also tells you that if you acquired three more credits in the computer languages branch, you would qualify to apply for 12 more jobs in the database, or 17 if those credits come from a top-rated educational outfit, or 24 if you get A's in those courses. Maybe you decide that instead of applying for a job you didn't want, you will take those three credits in a recognized program as part of your lifelong educational matrix, opening the door to a new career.

Given a few of these types of organizations and some standards, the four-year degree itself becomes obsolete, as does pigeonholing people into specific faculties. Quality control in education is handled through employer ratings, student ratings, and perhaps 3rd party professional evaluation/accreditation. The internet is already crowd-sourcing similar ratings in other industries, and I don't see why education should be different.

Think of the advantages of a system like this if it can be made to work. Young people are given instant feedback as to what skills are currently in demand. Older people can continue learning, building credits down pathways that lead to new careers. You can learn at your own pace, and while working. The value of corporate training and mentoring goes up. Innovation is maximized. If the mix of jobs in the economy changes, feedback into the educational system will start the process of students immediately shifting their educations towards the new in-demand industries.

The education system becomes a constant churning system of bottom-up feedback, filtering out bad programs and enhancing the good ones, and adapting to match the changing economy and culture. Educational entrepreneurs could open local student labs and other facilities to supplement online courses. Jobs that offer to fill in slots in your educational matrix would create a new type of apprenticeship.

And of course, there would be a big demand for great courses. Great professors would be in demand, and they would be able to leverage their skills across a wider student base, and therefore earn more. Perhaps organizations like the BBC and Discovery will start creating official coursework, with the production values of their documentary projects today. New markets in innovative educational products will be created.

In a system like this, if the market determines there's still a lot of value in an in-depth doctorate program, that's fine. Perhaps the medical path that leads to an M.D. will be exclusively filled with brick-and-mortar college programs. Or maybe it won't. The process of trial and error and data gathering through the internet will help us figure that out.

I don't know that this exact system will ever be used, but I think we're headed for something just as radical at some point. The higher education system as it exists today is archaic.


Wait until we have uniform credentialling__when everyone, online and offline__takes the same test at the end of each year in college or at the end of college__demonstrating their mastery or qualifications in their major.

Also, look for integrated high school/college programs: where the high school student takes the intro college courses in high school online, and moves into college with some of the basic courses already covered, and the labs and hands on courses being taught at college.

Anticipate "stay at home" moms taking college course refreshers so they can re-enter the workforce when the kids are in school.

Anticipate "mock labs"--private science labs-- where you can go to do the science experiments in your college course.

I'm not sure exactly what your last point means: I have some experience of students doing fake (i.e. simulated) lab experiments by computer, and dismal failures they've been, in my eyes. Whereas proper labs, organised in whatever way proves effective, seem rather attractive: I take it that that is what you have in mind? The latter is done by The Open University in Britain: they use conventional university lab space that is available during the university vacations.

Really? I was playing around the other day with some of the labs at http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulations/category/new and they seemed to be reasonable substitutions for actual hands-on labs --- easier for me, at least, since I'm sometimes a little clumsy.

Learning to cope with clumsiness is one of the lessons you're meant to learn in real labs. Plus what chemicals look like, behave like, smell like (Chemistry wasn't known as "stinks" for nothing), or how to find leaks in Physics lab, what construction materials are like, how equipment is put together, how to cope with the idiosyncrasies of instruments, etc, etc.

Labs are exercises in doing stuff; simulations ain't. Chalk and cheese. Simulations have their own justifications, but they're no substitute for labs. My experience of trying to run research projects for students who have not done enough real labs has been grim. They've been short-changed in their education, and it shows.

Agree to an extent.

I had an assistant who I asked if he'd use syringes before. I told him to be careful and ask for help several times. The first thing he did was stick himself with the needle attempting to get the safety cap off. Not even knowing what you can't do is one of the first casualties.

Actually getting things to work is a skill too. When my brother did his Ph.D. in biology, he built his own testing environment for the animals he was experimenting on. The same is true for a close friend who is doing a physics Ph.D (where he says that actual skill in building test equipment is a major issue in who does the best work). Purely intellectual understanding of the process is only half the battle.

Of course some college graduates will never need laboratory skills, but that can be said for almost any skill you learn in school.

Work has been underway on your "micro-education" model for decades. See, for example, the recent work of pioneering Stanford computer scientist Sebastian Thrun. Khan Academy, which is old news at this point, also does what you're talking about to a certain extent.

I don't think that we're lacking for "big ideas" at this point. The problem is the unpleasant pedagogical and administrative tinkering required to really make it work.

Sadly, I think some of the commenters are right about the main roadblock to modernizing education: the power structure of the old institutions will be the biggest impediment to change.

Look at the textbook racket: How many Econ 101 textbooks are there? Why are there so many? Are they truly differentiated in quality, and if they are, why aren't the best ones dominating Econ 101 at all universities? And does the material really change so rapidly that these textbooks need to be updated every year? Of course not. The only reason for this bizarre market in textbooks is because professors control what students must read - and they also write the textbooks. Textbooks are constantly updated to kill the used book market. Rent-seeking behavior extracting money from the very students these institutions are supposed to benefit.

Here's an idea for a very low-cost way to reduce the price of education: The government announces a $1 million prize for the best Econ 101 or Math 101 or Biology 101 textbook. Let's start with books in fields that are relatively non-controversial and relatively static.
A panel of professional scientists and educators will evaluate the submissions and choose the best example in each field. These textbooks will then be released into the public domain in digital format. Any college that does not use them will forfeit certain government grants, and students will not be eligible for student loans unless their college uses these textbooks.

If you could cover the first two years of basic courses and survey courses with public-domain textbooks, it would save each student hundreds of dollars per year. It would also create the kind of standardization needed to enable the online model - online institutions using the same textbooks could have their exam results compared against brick and mortar institutions, and coursework would be more transferable between colleges. At $1 million per book, the government could easily afford to repeat the process every year or two, allowing competitors to beat out the current book and allowing the current one to update its material.

Unfortunately this will never happen, or at least it won't happen any time in the near future. The only people who would benefit would be students, and they're not the ones with political muscle.

Thanks for the reference to Sebastian Thrun. I googled him, and that led me to http://www.udacity.com, which is very close to what I was talking about.

Udacity is a really cool project. You might also be interested in coursera.org, if you're not familiar with it already. It's similar to udacity but, based on my limited impressions, is a bit less rigorous academically and offers a greater variety of topics.

For some reason, the editor stripped all the line breaks out of my bullet list in the third paragraph. Sorry about that. This blog could use an author edit function for posted comments.

Or you could get your own blog.

His comment was very insightful and I'm glad it was posted here instead of his own blog. Your comment, on the other hand...

As FYI - Prospect Magazine recently did a very long piece on the trends in online ed:

It is easy to forget that in the big picture the marketplace is just a competitive, evolutionary system. You only have to be consistently 1% "better" than your competitor to reap 100% of the rewards. This applies to Apple or anacondas released in the everglades.

It is very easy to see a future where top students use online education to abbreviate their college stays. They rack up credit hours at an accelerated pace, which shortens their tenure from 4 to 1.5 years. More realistically, top students rack up work experience while taking online college courses in the evening, basically taking internships/apprenticeships by day and completing courses at night. By the age of 22, they can run circles around their counterparts who stayed in college for 4 years.

Either way, once employers equate these "non-traditional" students with being quality employees, it will put pressure on the more traditional 4-5 year students to conform, less they be branded as "immature" or "inexperienced." This has already happened in the tech industry, where undergraduates are expected to have work experience by the time they graduate. Even with a great GPA, if they lack work experience they don't get hired .

Point taken, but I don't think 1% better is a useful distinction. By what measure if a job candidate 1% better? Interviewing skills? Raw brainpower? Charisma?

Even Steve Jobs said Apple needed to be 10x better.

"You only have to be consistently 1% “better” than your competitor to reap 100% of the rewards."

Politics and war are winner take all ventures. Economics is archaetypically an endeavor that is not winner take all. Indeed, one of the fundamental lessons of Econ 101, comparative advantage, is that you can reap considerable rewards doing something, even if you are worse at everything than all of your competitors.

An interesting question is why it takes "on-line" technologies to eliminate "repeating canned lectures ad nauseum." You don't need a computer for that. I remember learning a lot of physics in high school from "The Mechanical Universe," a fantastic series of lectures presented on VHS tapes; that was over 20 years ago now. The overstuffed "101" lecture hall has been essentially a featherbedding operation for decades.

With a few exemptions I agree with you. I did a physics BS at rice and found that the smart students that didn't happen to go to class ever, also had some of the best grades. They used the class time to teach themselves the material from the text and ended up better off than those who sat through a lecture.

This raises the question of why "lecture by video," which has been possible since the advent of the motion picture, has not taken over education. When I was in school in the 1990s, I can remember watching reel-to-reel videos that were made in the 1960s on the ecology of the oceans. Heck, we have had books for centuries and yet the standard educational model still persists. Why haven't the best students gravitated towards self-instruction over the past 500 years? Certainly, the amount of self-teaching has, over that time, increased astronomically. What is has not done, however, is replaced the dominant model for colleges and universities.

Pitzer College thought lecture by video was the wave of the future when its dorms were built and had a space for a CC TV unit connected to lecture halls in every room. A generation later, in the 21st century, the lecture by video system has been torn out and has not been replaced with an Internet equivalent.

Not only is this a model that has been tried. It is a model that has been tried and definitively rejected by its most diehard proponents.

One doesn't need to know why this is really the case to confirm that there is a reason that this is the case that isn't any different for the same old wine in new skins.

I have spent two years in a US college thus far. One thing that strikes me is how much of the professors' time is wasted by practically reading the textbook out loud in the classroom. For brick-and-mortar institutions making the students watch lectures online and using classroom time for discussion only seems to be the way to go.

Tyler is right that change on this front is going to come from undeserved constituencies, not the mainstream United States where many powerful interests have a stake in the status quo. We are likelier to get simplified tax code that renders accountants obsolete.

Unlike Tyler, I do not even see videos substantially replacing "canned lectures" any time soon. Were it possible, then *books* should have succeed on that front centuries ago.

As mentioned in the past, computer programming is one high marginal-product field where employers get very clear signalling (GitHub) outside the academic credentialing industry. From personal experience, learning to code is very amenable to online education.

And don't look now, but it seems hackers are starting to re-create the dorm experience (albeit, in their own image and likeness)--



Most discussion of online education assumes that the technology is fairly similar to what we have now, or different in ways that seem unimportant. I think that that is a mistake. The best kind of education that we have now involves instructors engaging with students, asking them probing questions, exploring their mistakes, leading them in creative ways to understand and correct those mistakes, and so on. I'm well aware that plenty of university courses fall short of this ideal, but that is how the best ones operate. Online lectures without that kind of interaction are unlikely to be very effective. One can try to use chat rooms and so on as a substitute, but that does not scale too well. Multiple choice questions are also very limited in the kind of learning that they can facilitate. However, I think it would be possible to write software that would partially replace the role of the instructor, at least for some scientific/technical subjects where students typically get things wrong in one of a finite list of ways. Udacity seems focussed on subjects of that type, and of course they have huge expertise in artificial intelligence available, and they have enormous numbers of students whose questions, answers and mistakes can be data-mined. It will be very interesting to see what they do in this direction.

Mostly, I agree with Tyler's assessment. But it has one rather large blind-spot.

At large universities, like George Mason, there are probably large efficiency gains to be had from consolidating redundant, canned lecture (although multiple-hundred student lecture halls already squeeze a lot of efficiency out of this model).

What Tyler seems unaware of is how many schools (for example, most liberal arts colleges) rely very little on lecture even now. This was a major conceptual transition for me when I moved from a large Ph.D. granting university to teaching at a small liberal arts college. After several years in this environment, I don't even think of lesson plans in terms of lecture any more. Students have a textbook to provide them with basic information. Class time is sent explaining this in more depth, answering questions, working on projects, and developing skills.

The problem with moving to online, in this context, is that none of these activities translate to online models nearly as well as lecture does. All of them benefit strongly from having face-to-face interaction. Neverless, online education being the new fad, there is tremendous pressure from administrators to adopt it, whether the model fits well of not.

As you probably know from your time at a large PhD-granting (public?) institution, it isn't the small liberal arts colleges that have a lot to gain from the online model. The administrators facing the most pressure to adopt online education work at regional, mid-to-large-sized public universities that can't possibly adopt a SLAC model that relies on deep, face-to-face discussion-based instruction. That's because these schools are already under huge budgetary pressure -- indeed, this is the reason they're interested in online education in the first place. These institutions have to find some way to educate masses of new students every year (remember their mandates from the state!) without the benefit of a 10-40% admissions rate or the funds needed to hire a PhD to teach each section. Additionally, given that many of these institutions are going to see enrollments over 100 in certain intro-level courses, it's probably MORE likely that online discussion forums and distributed peer tutoring will provide the depth you're talking about than a traditional classroom.

Which is also why the elite liberal arts colleges (and elite universities) aren't going away any time soon. The less-intense educational experience provided by less selective, larger size universities might be improved by moving to online education, but they still will not provide the same experience that the elite schools do.

Bryan's human capital model fails to account for the possibility -- nay probability -- that online education will for the forseeable future be less effective at increasing human capital than face-to-face bricks-and-mortar education is. That is, one can believe that colleges do increase human capital (I don't know about you guys, but I learned a ton in college, including most of the most important principles of economics) -- but contrary to Bryan's assumption, that does not imply that online education will out-compete bricks-and-mortar.

I've been saying for years that online education is important -- but via hybrid education in colleges (as well as specialized eduational niches where the students are motivated -- online traffic school is a good example). As was mentioned recently, CMU's OLI is an example of the true future of online education. In contrast, the notion that online education is going to cause colleges to go out of business (the highly selective ones that is; the non-selective ones have been going out of business for years and will continue to do so) is snake oil salesmanship.

The hybrid makes a lot of sense because it allows for a more competitive job marketplace. To a 16 year old I would recommend developing both blue collar skill (A lot of blue collar expertise is going to be lost from retiring) and also a white collar skill to better communicate to customers and within the organization. So the online model will develop as low end blue collar workers learn corporate communication as large corporations are not going away.

Secondly, I think Bryan's model should call it signaling (30%) and sorting (30%). It is the buyers of labor who willing to pay more for college accomplishments as well and sometimes pay part of the tution expense. Only focusing on the demand side seems unusual for a libertarian economist.


Tyler (like usual for us in economics) is behind the times.
The hybrid model *is already the current model*.

The large gains would come from moving to one of Bryan's models.

For the sciences, at least, the most valuable use of human instructors is to facilitate problem solving. Human lecturing has some value, the same way that seeing a live theatrical performance has more value than watching a film of the same performance. But lecturing is not the best use of teacher time. In chemistry, we have found splitting the class into small problem solving groups is productive. Given the remarkable number of different mistakes students can make in trying to solve any problem, experts can see what is not being understood and give a tailored explanation. That interaction is hard to replicate online. Since the best way to learn something is to teach it, the small problem group is effective in having everyone interact in the explanation progress. The teacher can explain problems that repeatedly show up or give hints as needed. Ultimately, humans are primates and primates are very social animals.

My daughter's community-college PE classes were 2/3 online. She did not become fitter, faster, stronger, or more physically skilled. She passed online tests on diet and game rules, but this had zero impact on her eating habits or sports involvement. She kept an exercise log, but since there is no independent verification, it could be easily made up. It's questionable whether PE even belongs in a college curriculum, but nonetheless this illustrates that online instruction doesn't work for everything.

I think the points in Dan Hanson's long comment above were excellent and I really don't have anything to add.

There are two points people really haven't made yet. The first is that the standard model of higher education in the U.S., like many other American institutions, is really sui generis temporally and geographically. In other words, its quite different from what prevailed in the United States for most of the countries history, until at least post-World War II if not post- Vietnam, and despite the prestige of the United States most other countries use quite different systems.

By the current system, I mean a system of lots of two and four year colleges and universities, some public and most private but the private ones taking in lots of public subsidies, with over a third of the young adult population expected to at least attend, and with at least a bachelors degree a prerequisite for employment in the white collar sector. The use of universal entrance and graduation exams is limited, and culturally attendance at college or universities is seen as a sort of right of passage for at least the middle class. I think this is a fair description of the current system.

For over twenty-five years, higher educational institutions have steadily been increasing the costs of attending well above the rate of inflation and also gains in middle class incomes. Frankly, I think they have been abusing their perceived monopoly power to grant a sort of license for white collar work, plus their role as a right of passage for middle class young adults. At the same time, median income is dropping (as disclosed by the last sentence), and white collar unemployment is rising, particularly for young adults.

So there is nothing immutable about the current model. Its a historical outlier. In most times and places higher education has been reserved for a much smaller percentage of the population, and did not have quite the same cultural or credentialing significance. At the same time the costs are increasing and the benefits are decreasing (go heavily into debt to attend and wind up unemployed anyway!). Even if the factors behind the change to the current system remain in place, and to the extent they involve government subsidies that is unlikely, at some point middle class parents will suddenly just decide that the cost-benefit equation doesn't work and opt out of the system. Even if it means their children have to opt out of white collar work and drop out of the middle class, the debt and unemployment combination would mean that would happen anyway.

Given this, I'm not sure how online education fits in, except to through a lifeline to higher educational institutions once the middle class opts out. They can go back to serving as finishing schools for the upper class (the Ivies and near-Ivies), plus some professional education (graduate and engineering schools) and have another small income stream by offering correspondence, OK internet courses. I don't see online courses coming close to the same role as the current system in giving credentials for white collar jobs, if only because I'm not sure if there are going to be many white collar jobs in the middle-term future.

"I don’t see online courses coming close to the same role as the current system in giving credentials for white collar jobs, if only because I’m not sure if there are going to be many white collar jobs in the middle-term future."

Can you expand on the second part of this statement? The white collar/service sector has been grabbing an increasing share of the U.S. economy for some time.

I was using the archaic version of "white collar" which meant mean desk work in an office.

But why would desk work in offices decline? Administering Obamacare, or implementing Dodd-Frank compliance, for example, will require lots of people at desks in offices.

As much fun as this is, Paul was a grad student at the time.

But if you're looking for evidence, here's the best summary I know. Paul's the editor of the book, but it's not his work.

Hybridity encompasses the whole continuum of options and excludes nothing, it's a no-lose conclusion. You say hybrid, I say tautology. I'll assay a view in contrast. US education is constrained on both ends by child rearing practices and by employment promotion practices. Child-rearing still favors a child who plays well with others and follows the lead of others to a self-reliant child in the US. The only recent concession to diversity is to pay lip service to kids who fail in the play well game, to call them different or own drummer or other stuff. Parents try and try and try to integrate and they only celebrate difference when failure is inevitable. Not before. This is not a norm in other nations, where self-reliance is often taught before a child learns to play well, and children may be told they're better long before they have any friends at all. In the US a perfect child is a team leader. Excellent individuals on the other hand are the best of the soiled fruit which fell out of the fruit box. On the other end, in employment, managerial victory goes to the clever and loyal who prove their worth by doing a dirty job for their management, not to the stubborn or the innovative who don't cut themselves ethically to show their loyalty. Comfortable coaches anoint winners and give them access to the lucrative fanout. Networks still matter. The "Moneyball" society continues to be opposed by those who find more money in achievable fraud than in science. Most money continues to be made by inheritance and protection of the old than by new business. If the above is the surrounding society, where do new trends in education fit in? Online education replaces peer and coach evaluation with external ratings. But peer evaluation and coach evaluation are critical both in the early child rearing period and then in employment. Whereas the external rating replacement is ephemeral. If external ratings differ from peer and coach evaluation, which will superimpose and dominate the other? Not external ratings. NCLB shows this outcome, that the socially preferred rating trumps all others, to a fault. In the US, why would this change? Of course, online education will always have enough students to find its poster children, but no one will be deceived by them. Word of mouth, that connections and traditional credentials matter more, will utterly overwhelm the poster children of online education, and that word of mouth will travel over Facebook and more deeply than it ever traveled before. The people who have a stake in traditional education will successfully curb those who don't, and they'll do so with impunity. Europe was decisively transformed by the French Revolution and its promotion of a scientific and technological elite trained by rigorous tests over the common man. The US and Britain held off the French Revolution and its overturning of elites, and they continue to do so.

I found some interesting reading among the comments, but not the general outrage I had hoped for.

"Imagine that ten years from now one-third of all lectures are delivered on-line in one manner or another, perhaps with some later in person commentary."

That kind of pessimisms is causing suicides on a daily basis. That on-line (or virtual off-line) lecturing does not dominate today is sad enough, but to write that a one-third level in ten years requires imagination is cryable (like laughable but sad).

For those of you who disagree with me I suggest a look at what the real power of Khanacademy's flipping the classroom is. Also take a real good look at coursera, udacity and duoling to get an idea on how to spend your free time.

I would think that state supported schools might attempt to move majors like history and sociology online to save money.

As an educator, I believe it is very important to teach material that is important for the future of the students. When inventing my math and memory system Brainetics (http://www.brainetics.com), I wanted to focus on new subjects and innovative methods to teach. By teaching for the 21st century, students will be more prepared in the future. It seems like so many aspects of today’s society centers around the digital environment and teaching should be altered to adapt.

Great article,

Mike Byster
Inventor of Brainetics, Educator, Author of Genius, Mathematician

Tyler, your "fourth" way is very much what we are working towards at Khan Academy.

The idea of "flipping the classroom" enables you to assign video lectures as homework and spend your class-time interacting with your students, doing projects, running experiments. It moves teachers/professors up the value chain -- it is more challenging work and requires greater skills in helping individual students and groups.

Another note is that right now, many college students independently use online resources like Khan Academy to supplement their classes. If their professor isn't great at explaining a concept, they can see if one of our videos gives them a clearer understanding.

If the economies of scale in higher education were all that powerful, small liberal arts colleges would have been bankrupted by big state universities with giant lecture halls half a century ago. They did make a big dent and increase their market share, but with almost no diminution of the competition. The economic arguments are essentially the same and aren't so different from the economics of textbooks themselves which are even older. The problem is that no one lecturing to six hundred or six miillion people can optimize the presentation for all of them to the extent that a professor in a class with a dozen or two students who due to context have a lot in common with each other and due to the availability of feed back and office hours can syncronize the presentation to the audience reaction can.

The real advantage that online education potentially has over in person education is the ability it has to customize instruction so that a student who gets it can skip ahead after a brief touching upon a topic, while the instructional system can have endless patience to help someone who is struggling with a key point get it without worrying about slowing down the people who get it, and can send the people who can't grok it from the online presentation to a human being (perhaps via Skype or IM) if the student's struggles get out of hand.

This individualization through AI and automation has never been done before in anything approaching the production values and flexibility that is possible today. But the Internet can make the economies of scale necessary to manage the high start up costs necessary to have a well implemented system tailored in this way to individual learning experiences and difficulties. A really good calculus instruction program can be done just once and work for everyone who can manage to learn calculus in a lecture format forever to everyone in the world who speaks the instructors language (and probably can be translated into multiple languages with minimal insult to the underlying instructional program structure).

A neglected feature of the future of education is where I think the real money will be: testing/certification. The freely accessible or stealable instructional material is already accumulating nicely, and will continue to deepen and improve. The question is: what do you get, apart from the knowledge itself, for the learning you do?

And the answer is: certification. Wise entrepreneurs will hire Ph.d.'s to design and administer hard tests on every subject matter in the standard curriculum. The best ones will be oral exams with a committee of Ph.d.'s, as has been the custom for centuries in Europe. Passing these will be a much surer sign of knowledge than an A in some state college course, and the institutional costs will be rather low. Conceivably, future academics could make a career out of being professional testers of O-Chem 1 or Aristotle. The job would entail sitting in a room with colleagues and collectively grilling some nervous kid on a Skype connection, ad nauseum.

If this is done well enough, employers may even come to think: Sure you took this course at UCLA, but I wonder how you would do on ___'s exam!

Good testing organizations like this will actually allow people to signal what they know, without paying tuition somewhere. This will cause an explosion of informal instructional arrangements, such as online study groups, private tutoring, Kahn academy on steroids, etc. People don't pay for education, they pay for diplomas, so I expect that education money will pour to the testers/certifiers, and the instruction itself will become much more DYI.

Comments for this post are closed