Online Education and the Tivo Revolution

Here’s a TV schedule from 1963. If you wanted to watch Hootenanny you needed to be in front of the television on Saturday night between 7:30 and 8:30 pm. Have something else to do that night? Too bad. No pause or rewind either.


Here’s a college class schedule from 2010  If you want to learn Accounting with Ms. Gettler you need to be in class on Mondays and Wednesdays between 11:25 am and 12:50 pm (bring your lunch). If you need another class that’s scheduled at the same time, too bad. No pause or rewind either.


A TV Guide looks quaint. Tivo has liberated us from the dictates of the networks. Today we can get entertainment on demand. Next up, education on demand.


I'd love to know the completion rates of TV shows on Hulu vs. courses on Coursera.

Probably pretty similar. Watching the pilot of a series is like completing the first lecture or two of a course, and probably loses just as many people's interest.

It will also be interesting to see if it results in greater profit for the TV people. Technologists always forget that there are two sides to the contract, not just the consumer. Music companies fought recording devises for years knowing it would gut their business eventually. News organizations are going through the same process now.

Is the completion rate really even an issue though? The cost to sign-up is nearly zero but the cost of studying the materials is much higher, so wouldn't you expect a low completion rate? If a million sign up and only 50,000 complete, the economies of scale are still enormous.

Ok I have to admit that is a pretty good argument.

Technically it's not an argument at all, but fine rhetoric of the smart and anti-aggressive kind.

I hope that's a joke...What is the goal of watching television? What is a "successful" tv watching session? (hint: the part where you turned on the TV and they made money).. How often do viewers have deep technical questions (generally unanswerable on wikipedia) when watching Walking Dead about the mechanisms of zombie apocalypse compared to those about nonlinear dynamical systems when watching Coursera?

"What is the goal of watching television?"

You're heading down into the endless debates of the merits of reading fiction vs. nonfiction. Why do we find value in reading novels?--after all, they don't teach us the answers to deep technical questions.

No, he's comparing the role of watching television (some sort of entertainment) to the role of education (learning something), not claiming that novels have no value because they don't educate us.


For one thing, an entertaining TV show is *supposed* to kill time, let you relax, and *not* think too much. It's the opposite of work.

I am being a bit facetious. I mean how do you administer tests? And prevent cheating? Isn't credentialing the whole point of colleges? Especially the non-interactive lecture halls this will replace?

All in all this doesn't seem very innovative. There were taped lectures and online classes a decade ago. This still runs into some of the inherent problems of higher Ed: credentialing and signaling. I mean we already have iTunes U.

If you want the Tivo for education on demand, isn't that YouTube already? You don't even have to pay for your Tivo.

Even with DVR technology, TV is passive. Good education is active. MOOCs and similar ways of teaching may be just as effective as 200-person lectures about accounting, but that isn't very effective. I take Alex's point, but remain skeptical.

Give a MOOC lecture a try, especially at Udacity. The lectures are saturated with interactive quizzes that test your understanding of the material as you are learning it. This is far more effective (to my learning style at least) than an hour-long monologue by a professor.

I think you hit on the critical element. Bright, interested students will respond to different methods than the passive time servers that dominate the college classroom. I may be cynical, but my estimate is 80% of the public college students are just marking time, doing the minimum to get through it. They probably need the structure of scheduled class time. The other 20% could probably learn just fine through self-service methods like on-line lectures.

By my estimation, your 80% "estimate" is 100% made up.

Again, an hour long monogue in a 200-person lecture hall is also ineffective. Simply swapping bad teaching with bad teaching. Good teaching requires interaction (not bubble quizzes interspersed throughout YouTube videos) between the instructor and the learner.

> Good teaching requires interaction (not bubble quizzes interspersed throughout YouTube videos) between the
> instructor and the learner.

This isn't obvious to me. Speaking of my own experiences learning, good teaching requires frequent and consequential testing. That worked well even when there was no third-party teacher involved in my learning and I was doing correspondence courses. It does help to have a good grader. It wasn't the hand-holding and the explaining that helped me learn, it was the problem sets and the quizzes.

"Again, an hour long monogue in a 200-person lecture hall is also ineffective."

Your choice to sleep through the lecture instead of going to work to comprehend it and noting the things you do not understand for the discussion group, reading the text, or finding the instructor to seek clarification is just an indication of lack of individual responsibility.

A TV show is a "monologue" but in the 60s lots of people had discussion groups to explore the lecture in further depth. Take Star Trek. That show had very active students who spent a great deal of time discussing Roddenbery's lecture to understand the details, getting clarification from the "crowd", debating the root theory he was presenting, and then applying it to their personal lives. (I wasn't a Trekkie but I went to the cons they and other devoted students of scifi put on - TV shows have inspired the same student effort as lectures by Crick and Watson on DNA.

And lectures to large audiences by scientists have triggered the same kind of active learning and study as Star Trek, Forbidden Planet, 2001 A Space Odyssey,...

But if the Defenders had a controversial topic, abortion say, everyone could talk about it around the water fountain. With limited choices and flexibility, there's a bigger audience and more community. Query: does technology underlie the rise of libertarianism?

I'd suggest that Libertarianism rises in direct proportion to the likelihood of you having to deal with a bureaucrat.

I wish. But bureaucracy has skyrocketed, while libertarianism has not.

Sadly, bureaucracy has mostly spawned despair, and the belief that any problems with the bureaucracy can be solved with additional bureaucracy.

Hey, how's Obamacare going?

Technology hides so much of what society does that libertarians think that they can live without it as long as the can order what they need on the Internet and have it delivered by FedEx.

Hey, to get an iPhone requires you to pay homage, and cash, to the Great Steve Jobs who single handedly makes every iPhone through technology even tho he is dead. But hell no you don't need no society, no government, no technocrats, no standards, no workers, no people.

Ditto a cheap cotton shirt. You place the order on Amazon and FedEx delivers it. All the crap about needing unions and regulation and trade sanctions and consumer activism is crap because those people who died in Bangladesh have nothing to do with the cheap shirt and those people chose to be killed.

After all, the reason we don't have children working in mines from age 4 is in America, 4 year old children took responsibility and borrowed thousands of dollars to get an education and start a small business.

Like Henry Ford who manufactured millions of cars and built a hundred thousand miles of road for them to drive on, all single handedly, because he was a hard worker who needed to one else, not other people and not government, for sure.

'If you wanted to watch a live concert, you needed to be in the concert hall when the concert started. Have something else to do that night? Too bad.'

Why does something so completely accurate in the 16th century sound so accurate today?

'Here’s a college class schedule from 2010 If you want to learn Accounting with Ms. Gettler you need to be in class on Mondays and Wednesdays between 11:25 am and 12:50 pm'

Well, unless the GMU Econ Dept. has been remiss in its archival duties, there should be entire semesters of courses taught be Prof. Williams ca. 1990 available (yes, VHS format, though the hall where they were recorded was intended for exactly that purpose, though the lighting was too cheap not to pop on a regular basis). Why cite something now, when a decades old example of what GMU-TV offered serves to show how long it takes for even a university like GMU to adopt new ideas - including the opportunity to record, and then pause and rewind. It almost makes one sad to think just how ineffective a university PR dept is, even when dealing with faculty members who were actually there when the online courses being publicized were only available to a potential subscriber base of a figure that was undoubtedly less than a million potential viewers in the DC region.

One of the more amusing things about this web site is its attempts to present decades old GMU Econ Dept work as somehow groundbreaking, when presented by an entity other than the actual GMU Econ Dept. Prof. Williams work may be from the end of the Reagan/Bush era, but it isn't as if the orthodoxy at GMU has changed that much since then. (Admittedly, if memory serves, the current Econ chair was not at GMU during that period, though that may be a faulty recollection.)

The live-concert is of course a giant strawman. If you want something live you will always have to get it live.

But music in the 16th century was always a live concert, because it had to be so. Therefore, only a very few select people could enjoy a quality concert.

Today, life concerts are only a tiny fraction of all the consert music consumed. And the world is a better place for it.

Your concert analogy done right is actually supporting Alex' point...

And fu** my spelling by the way.

'The live-concert is of course a giant strawman.'

How? Unique events remain unique, which is a blindingly obvious tautology because it is the truth.

I've been to readings with Nobel Prize winners with only a dozen people in the room - I've also been involved in the recording of Nobel prize winners, including broadcasting the resulting work, at GMU. The difference between the two experiences is considerable.

'Therefore, only a very few select people could enjoy a quality concert.'

Well, that is something that has not changed in 500 years.

'Today, life concerts are only a tiny fraction of all the consert music consumed. And the world is a better place for it.'

I assume your experience of actual concert going is different from mine - but then, I would point to a personal background from a Dead/tape trading background that provides a clear demonstration of the difference between an actual experience shared among thousands and a musical recording.

'Your concert analogy done right is actually supporting Alex’ point…'

Well, I'm a disloyal reader, Making it easy for me to say that the following statement is, at best, wrong - 'Today we can get entertainment on demand. Next up, education on demand.' Books predate all of us, after all, while their pause and rewind function is considerably better than that of any electronic media. And for anyone interested in Dr. Williams courses two decades ago, that statement was also accurate, with a bit of Supreme Court approved planning involving time shifting (not to mention calling GMU-TV, which had a lot of air time to fill, as part of its then FCC requirements).

I used to think you were a troll, now I realize you are a genuinely terrible commenter. Please stop commenting, Thanks.

They're not mutually exclusive categories.

Alex memorably discussed Online Education and live music performances here

Without time-shifting, I certainly wouldn't be able to enjoy MOOCs as much as I have been (just started my 15th in the last 18 months). Pause and rewind are also useful, but the real win for me has been time compression. I play most lectures at 1.25x speed, and find it's a lot more enjoyable experience. Many professors are used to lecturing at intentionally slow pace, presumably so as not to lose as many people. With video you can easily counteract that, unless of course you find yourself one of the people at risk of getting lost.

I totally disagree with the premise of this post. Positive crowding externalities are a huge fraction of benefit from both media. New technologies sabotage these externalities.

TV: The great thing about watching Roots was that you knew that everybody else in the office/class/neighborhood was also watching Roots at the same time. Tivo has robbed us of this experience. I know a senior TV executive who told my class in a guest lecture that cable availability did not increase total TV viewing, and that this is the reason: People don't bother to watch a show if they can't be sure that it will be the topic of discussion at the water cooler. I can not vouch for the viewership facts or the rationale but my experience confirms that that utility is harmed.

Concerts are a place to hear music and also to see and be seen among concert lovers. When some concert lovers buy out by listening to records then others are harmed because of the crowding externality.

Classrooms: If I want to be a successful accountant, I don't need only human capital. I also need lots of social capital, much of which comes from spending hours in shared experiences with my future colleagues. Like sitting next to them in Ms. Gettler's course every Monday and Wednesday. In some professions (maybe not accounting) the social capital element is dominant.

I am not stating that there is no utility/productivity benefit from time shifting but I am asserting that it is much smaller than it would appear if you don't account for externalities and as an observer of these trends I will also assert that I am far from convinced that the benefits are meaningful.

" I also need lots of social capital, much of which comes from spending hours in shared experiences with my future colleagues."

This is a perfectly fine point.

"Like sitting next to them in Ms. Gettler’s course every Monday and Wednesday."

This is rubbish.

What is it with people who can not distinguish between "shared learning experience" and "shared classroom experience."?

My classroom experience alternated between boredom at listening to well known material and having the material go over my head. However, discussing my learning experiences in coffee-shops, at some friend's home, at learning camps, at science competitions etc. constituted truly enriching experiences for me.

The successful MOOCs will be the ones that position themselves as focal points for social interaction. It is a major failing of the imagination to claim that the best form of learning in social context is the classroom experience. In fact, that is one of the worst such forms.

The comment I wish I could have written.

"The successful MOOCs will be the ones that position themselves as focal points for social interaction."

Completely agree. Classroom education is a dynamic, interactive, real-time activity. Even most MOOCs are offered at a specific time period to allow for student collaboration via message boards. Online courses without the collaboration/interaction are just instructional videos, with limited value. For me, the interesting thing about MOOCs is their potential to create a virtual classroom or campus.

I know this will be politically incorrect here, but I miss those old days of Television; you used to be able to come in to school or work and discuss last night's shows, now you have to hunt and seek out someone who watched the same show. Also, those were the days when there used to be shows about rural people, now it's all about people who live in the few largest cities and/or their suburbs.

And it sucks. It's not a complicated hypothesis (although "theory" seems the more appropriate term in this usage) as to why. With 3 channels you had to be good to get on the air. Now everything gets on the air and we are the gatekeepers who have to filter through a lot of garbage to ultimately make Breaking Bad a phenomena after 6 seasons.

"we are the gatekeepers who have to filter through a lot of garbage"

Both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes rate TV shows. If you see a new show that looks interesting, look up its rating before you watch. Breaking Bad has extraordinarily high numbers on both sites.

Yes, and those are sophisticated aggregators of public opinion.

Maybe adults needing to watch a show about meth dealers is a different problem, but it has Bryan Cranston.

"With 3 channels you had to be good to get on the air."

So true. Just looking at the schedule in the post is enough to remind one of what was truly a golden age in American television. Hootenanny! Followed by the Lawrence Welk show!!!

And.... zing.

I defy anyone to chain themselves to chair and sit through an entire day of 1976 television. You would confess to anything if it meant you would be released.

We still watch the Lawrence Welk show. Little kids love it, which is all I need entertainment for.

One day we had cable and I couldn't find a single thing I or the kids could watch.

What's "Accounting Lab?"

Is that where you learn to cook the books?

....or synthetize and test the best detergents for money.

Education on demand, or rather education liberated from the constraints of scheduling and presence in class, has been around for a long time, just not in the US, apparently. The Open University in the UK opened in 1969, the Fernuniversität Hagen in Germany in 1974. Way ahead of TiVo. Then again, both institutions are roughly coeval with the VCR, which Sony first marketed as a "time shifiting" device with the promise of liberating TV audiences from the constraints of program schedules.

Jackie Gleason was better than anything on TV right now, at least now that Breaking Bad is over. Also, you didn't have to pay some horrible cable company just to get the reception of a bunch of shows that suck. Just disconnected mine.

Above someone badmouths 70s TV, but Rockford files vs CSI East Bumfart?

Will anything ever top Magnum PI?

I'm not even counting that I don't need my kids seeing a hand sticking out of a meat grinder (when I tried to watch one of these forensics shows for 10 seconds) or how to run a drug empire.

And people seem to be forgetting that whole decade when program directors just gave up and put on reality crap.

Did anybody really learn much in college by going to class? You learn by studying, and that's always been on demand. The only purpose of a class is to show up for the test. That's not so inconvenient. Compare that to a job.

Yes. Most people learn very little by sitting through lecture.

If there is a justification for holding a class meeting, it's some combination of exercises, well-structured group work, discussion, and at most one or two short presentations by an instructor. When I plan a class session, I ask myself: what work will students have accomplished by the end?

If on the other hand a class is just sitting through lectures and then taking a test, MOOCs have obvious advantages.

There are a few college experiences that I had 30-odd years ago that have not been lost in the waters of Lethe:

1. Athletic teams: shared suffering creates community. Those social connections endure to this day, across industries and geography. Plato was right that physical education is necessary in higher education. For many reasons. Of course, this bears little relation to the NFL farm-teams and other gladiatorial games that pass for college athletics today. I played a minor sport at a D-I level, which was incredibly hard with little tangible to show for it, save the community I took with me. And it did keep me out of trouble on Friday nights.

2. Group seminars: I will never forget being humiliated in front of my peers when my paper was anonymously displayed as an example of pretentious writing of poor quality. As an arrogant Freshman, I needed to be taken down a notch or two. The Professor who did this was a typical brilliant-but-insane nut-case. I've always been grateful to him, though.

3. Discovering an aptitude I never knew I had: my future employment would be tied to computer programming--something only the nerds in high school did. I never knew that I could use high-level mathematical models to understand complex systems in the real world. I though programming was for text editing and deriving pi to 100 digits.

4. Upper-level seminars: talking to a half-dozen peers about an advanced subject you enjoy and can explore is deeply enriching, and is quite practical in learning academic social skills (listening, exploring, critiquing without criticizing).

But that was only about half of my college experience. The rest is lost to me, it comes back when only when I see an old transcript. I could see half of the courses in college being MOOCs, and half being seminars. It would cut the instructional load of the institution, but not necessarily the years in college. But for non-athletes or folks taking another track they might be able to take two years of MOOCs followed by two years of advanced seminars, cutting the cost in half.

Thank you for this comment, DougT. I resonate with your experiences. I am a tenure-track strategy professor at a budget-constrained state university. I also have three children (ages 8-12) that I am trying to educate. They currently attend failing public schools, so we are not sure if that will continue much longer. All three are bright enough to learn (in their own way), my wife and I are bright enough to teach (in our own way), and the consideration of home education schemes has arisen in our family conversations. Admittedly, the thought of technology-enabled customized education is intriguing for my personal situation if not threatening for my professional situation. I console my career uncertainty (human replaced by a MOOC?) with the thought that I may not need to "pay for college" (given new thinking about the value of trades and the growing ubiquity of low-cost time-shifted tech-enabled education and training.) The yin-yang of it all is dizzying.

I killed my TV well over 15 years ago and have not regretted it. I am successful in my field despite going to college and suffering through auditoriums packed with several hundred students. So logically, we should do away with both TV and with education. Let people self-certify that they have skills, and let the marketplace decide? Do we need beautician schools? Why not simply let the marketplace decide? Same for doctoring, lawyering, engineering, teaching, etc etc etc. I've heard countless stories where a surgeon who was considered not that good performed a risky surgery that a 'better' surgeon refused to touch for medical malpractice reasons. Let the marketplace decide. Midwife or OB/GYN? Marketplace decides.

With regard to midwives and Ob/Gyns, California just took a tiny step in that direction.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows midwives and nurse practitioners to administer certain drugs and buy medical supplies which they were not allowed to before.

But, I don't know if there are other states which are already more free in that area. Anyone?

I only have basic cable because it comes with the internet. Which brings up a point. If your defense of TV today is that more channels allow it to be more niche that is problematic with respect to the internet.

the number of people with the right mental hardware and self-discipline to teach themselves is far less than the number of people who need guidance from authority figures and structured institutions in order to learn anything. best to file this online education hopefulness under #StupidLibertardianOptimismAboutHumanFungibility.

ps public libraries are free in the ghetto. how's that working out?

It's not easy even for individuals with IQ > 115 to learn advanced subjects like 'advanced organic chemistry' with a tutor beside them guiding them every step of the way to monitor their progress closely. And by closely, I mean tracing every single logical link in their reasoning to prod for possible misconceptions and errors.

To expect online courses, however well-structured, to accomplish that is simply too idealistic.

"Next up, education on demand."

Once upon a time we had these things called "books".

Make it. Grade your neighbor book report website. Today it can be done.

+1000. When you actually compare MOOCs to past inventions like books, libraries, and the internet, they seem like a really minor incremental change. FFS, the technology to record lectures and distribute them to a wide audience that could watch them whenever they wanted has been around for at least 40 years.

Obviously I meant to reply to eddie, I have no idea what Andrew' is going on about.

Excellent post, Dr. Tabarrok. I really appreciate the format for its clarity and simplicity. Makes the point well. Great job.

Great information! Online education is great when you want to either have the flexibility to study at your own pace, just want to learn something new, or physical attending an education institute is not practical. I believe the internet have come to stay...

The problem, though, is that if it was just a matter of broadcasting a bunch of lectures, you could have done that with TV back in 1968 too. In fact people did collect lectures and publish them in books, on tapes, on records and filmstrips. If this was really the problem with education, it would seem MOOCs or something like them would have caught on before computers and the Internet. MOOCs are helped by the net but the net is not strictly necessary for MOOCs.

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