Online Education is Better

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating a long-term trend, the shift to online education. I’ve long argued that online education is superior to traditional models. In an excellent essay in the New York Times, Veronique Mintz, an eighth-grade NYC student agrees:

Talking out of turn. Destroying classroom materials. Disrespecting teachers. Blurting out answers during tests. Students pushing, kicking, hitting one another and even rolling on the ground. This is what happens in my school every single day.

You may think I’m joking, but I swear I’m not…during my three years of middle school, these sorts of disruptions occurred repeatedly in any given 42-minute class period.

That’s why I’m in favor of the distance learning the New York City school system instituted when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

…Distance learning gives me more control of my studies. I can focus more time on subjects that require greater effort and study. I don’t have to sit through a teacher fielding questions that have already been answered.

…This year I have struggled with math. The teacher rarely had the patience for questions as he spent at least a third of class time trying to maintain order. Often, when I scheduled time to meet with him before school, there would be a pileup at his door of students who also had questions. He couldn’t help us all in 20 minutes before first period. Other times he just wouldn’t show up….With distance learning, all of that wasted time is eliminated. I stop, start and even rewind the teacher’s recording when I need to and am able to understand the lesson on the day it’s taught.

Veronique’s online courses were put together in a rush. Imagine how much more she will learn when we invest millions in online classes and teach at scale. The online classes that Tyler and I teach, using Modern Principles and the Sapling/Achieve online course management system, took years to produce and feature high quality videos and sophisticated assessment tools including curve shifting (not just multiple-choice), empirical questions based on FRED, and adaptive practice–plus the videos are all subtitled in multiple languages, they can be sped up or slowed down, watched at different times of the day in different time zones and so forth. Moreover, technology is increasing the advantages of online education over time.


It's not so great for the 99 percent of middle school students who can't write op-ed pieces for the NYT.
Tabarrok and others have argued this for a long time and they've been wrong for a long time. The biggest proponents are professors who blog and those who comment on their blogs. Again, about 1 percent of the population.

Sapling is interferent when NYT has op-ed pieces that coronavirus pandemic hit in distance.

Yeah, amazing how that op-ed has prose style that is an exact match for a pair of Park Slope-dwelling professionals with a daughter in middle school. It’s like when people quote their five year olds on twitter spouting precocious agitprop that sounds exactly like a 36 year old with a masters degree.

Also: nice commercial, MR.

Yes. The question is not whether online courses are better, but better for whom. Without question, there is an enormous amount of heterogeneity in outcomes associated with any type of education. The problem is there is not much capacity for public education systems to address this heterogeneity.

There are a crap load of positively awful public school systems in the United States. I imagine a lot of students stuck attending those would rather not, and if they find distance learning a halfway viable substitute for say, Baltimore City Public Schools, then I hope they can stick with it.

"Talking out of turn. Destroying classroom materials. Disrespecting teachers. Blurting out answers during tests. Students pushing, kicking, hitting one another and even rolling on the ground. This is what happens in my school every single day."

Then I'd say that the problem is that your school is appalling. Why is going O/L the best solution to that problem?

"Then I'd say that the problem is that your school is appalling. Why is going O/L the best solution to that problem?"

That is a great question. It seems the assumption is that all the kids that are being disruptive can be safely ignored. But what exactly happens to them. Do they sit quietly in their bedrooms playing video games? Or are they out on the streets with groups of their peers? At a minimum they'll learn no additional proper socialization and clearly they won't get anything out of online learning themselves.

If you want serious reform, allow teachers to discipline unruly students and kick the worst offenders out of class and have them go to an old style reform school. But don't use online education as an excuse to just ignore them and have their lives be devalued.

To be clear, I think that online education for results oriented adults could be a great thing. I just don't see it as effective for children. The results have been nearly a disaster in our household. The kids are zooming, but they aren't learning much. A six year old just doesn't have the attention span to make it work.

It works well for my 14 year-old and not that well for my 6 year-old.

But my 14 year-old is taking one third the time he would normally take in school. Partly that’s because the filler subjects like music and library have all fallen by the wayside and are asking for almost nothing in remote learning. And partly that’s because he’s doing the one third of school that’s actual work and dropping the part that’s moving around the building, listening to the teacher go over something you already understood, administration, etc. We’ve taken to adding to his assignments with extra math.

And for my 6 year-old, we have to ask how focused he would be in the classroom when we criticize how focused he is in the living room. Maybe school just isn’t a great use of a 6 year-old’s time.

What we really miss is the socialization for the younger kids and sports for the older kids (which is partially socialization). We can exercise, and in fact the older boys are exercising like men possessed, but we can’t practice hitting sliders. At least not as effectively.

Spoken like someone actually living with kids in this process. The op-ed writer is a great student at a terrible school which actively impedes her education. In my kids schools there is no 'struggle to maintain discipline' (there must be some, but it's rare), no destruction of materials, low truancy. And their online classes are second rate, at best.

My 7-year-old is similarly alienated from the process. I think in the physical school environment, the teachers can break the lessons up into tiny chunks and change topics frequently. Online, the kids have to focus on the screen for an hour.

To be clear, my kids school is doing live real-time online lessons, not recordings.

Middle school kids. It’s going alright but the problem I see is that the interaction isn’t there. Following the video over and over doesn’t cut it sometimes. What happens is I am the tutor that has to modify the way things are being explained when it’s just not working.

One modification would be all people that stuck get “office hour” sessions one on one or two on two or something.

Have the best content creators and curriculum designers make all the “lessons”. You don’t need 10 math teachers each making separate videos. You need one, with the other 9 divvying up the office hours.

I wouldn’t say it’s not working, I’d say we are just beginning to sort out a system that works.

Once you are mature enough to learn how to teach yourself, it’s great. But before that, it’s dicey.

I have been trying to force the issue by refusing to answer any questions some days. Right now they have suspended grades and it’s more about participation... so a perfect opportunity to learn to sweat through and problem and figure out how to use google and other tools to find the answer.

Then I step in if i see discouragement setting in.

My two cents.

One thing I have noticed is online school really separates out the good and bad teachers. My daughters math teacher is top notch for example. Her videos are getting better and better... I almost sent her a note telling how well I think she is doing.

Some of the other classes, not so great.

Why don't you send it?

One more comment... one thing that’s been a nice compliment is we have more time for projects. Tried coding first, they didn’t like that. Now we are building some mopeds out of old bicycles using basically weed wacker motors and gearing kits. Also been showing them how make raised garden boxes and letting them do all the measuring and cutting and drilling. I just show them which tool to use and which screws are best for whatever and how to notch the wood and whatnot for firm corners. Been ok. Took a play from my dad and built some rockets out of old paper towel rolls too. Prolly should have been doing that stuff all along but it took a dose of complete boredom before they wanted to do it.

I think there's also a big difference between age groups, in that a 6 year old needs an adult in the house while they are remote learning, while a 14 year old can likely be home alone. Where that transition happens is probably different for different children and families. Right now, a lot of people are working from home, or (less fortunately) out of work and can be there for their kids. When stay at home orders are gone, those 6 year old's will need adult supervision, which means every family will be paying for schooling AND full time daycare. That's a huge expense for a huge number of people.

If remote learning can reduce the cost of schooling through efficiency, and that funding can be given to families to cover the cost of supervision, then it might be worth it. That being said, in Illinois (as an example) the yearly funding per student is currently $14K, and the average daycare cost for a non-infant is $10k, so that's a lot of efficiency that will be required. (That $10k also includes many children in daycare settings with teacher ratios comparable to school, so they would be remote learning... in school.)

I guess, in the end, it may be more realistic to view school as "daycare with learning" until you hit mid-to-late-teens. Those well-off enough to have children with a stay-at-home adult family member may not see the real value in that, but for the majority of families, having "daycare with learning" during the day is essential for financial stability.

There was a gang of tough kids on my street when I was a kid and they stopped going to school after the 5th grade and back then everyone seemed happy about that. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. One of worst's father owned a nearby bar. BTW they were not all stupid just wild.
I would think up to at least the 5th grade in classroom looks better. Some boys started to get very wild about 5th grade.

Gee, what happens biologically at that time?

This is a solvable problem then with mandatory puberty blocking drugs until the kids graduate from high school.

"At a minimum they'll learn no additional proper socialization”

They will learn socialization on the streets in very much the same way they learn it in a classroom full of other kids.

I don't understand people who claim to want other kids to socialize their kids. Personally, I'd much prefer adults to socialize my kids. With the *possible* exception of charm school, school is a really terrible way to socialize children.

Has nobody read that public school staple, "Lord of the Flies"?

Lord of the Flies was a staple 40 years ago when I was a teenager. Don't they have something newer to read?

Maybe. That might explain all these folks thinking socialization at school is a good thing.

At a minimum they'll learn no additional proper socialization What's "proper socialization"? You probably mean government indoctrination in becoming a docile, unobjecting taxpayer. "Lord of the Flies" is the ultimate propaganda piece for the state. Humans just can't survive without big brother in charge.

I agree with many of the comments above. It does seem more useful to discuss in terms of who wins and who loses when learning goes online, rather than simply declaring online "better" based on the thoughts of a student who is able to get an op ed published in the NYT.

Could not agree more with this comment. Many students also do not have a home life that is safe and conducive to learning. Tabbarok shows a shocking unawareness about this.

Why would the assumption be that any particular solution would have to apply to everyone? If our education system wasn't literally 'government ownership of the means of production' level socialist, different approaches that are optimized for different kinds of students would comfortably coexist.

I like how you worked that socialist bit in there.

Is it shocking? Tabarrok has long shown he is completely detached from the real world.

Better if, and only if, student is motivated and has the right environment and material resources to follow and interact... otherwise, we will leave behind a generation of poorly taught students with lack of means to catch up...

...with these brick-and-mortar public schools.

And just think, with online learning there's no need to hire a bunch of teachers and professors! You could have one person teach millions of students.

Correcting millions of papers/projects might be a problem...ya think?

That's what TAs are for.

The solutions used in large University classes and professional schools--such as multiple choice tests, easily scale up to the millions. Essays don't, but most of the same knowledge is testable with methods that do.

Very subjective assessments, like art or creative writing and thinking will likely always need a human evaluation. But those things can easily be left to the large tutoring industry that would become widely affordable once mandatory industrial scale warehouse schooling ends and frees up those resources.

Why are most of your other comments on MR bot-generated? Are you trying to get IP-banned?

Some members of the cargo cult don't like having their bubbles burst. But I don't mind, I think it's amusing. We're all having fun here.

Let the market sort it out? If online is so great, it will triumph.

Credentials ING is a big hurdle.

The question is always what goal you ascribe to education, and higher education in particular.

If it is to convey some limited curriculum while avoiding pesky social interaction, then yes, online learning is just great.

If is actually about building social and leadership skills, growing up, becoming "whole", what the word Univers-ity ascribes to, then forget it...

If the goal is to make our lives even more technology-reliant, bland, fiction and joyfree, then yes, e-learning is far superior.

You forgot to mention that it's where you learn to think critically!

I suspect these things can be acquired outside University. It might even be better as Universstudents are a very narrow subset of the population.

"If is actually about building social and leadership skills, growing up, becoming "whole", what the word Univers-ity ascribes to, then forget it"

I don't know if online education can impart those things, but I pretty certain that most of public (probably private as well) education doesn't do this either.

Not one person has ever learned "leadership skills" in a public high school.

My avoid getting killed skills greatly strengthened in high school, though.

Amen. Traditional schools do offer a lot of off-curriculum lessons on bullying, being bullied, obedience to authority, undermining authority, getting noticed, and avoiding getting noticed.

They do also teach some useful academics, and if there is no other opportunity to get an education, traditional schools can seem like a godsend. But it is probably the *worst* way yet devised to get a formal education. Certainly in a wealthy diverse society, it should be the least common way.

Wow, judging by all the responses to my post, either:
1. none of you have gone to a great university or:
2. you are all just endlessly cynical.
My money (because this is MR), is on 2.

Well, given that most of the discussion is about K-12, not Uni, people just think you are wrong... and you probably are.

Okay, let's talk about K-12 then. I think my point still holds.

In the future, as AI takes over a significant part of white collar work, what will be the differentiator?

My tip is social & interpersonal skills.

Focusing on e-learning will basically endanger honing the one competitive advantage that your son/daughter still has vs. an algorithm.
And I'm not even talking about depriving your kids of potentially very nurturing social contact in a key part of their lives.

And for all of those comments about high school being a cesspool of negative emotion, I'm sorry for your experience. But even that is a social experience and potentially, a learning experience (because guess what, not all learning is "fun", but it's learning all the same). As opposed to sitting in front of a screen all day.

I will gladly admit that traditional schooling is better than no schooling.

But probably every other method of formal education is superior for most people, particularly at the same level of funding (but likely also at much lower levels of funding).

Perhaps traditional schools suffer because of being captured by political institutions. Maybe if schools were required to respond much more to market incentives I would see that the format really could be excellent for almost everyone.

But I doubt it. It is a fairly recent creation, developed and imposed primarily for political rather than educational purposes, evolving to include signaling purposes. Consumer-driven education in an advanced society is unlikely to largely resemble what is common today. The extent to which it must be forced should be evidence enough to at least raise suspicion.

No video coming out of a collage camps in the last 10 years evidences any leadership beyond joining an angry mob.

Relatedly, the old question about whether the value-add of higher education is primarily knowledge transfer / building skills, or whether it's more signaling / networking.

And if it's the latter, whether massive public subsidies in higher education make sense.

I thought your first point (goals) was great, but undermined by the other statements. Maybe what you'd want to say is that, whether it's explicitly stated or not, traditional education (broadly speaking) is about (a) knowledge/info transfer, (b) skill development (related but different from knowledge), and (c) socialization. A lot of online is focused on (a), with some of (b) and (c). Probably a lot to learn about where online is/is not effective across those goals (just like traditional ed is/is not effective across those goals).

Talking out of turn, being disrespectful, etc. in a physical classroom helps build social and leadership skills for those in the room. Online does not develop interpersonal skills, nor does it develop coping skills for the likes of the op ed writer.

Yeah, but they can pass the requisites using a computer and then do group activities where they do all that unimportant "human" stuff that makes life worthwhile.

Solving for the equilibrium, maybe kids go to school for a few hours every day, maybe three times a week. And they all get to sleep in much more?

I would think all parties would take that deal.

Or just add more online learning to traditional schools. Have lessons available for children around the world but still have a proctor available should any issues arise. This also allows each child to learn at their own pace and lets the teachers do what they always say they want to do, teach more one-on-one.

It’s a marginal change that would be politically feasible.

And yes, your idea works as well for a lot of students.

"I would think all parties would take that deal." Depends what would the parents need to be doing during the time the kids aren't in class.

If you include parents as one of those parties, I would disagree,

As others note, it might depend on the age of the child, and whether mom is at home, in some combination.

But if it comes down to an idea that school should last as long as the median parent's work shift, I think that's kind of bad. Because that "solution" was never really optimal.

". And they all get to sleep in much more?"

You never had children, I assume. The exact response with elementary school children is to then stay up as late as possible. Without the 6:30 am time to get on the bus, all of our children have been pushing bed time boundaries for 6 weeks now.

I was thinking of our HS kid's shifted hours, but also the research on the topic:

Oh no, JWatts. It's the CDC!

“ Oh no, JWatts. It's the CDC!”

Working on sleep schedules? Oh well, I guess they had nothing better to do.

As I've said, I think there should be a research department committed to human health. When we don't have that, we have to split it across established agencies. It's a bucket sort.

There should be no federal government role in funding a study like that at all. Let California waste taxpayers' money on it.

I realize that if you are a real outlier you may not think "government" should provide education. But certainly if they should provide it, they should strive to do so most efficiently.

Lol, they said restocking the strategic stockpile was a waste of resources. This is what they spend their cash on.


So speaking of buckets, the Strategic National Stockpile is managed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. It was created under the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to lead the nation in preventing, preparing for, and responding to the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters.

It is actually a peer organization to the CDC in our system:

And perhaps because of that Katrina history, the CDC does not rule it.

Of course the CDC does not rule it.

Which may explain why the CDC believed it was a waste of resources to restock the strategic stockpile as a form of pandemic preparation. And fought against it.

Again, the CDC is not even in charge. But if you'd like to link to some official study or report by the CDC recommending behavior to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, tear it up.

Show us you can do more than pull assertions from the air.

You should probably read up on the history of the stockpile, why the CDC thought it was a waste of their budget, and why it was eventually transferred out of their control.

So no link, just your self confident assurance on any topic.

I just finished instruction for our semester - exams are due next week. I am sure that for some people (motivated, etc) online is fine. I have been getting better at it as I go along, to the degree that when I have time I go back and re-do some of the earlier material. That's with very limited support and while teaching a 3 course semester.

My students, however, are annoyed even when it's good. They paid for a high-service small liberal arts college EXPERIENCE, as well as 4 courses a semester. I bet if they have a chance to sign up for online almost none of my students will choose it.

The challenge, and not specifically for you but for the whole system, is to name three prices:

1) online

2) hybrid

3) full Monty

And then for the student to calculate debt each. Personally, I think full Monty will be a luxury product, once we solve for equilibrium.

One thing I've realized is that students do not take advantage of the main qualities that make a college education worthwhile. They are there for a credential, fulfill the minimum requirements, and leave. I guess you could do that online.

The advantages of being there are that you can really satisfy your curiosity about things. Find what interests you and talk to professors who work in those fields and other students who are interested in the same thing. That's much harder to do in an online setting. Given how few students actually talk to their instructors outside class, maybe they wouldn't be missing much. It's odd that this happens since universities go out of their way to advertise things like research, books, publishing, and so on by their faculty, but for most students these are irrelevant.

For the best students, the "full Monty" is the way to go. It will be sad if that becomes a luxury product.

Are you implying it didn't become a "luxury product" when they installed the lazy river at the rec center?


Tertiary education is both a (1) positional consumption good (and for the parents!) and a (2) filter signaling conscientiousness, conformity, and intelligence. For the real schools (top ~10) it’s also (3) a network builder.

Online fails 1 and 3. Fails 2 now, but enough students could switch that 2 could eventually work.

Crucially, we already have this and it fails. Junior colleges are essentially free. Parents and students still borrow to spend $35,000 to send their kid to bottom tier schools. So what would online solve for that hasn’t been solved for already ?

Thumbs up but a slight reduction for the snarky tone. Not that I disagree it was necessary, I’m just trying to be nice today. I’ve deleted multiple trolling comments already.

I would like the option of online education available to my elementary age children just in case I hate their government school more that I do now.

Never trust anyone who fully excludes creation of human capital from their analysis of tertiary education.

You suffer from black and white thinking, which I suppose is common to partisan extremists.

Human capital is obviously some percentage. We could have a pointless debate about what % is signaling, but honestly that debate is entirely unnecessary to demonstrate why you’re wrong.

Junior colleges are essentially free. We’ve already solved for the equilibrium. People still choose the $35,000 option..

Which is also indicative of the breakdown between human capital formation, signaling, and positional good consumption.


Dude, you were the one fully excluding human capital from your 2:31 pm comment.

I did not do the converse. I did not fully exclude 1) positional goods consumption, (2) signaling or (3) a network building.

I recognize that any specific major or life plan may involve any 1-3, but any discussion without (4) skills acquisition?

Don't trust that person.

Um, okay. I don’t believe tertiary education is pure signaling. That’s such an obvious strawman it’s not worth discussing.

Anyways, it’s also besides the point. You’re wrong, since Junior Colleges have already solved for that equilibrium. Which you’ve ignored.


I can solve this problem.

I am opening a faux university in Barbados next year attended by all students who are taking online classes from their closed universities.

Instead of a 3pm tea time,
There will be
Margarita Time.

Im sorry if this feeds the apparent polarity of this topic. But out here in the rural burbs the school quality is quite good. Little energy is spent on discipline and in class drama. Meanwhile my 8th grade middle school kid has actually learned better, not just diluted grades but spent more time on assignments and completed higher quality work. Not a digital boogyman in her case.

Many of the kids who are disrupting classes will benefit a lot. All kids can learn, but not that many can book learn for more than an hour without zonking out.

"Many of the kids who are disrupting classes will benefit a lot. "

Probably not. If they can't sit in class, they are unlikely to sit at a computer.

If they can sit in front of a computer for 20 minutes 10 times a day they may learn more than they currently do.

This is for proper online education. Not lectures in a can.

And they can often sit in front of a computer for hours when it engages them. This means the gamification of educations and, yeah, maybe their will have to be lessons that focus on their ability to tolerate boredom if that turns out to be vital skill in the future.

And of course, there will probably be students would would benefit more from being in a traditional classroom and hurt by the changes.

Kids who act out in class often do so *because* of the kids around them. You might be surprised how much better some of those kids do when pulled out of that environment.

That is fer sure. Both bullies and the bullied can be helped. And not just the teachers, but students too.

Online education is like nuclear fusion: it's been promised for decades and has yet to deliver. I fail to see why AT assumes that it must be suitable for 8th graders if it's suitable for college students. In fact, AT directly mentions time-shifting as a benefit!! Yeah, sure, let's structure the lessons so that the kids questions are answered in under a week, that'll be great motivation. And I assume that when I go to work that AT will be coming over to monitor my kids so that they're not alone at home.

Have we ever really tried before? I've heard of flipped classrooms, but I haven't heard of any k-12 education reducing classroom hours using online courses.

There are many virtual high schools in several states. I haven't looked into results but just wanted to put it on your radar.

One of our kids did online high school for a year. Learnt far more than in the years before or following. I pulled him out because I felt he needed to make local (social) connections. Too late I realised I had done wrong.

I suspect online education is better for some students and worse for others.

But also, the op ed is describing a dysfunctional school where they can't keep order in the classroom. It's easy to beat that--almost any way of teaching kids is better. But that dysfunction is a policy choice, not some law of nature--schools can be run so that kind of disruption is very rare. I suspect the girl who wrote the op-ed would be a lot happier in such a school--maybe happier than she is taking online classes.

Online education is terrible. This is my conclusion after having done it for the last two months.

Students on Zoom are distracted, no one asks or answers questions anymore, there is almost zero discussion. It is difficult/time-consuming to produce material suitable for an online format. Traditional lectures, even those using modern 'active learning' methods do not translate to online. Students hate it and teachers hate it even more.

Maybe there is some small group of instructors and students who can thrive under such conditions. Maybe there are some great online teaching methods, in which case there needs to be considerable training and not just the hacked together situation we have now. But so far, the second half of the Spring semester has been a disaster.

At the college level I wouldn't waste anyone's time or money on online education. Much of the benefit of college comes from being there. If you want to learn something, pick up a book, it would be just as good as online learning.

Anecdotally I hear that regular school education is even worse. In my city, most students and teachers have given up and not done anything after the first couple of weeks. Teachers make up work packets and expect students to do them with their parents but don't check in on any of it.

I wonder what "online learning" brings over just reading a book. Especially when the people talking during the recorded lecture wrote the book. If something requires additional explanation, just write the book better.

"I wonder what "online learning" brings over just reading a book"

Or just going to a library and IM's someone with questions you have?

my experience exactly

Sorry to hear you feel this way. As a student, I can say with full conviction that I've benefited tremendously from the shift to online classes. I'm lucky that I've had a few professors who are likely a standard deviation or more better than the average at conducting classes online (these are STEM courses in case you were wondering). I think the primary challenge from both a teaching and learning perspective is to get beyond the understandable urge to conduct Zoom classes in the same way you would conduct an in person class. That's to say that you need to make better use of the inherent advantages (e.g. asynchronocity) that the virtual world brings. There's a certain amount of buy-in you need from the students, but I'm hopeful that'll come with time if professors can get creative in their instructional methods.

I wonder if teachers who love to be in the classroom are extroverts, and students who love to learn online are introverts, and never the twain shall meet..

I'm not saying she didn't try, but Duolingo is better than my French teacher.

I imagine she may be better at some things.

Well, I was referring to a rather narrow subset of her actual abilities...

My wife volunteers for tutoring 7th and 8th graders who need assistance. She has done so for about 4 years in person, and now does it by telephone with kids.

Given the disruption in these homes--with other siblings running around, --there is no way online education is working. I listen to her working with kids on the line slope formula, area problems, etc. --they are struggling. She spends hours on problems that, if she were next to them, could more easily refer to the book, to other similar problems, etc.

This will be a great experiment for online education. A natural experiment that will have long lasting results.

I agree both specifically and generally. Speaking only about K-12: offline education has the disruption problem: kids making trouble in the classroom. (In fact, I think a lot of parents choose private over public schools just because private schools have no responsibility to teach disruptive kids: they just expel them.) Then when we look at online education it has its own disruption problem: other kids, parents, pets in the home. Maybe we'll see which is worse. I don't know.

Sorry to go off topic Mr. Mercer, but could you say why "Only Life" and "Time For a Witness" have never been available on itunes or Spotify?

All methods have their problems, and vary by circumstances.

That is why the one thing everyone should be able to agree on, is shifting those decisions from high level bureaucrats down to those who know those circumstances--the families themselves.

It should then be expected that the best achievable solution (from the perspective of parents) will be overall appear heterogeneous and dynamic.

I too am a conservative and place a high value on order and stability. Those who place a higher value on disruption are self-absorbed and should self-isolate.

Haha. You are conservative and see the other end of the spectrum hose who place higher value on disruption? Is that the opposite political party? Is that anyone who likes in-person education? I hope I dont wake up the household with my laughter.

Order and stability is an illusion. A comforting one for some but others see it as useless windmill tilting.

Maybe it's viable for middle and high schoolers, but speaking as a parent of young kids, it's a nightmare for young elementary school students. A teacher talking through a screen and clunky digital handouts don't hold kids' attention at all and they're not getting any of the social component that's so important at that age.

A quote by Richard Mayer (How Multimedia Can Improve Learning and Instruction - 2019),

"Advances in computing technology in today’ s digital age have reignited educators’ interest in multimedia forms of communication because of the ease with which it is now possible to render illustrations, photos, animation, and video and incorporate them with audio and text. Access to the Internet, mobile computing, and interactive virtual reality have made multimedia learning available when and where the learner wants it. Such advances have prompted calls for expanding the concept of literacy to new media in which students learn to create and comprehend multimedia messages (Mayer, 2008). Today’ s forms of multimedia instruction have expanded beyond paper-based formats to live slideshow formats to computer-based formats, including e-learning, video games, and virtual reality.

However, just because an educational technology exists does not mean that it will be used productively. For example, Cuban (1986) provides a history of educational technology in the twentieth century, including motion pictures in the 1920s, radio in the 1930s, educational TV in the 1950s, and machine-based programmed instruction in the 1960s. In each case, strong claims were made for the educational potential of the cutting-edge technology of the day, but, within a decade, it became clear that the technology had failed to revolutionize education. Today’ s cutting-edge technologies have prompted some visionaries to call for revolutionizing education – putting multimedia learning experiences online and making better use of game-like activities to accelerate learning (Gee, 2003; McGonical, 2011; Prensky, 2006; Schank, 2002).

The lessons concerning the educational technologies of the twentieth century should caution us to replace a technology-centered approach – designing instruction based on what cutting-edge technology can do without regard to how people learn – with a learner-centered approach – designing instruction, often multimedia instruction, based on an understanding of how people learn regardless of the medium used to deliver the instruction (Mayer, 2009)."

Richard E. Clark in 1983, still a valid point today:

"The best current evidence is that media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition."

Online education is not better. It may be better for some. I have taught both in person and online (university level) and online was less able to accommodate a Socratic method. The interactivity is formalized of necessity and the entire texture of education and engagement lost.
But, with respect to the el-hi education, here is a sharp contrast to the NYTimes essay:

All that is necessary is to allow online education. Any youngster in the US will fulfill his/her legal requirement to attend school at any accredited online school. Could be almost all will, or almost none; could be economies of scale lead to a few huge accredited institutions or could be varying preferences lead to many smaller ones. No reason not to try.

In other words, all that is necessary for Alex to be right is that "online education is better for many youngsters". Does not have to be all and does not have to be most.

The more alternative options that are reasonably allowed, the less you will see of traditional schools.

But that is why there is such resistance to alternatives. By resisting, traditional schooling advocates reveal their own lack of confidence in traditional schooling.

Truth be told, you'd probably also need tuition vouchers to compete at the user-decision level vs. "free" traditional schools). And, perhaps, child care.

The better sales point might be to cash-strapped local governments, particularly those with huge pension liabilities (to help get the local teacher union onboard)

I don't know, from what I'm seeing and hearing, students are a lot less productive/motivated with Zoom classes - secondary school or college.

Stanislas Dehaene (How We Learn - 2020):

In the words of psychologist Richard Mayer, who reviewed this field, the best success is achieved by “methods of instruction that involve cognitive activity rather than behavioral activity, instructional guidance rather than pure discovery, and curricular focus rather than unstructured exploration.”

Does online education foster cognitive activity, instructional guidance and curricular focus?

Straussian translation of this op-ed: Boys are bad.

The switch to distance learning has been devastating to my daughter. She has struggled with depression, but over the past couple of years she has found a small group of great friends at school that helped her come out of her shell and feel like part of a community. She was getting mostly A's and really felt part of the school environment.

Since the switch to distance learning, she has lost interest in just about everything and is falling behind her work due to lack of motivation. The school has lots of learning resources and has done a good job in the transition, but it's just not the same as in person emotionally. I'm really worried that the quarantine is literally going to kill her.

Socialization is a critical part of school, and while there are a lot of bumps on the way, learning how to make friends and get along with other humans in person is a big part of school. Obviously, some schools are hell for kids, but I believe most kids, in most schools, have a net benefit from spending time with their peer group and overcoming common challenges.

Research shows that worked examples - a step‐by‐step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem - are superior to to solving multiple practice problems for learning math. John Hattie (2009) gives them an effect size d = o.57, Alexander Renkl (2014) gives them an effect size close to 1.0 if you improve them with activities like self-explanations. I’ve been searching for examples of online early math training and I can’t find any. Even Kahn Academy, as good as it is, doesn’t use worked examples.

"assessment tools including curve shifting (not just multiple-choice)"
Can anyone tell me what "curve shifting" means here? Is it an assessment tool? I have suddenly been tossed into teaching online and could seriously use some better assessment tools, but google does not turn up what AT is referring to....

What kind of assessment?

Sorry - that article mentions the bell curve, but does not really clarify...
Is the point just that the assessment itself "shifts the curve"?
For some reason I thought AT was referencing a specific kind of assessment but maybe not

In order to move the student forward you need to gather information, check their understanding, and adapt your instruction accordingly.

"the information from an assessment can be used formatively or summatively. If I find that a student knows 50% of his multiplication facts from 1 x 1 to 10 x 10, then that is a summative conclusion. However, if I look more carefully at the test results and see that the student is having particular difficulty with the seven-times-table, than that gives me, as the teacher, something to work with.

The same assessment, and even the same assessment results, can be used formatively and summatively, which is why the words “formative” and “summative” are best thought of not as kinds of assessments, but as different kinds of conclusions that might be drawn from assessment outcomes."

Sorry, what I meant was specific to economics. In our online economics classes we do more than have multiple choice questions we also have graphical questions where students must literally work with diagrams, shift curves etc., i.e. the type of exam economists would require in a pen and paper exam.

Alex, do you use any techniques to improve understanding and retention of the material?

Much of the reason for public schools in the first place is to learn to work through and deal with the disorder in your community, both for the disorderly kids and the disciplined ones.

Teaching Veronique that she can do better by avoiding all the messy people whenever possible isn't good for her, or anyone else.

Yes, she might grow up to not appreciate the sidewalks of San Francisco.

The human race isn't just composed of hard working tele-professionals and people sleeping on sidewalks. She might find herself having to work something important out with an engineer who lacks any social skills, for example.

How do you expect at 13 year old to handle the dysfunctional classroom when the adult professionals cannot manage it? Should Veronique learn prison management skills? Should she learn therapeutic management techniques? Should she know how to regulate children who are off their meds? Should she dispense them too? Should she learn how to tackle and restrain? Maybe she should get a PsyD after school so that she can navigate the challenges better. Maybe she can start communicating with the absent parents? These are all learning opportunities that Veronique has failed to take leverage.

Let me tell you about the recent experience of college professors. I have a hundred+ students this semester. I have asked for their impressions on the online portion of our courses since March, not just mine, but the rest of their courses. Invariably, the students HATE the online courses. They miss the interaction and online has reduced their motivation tremendously. I am sure that courses can be beautifully designed as Alex and Tyler do, but I see this as only a portion of the higher education market. MOOCs have been around for a decade and what I have learned from the past few weeks is that online higher education will only ever be a supplement or a valuable tool when needed.

>Imagine how much more she will learn when we invest millions in online classes and teach at scale.

What is needed is to replace one industrial process with another.

A compromise

When I was a student in a public high school in New Jersey circa 2005, my principal approached me unexpectedly and offered me the chance to pilot a program where high school students do college courses online for credit. (It's not relevant that the course I chose from the list was microeconomics.)
I read the textbook myself. I used the computers in the library to take tests. I had very minimal oversight, so the demands on the school staff were minimal.
I came out with an "A" and college credit that I could then use in college. I would not say it was a great experience or a bad experience. It did not ignite and interest in economics (although I would go on to study it later after meeting a professor who engaged me).
Could Veronique Mintz be allowed a few periods like that, even as young as 8th grade? Then she could still have social interactions and extracurriculars offered by school infrastructure.
Could the Veroniques be mobilized to tutor their peers? That way she gets credit for what she is already doing in reality which is subsidizing the experience of the weakest students.

The quarantine is giving us a ton of data about kids learning from home.

It's a decent concept in difficult circumstances. For the short term.

The goals are mainly not as much about teaching curriculum, and merely only aspiring to maintain connections and keep kids engaged and support parents who want their kids to focus on something or need to keep their kids occupied. And to do it well is a ton of work, far more work than running a classroom.

The vast majority of the feedback has parents (AND kids) screaming to open the damn schools back up.

I teach Accounting at a regional university. From what I have seen, most students prefer F2F over online. I believe there have been studies showing that F2F and online achieve similar learning outcomes. While this may be true, it's the perception of the online vs. F2F experience that would drive students to pick F2F over online. In this case, I think F2F wins. As evidence for this assertion, consider lawsuits filed by students stating that their education online was inferior to F2F education. This tells me online is perceived as lesser value.
Further, I think online only saves costs if delivered asynchronously at scale. In this case, just read the book and take the test. It's no different in my opinion, except that students can watch a video rather than read, which I'm not convinced increases their understanding anyways. Whenever I teach a new chapter, I ask students to raise their hand if they read the chapter before lecture or if they watched the chapter lecture video (I have videos for each chapter). In the beginning of the semester, maybe 40-50% raise their hands; at the end of the semester, no one raises their hand. Maybe if the videos become higher quality with more adaptive testing, more students will participate, but I’m still not convinced.
Synchronous online, however, still requires significant input from a qualified instructor, thereby decreasing the cost savings online. I'm not convinced effective synchronous classes can be delivered at scale.
Overall, I think online is just another channel. Some students will go the online route, but the majority will not. It's kind of like working out; I can work out alone at home watching videos online for free. Or, I can pay money for a gym membership and workout in a group or around other people. Seems like many may choose the latter, not the former.

Exactly, if its not at large scale it costs more time. It would save money in facilities, but you need more not less time to make up for the difficulty of explanations and body language. And the massive courses only work for the already self motivated. What we really need is a cheap liberal arts model: high teaching load, cheap facilities, no fru fru stuff or sports, no -studies departments. If anybody has some money, there are going to be a bunch of bankrupt small schools in the next year you could acquire for cheap.

Very true. Some private liberal arts schools will go under. There are schools you describe, at least on some level of your description. The other thing about online is that in my experience, it's not priced that differently than F2F, which is really interesting. I think this crisis will put downward pricing pressure on online, or at least the asynchronous teach yourself online.

There are big pros and cons to distance learning, just like there are big pros and cons to work-from-home scenarios.

The OP points out some of the benefits, I completely agree with them, but I could list some of the obvious negatives as well.

liberals snitching/stitching up General Flynn

Trump’s tweet: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”


You saying Pence a liberal? He snitched on Flynn.

we are saying the liberalsnitch narrative is underated!

Online learning is clearly better... for the unionized teachers so loved by the NYT (and who probably co-wrote this article).

It is much, much worse for the kids.

And if you live in NYC, or some other blue hellhole, and your public school sucks... we know. That school exists to serve unionized teachers beloved by the NYT -- not you. This is the problem you need to solve. The solution is not "give the same teachers less work to do."

Maybe in the short term. If online learning was here to stay, we could get by with far fewer teachers.

1. "The teacher rarely had the patience for questions", so why not have just used youtube or the Kahn academy to answer questions? I assume that the answer is that classes are not uniform enough, which is a problem in itself, makes me thing that Bryan Caplan has to be right mostly school is signaling.
2. My son took an online class in high school and it was much harder than in class because the program is ridged and inflexible where a teach would give a kid a break.

In my profession, online CE is much MUCH harder than conference CE. It is also much MUCH cheaper and, for me, more instructive.

Comrade Tabarrok is rebuked for fomenting dissension. Under the foundational policy of democratic centralism, “Nine Years- One Policy” is Party doctrine. North American territory is not exempt. Technology may be used in a controlled classroom environment for purposes of teaching the Chinese language. The North American education system will not be reformed until it has completed its current mission to destabilize and destroy the enemies of the Party.

If the schools were like they were in 1965, then yes, the critics in here are correct and traditional school housing is better. Unfortunately, the schools have been destroyed by decades of the progressive left, even to the point where disruptive kids are no longer expelled because of "desperate impact" (remember that phrase). As such, I would say today that on-line learning, as well as home-schooling (the latter dependent on quality) are vastly superior to traditional brick and mortar schools today.

Did you mean 'Disparate Impact' instead of "desperate impact"

Online classes are better for Veronique because she is motivated. For the many people in her classes who don't seem to be motivated, they will probably learn even less.

Of course, there is a simple way to get Veronique many of the advantages she wants in a regular classroom. That is to track. The teacher won't have to answer questions Veronique knows because the other people in her class will be on the same level as her. However, tracking is taboo in most middle schools. Disparate impact and all that.

"Disparate impact and all that."

Exactly! That's why we need on-line learning as well as home schooling. Its just one of those no brainer things these days.

Age-related changes [ in B and T cells] begin early in life with the drop in production of new T cells. New naïve T cells are made in the thymus, a gland above the heart that is large in our childhood, but undergoes quick atrophy, called involution, so that already by the end of puberty, we get only 10% of production that we had as kids (Chinn et al. 2012). Another drop in production occurs between 40 and 50 years of age, reducing new production of naïve T cells to 1% (Naylor et al. 2005). A similar drop in production of naïve B cells occurs due to an age-related dysfunction of the bone marrow (the site of B cell generation), although this occurs later in life than for T cells (Chinn et al. 2012). Naïve T and B cells made in youth are normally maintained for long periods of time in the lymph nodes (and to a lesser degree in the spleen and bone marrow for B cells). In fact, lymph nodes are in charge of both maintenance and coordination of new immune responses necessary to control viruses such as SARS-2. Lymph nodes undergo dramatic age-related changes in the final third of life, becoming less able to maintain naïve T cells (Thompson et al. 2017) and to coordinate new immune responses to emerging infections Moreover, the T cells that do remain do not move quickly enough to meet innate immune cells when the infection strikes (Richner et al. 2015), which could be a consequence of dysregulation in chemokines that guide T cell migration. Innate immune cells themselves do not get activated by infection as efficiently in mice (Li et al. 2012) and humans (Metcalf et al. 2015). Once activated, both T and B cells exhibit reduced proliferation and differentiation in lymph nodes with aging. As a consequence, the immune responses to a new emerging infection are blunted, with many fewer effector cells, that are also less well armed by antimicrobial molecules, making them less effective in defending against infection as we age (Brien et al. 2009; Smithey et al. 2011).

Some on line learning

For millions of years, humans evolved to teach and mentor in face-to-face interactive iterative adaptive methods, that includes the reading of nonverbal cues to calibrate effectiveness and the building of individuals bonds to increase engagement and investment, and the develop through trial and error of the most effective style and approach in each individual circumstance.

People generally report that the teacher who most impacted their lives was the one who took an individual interest in them and tailored the instruction to exactly what that student needed at that moment in time.

In that light, it is no surprise that the experiment with public schools to make that scalable has worked wonderfully, with one size fits all instruction, uniform curriculum, ranked grading, and standardized testing.

I see no reason why doing this now in pre-recorded and/or electronic mediums would not be even better yet, and might be scalable to an extent beyond our wildest cost efficiency dreams.

The biggest problem with the model we have now, as the OP states, is that teachers are too busy with discipline to give individualized attention to those more willing/able/prepared to participate. Even though the teacher is in the room, discipline and focus are a challenge. Online learning will solve that by removing the students from the teacher's direct oversight, and student will self-motivate to focus better and initiate their work independently. And the now-scaled remote instructors will be better-equipped to monitor the qualitative character of their three- and four-digit student-load remotely than was possible in 20 to 30 student in-person class sizes.

What a great way to indoctrinate children into one's ideology!

1. There's a small subset of students for whom this may work better.
2. In the post the problem seems to be discipline problems at that school. If a student is at a hellhole school it's not good. But if their home environment was terrible online would not work either. Compare like with like.
3. Most people are hard wired to learn from other real people. A good teacher can get the class via unit cohesion to work well.

I'm currently a college student, and have been taking online classes for the past month or so. While online instruction can be advantageous, through improving access to professors or giving the ability to go over the material multiple times, the original post fails to address one of the primary reasons that secondary educations are conducted face to face: socialization. For the past several decades one of the primary ways that kids (myself included) have learned social cues and norms has been through being around other human beings continuously, and especially those with different cultural experiences. When the opportunity to mingle with peers in a meaningful and personal way is removed, then we are removing one of fundamental building blocks of an education. You can teach a kid as much mathematics or science online as you'd like, however the peculiarities of human interaction have to be lived, and that cannot be done through a computer screen.

How do you do science lab experiments? The pictures of the guts of earthworms, frogs, etc were much different than what I and my lab partner saw actually cutting into them in grade 8 or 9 of public school in the early 60s. That was enough to get me to dodge biology in college. The bit of geology in high school was even worse, with the pictures and the few rocks we looked at in labs totally useful when I tried to look at rocks on the ground. In the 60s, geology wasn't yet cool, so public schools did not prioritize it, so it was in the 70s after Apollo moon rocks that I and others got interested, but I've bought a bunch of books to aspirationally learn to classify rocks I trip over or step on in NH, to noavail.

I've learned that a good instructor can provide the key insight, generally from seeing so many students stumble on a key understanding that like Mash's Radar they tell you the key thing to know so you can know how to "see" the rock to know what it is, see the leaf to know the tree, see the bug to know where to put it in the tree of life.

But experience is required, hence the reason for hands on experimennts.

I've noticed economists totally miss the point of physics experiments. 95% are training for students so they can eventually invent new experiments, run them by supervising RAs, analyze the results, and part of the time write a paper, or maybe ship a produce.

Since the 70s, accelerated by tax cuts and spending cut ideology, schools eliminated experience by eliminating hands on experiments whether sewing things by hand or sewing machine, cooking eggs, baking bread, making bird houses, making ash trays with clay fired in a kiln, soldering metal boxes, dissecting bugs and worms, turning liquids pink, blue, and clear, plotting the position of a swinging ball on a string over time.

As a boy, I was excluded from the sewing and baking, and my sister from wood and metal shop, but otherwise I experienced all those active learning experiences in public school in the 60s in Indiana.

The "book learning" I hated and had no relevance for most of my life in the 70s, 80s, and most of the 90s.

Interesting comments on geology. It is definitely a hands-on affair. I was lucky to have a professional geologist as my 7th grade geology teacher - he was getting his PhD and needed to teach to support himself - and he took us on field trips around the state. (I went to private school where such things were allowed.) Now, when I see a particular landscape or rock formation, I can relate it to something I learned 54 years ago. You can't learn this stuff from books. How are you supposed to learn about the Earth if you never go outside?

Astronomy, biology, etc. are the same. You can learn Shakespeare by reading books, but it helps to go to plays too. Learning is mostly about doing.

Isn't the obvious solution to kick out the unruly students and put them on online only options while focusing attention on the students willing to learn or be taught and supplementing with online instruction where helpful?

Wow, this post hits the spot! I can't tell you how glad I am to have been teaching online to undergrad econ majors. Previously I could barely get through a lecture because they were constantly rolling on the ground while kicking and hitting one another, when they were not actively destroying classroom materials. I could hardly get a word in edewise!

Thank, Alex, for bringing to so many what we have been suffering so badly through for so many years!!! :-)

All well and good however I suspect the truth that's about to be discovered is that the *other* service schools are performing is baby sitters keeping kids occupied and out of trouble during the day so parents can go to work and get things done.

My middle schooling was through correspondence school (we were living in non English speaking countries. Took me about 4 hours per week. The rest of the time I was outside playing (learning about the world). When we returned I went on to High School. Soon ended up in the top grade. This was predigital of course, but the lesson is: most of school time is baby sitting so that parents can be expected to participate in the work economy.

As is common, everyone reading the article is taking it at face value rather than seeing it for the obvious bullshit it is.

All the readers here and elsewhere are envisioning poor little Veronique trapped in an inner city school filled with black and Hispanic gang members and moms to be, threatening to take her lunch money.

Wrong. NYC is a choice district.

Veronique is an articulate white girl living in NYC, a district in which well off white parents (and there isn't really any other kind except maybe on Staten Island) have their pick of schools that use state test scores, as opposed to the SHSAT used by the seven specialized schools, for admission.

The odds that Veronique is going to a bad school are exactly zero. She's almost certainly going to a progressive school in which teachers like group work and social justice, and the kids hate it, but white parents aren't nearly as good at terrifying their kids into getting As or else as Asian parents are. But take heart: the kids screwing around are bright--at least as bright, if not brighter, than she is.

Notice it doesn't mention the school she's going to. That's because the minute that information was provided, people would realize she's not going to a hell hole. The principal would write a letter to the editor, expressing his or her disappointment at the way Veronique has slurred and dishonored her school. Veronique probably figured what the hell, I'm going onto high school soon, so who gives a damn if I insulted the principal?

But woe betide Veronique if her school name comes out, ecaus if they do,the demographics will come out, and then the test scores. If her school is a 9 or a 10, which I expect it is, then a whole bunch of people who are now praising her are going to feel like idiots. A whole bunch of other people are going to be pissed at the NY Times for allowing Veronique to shit all over public schools when she's actually a white child of privilege going to a school that oh so carefully weeds out most of the black, Hispanic, and/or poor kids from every sullying its halls.

And if all that happens, then Veronique is going to be "that 8th grader who bitched about her lily white school" and it will follow her through to college admissions. Which will be very bad for her, because it's incredibly obvious to practically anyone that Veronique isn't writing this piece as a cri de coeur, but as a way to brag about how she was published in the NY Times.

My guess is her parents edited it. A lot.

If you have never been through New York school placement hell, you might not realize that a lot of "privileged" white kids wind up in inferior schools, because there are not enough good schools for all the good students, because they didn't test well one day, or because the good school they got admitted to is three hours away, round trip, by two subways and a bus.

By "privilege" I mean two parents who are married to each other, read and write English, and have jobs (or one job). I hope you realize that teachers, writers, foundation program officers, etc. can be smart but do not necessarily have a lot of money.

I have no opinion on whether Veronique's parents edited the essay. It is very good. It reads like something written by an adult. But I was accused of having adults do my schoolwork at that age, and I didn't appreciate it.

Sorry Alex, one op-ed does not give us consensus.

There are already lawsuits by college students who want partial refunds because they paid for a face-to-face college education this term -- and instead got an inferior online one.

Even the military has found online learning to be inferior or at best limited, as this column from the Navy's Chief Learning Officer attests:

This doesn't account for the childcare externality. As someone going through WFH right now with a child, this is no small thing. I'm no more than 60-70% of my normal productivity right now

The kid's op-ed says far less about how good online Ed may be than it does about how useless and degrading an experience government schools are for the vast bulk of the population.

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