Is Unbundling the University Such a Bad Thing?

I agree with Aaron Bady that a strain of overwrought techno-utopianism cripples Clay Shirky’s analsysis of higher education in key places. Reading “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” it is at times almost impossible to stomach Shirky’s disingenuous proselytizing on behalf of “massive open online classes.” As Bady points out, the rhetorical approach of the essay is one predicated on circular logic and techno-revelation, delivered with a heaping dose of cynical salesmanship.

Per Shirky, open courses are open, and so will not only evolve beyond their brick and mortar rivals in no time at all, but will also expand access to the majority of post-secondary students who are so under-served by the current university system. Why web lectures will soon surpass in-person ones in quality, or ever for that matter, is never clearly explained. And why those who can’t afford an education at the country’s top “institutions” should settle for a digitally derivative experience is a question left entirely unexplored.

And yet in his sprawling critique of Shirky, Bady also fails to engage these issues. He notes Shirky’s delinquency, but his positive rebuttal is not so forthcoming either. Instead, a defense of higher education as it presently takes place boils down to Bady’s own personal experience while at Ohio State, and lamenting the fact that less and less students are able to participate in great public schools like it because we as a country have stopped properly funding them. Now I don’t want to discount Bady’s positive experience at Ohio State. But I also think it would be extremely dubious to over extrapolate from it. My own experience at university was very positive as well. If anything though it made me more aware of just how many people the current regime fails.

I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, a quasi-public institution ranked only two spots behind Bady’s own Ohio State according to U.S. News and World Report. I took as many credits each semester as I could, hit the books on week nights and weekends because I liked my classes and loved what I was studying, and feel that I got my money’s worth (though looking back I would certainly have done many things differently). Unfortunately, I knew students, many of them in the very same classes as me, who didn’t. Many are probably just as in-debt as I am, but with less to show for it. Classes were something to get through. Ultimately credentialing was all that mattered; a strategy that leads many people to miss the forest for the trees.

Where Shirky’s comparison to the unbundling of media products is useful is in an analysis of the university as a place where different people go for different reasons. Bady too readily dismisses Shirky’s analogy because he focuses on the classroom experience as what’s being unbundled and digitized into discrete educational packets. Really though, the major problem with modern American universities, and one that is obscured by Shirky’s obsession with “institutions,” is the level of cross-subsidization and continual assimilation which undermine their effectiveness in meeting undergraduate goals. Students enrolled in humanities classes subsidize those enrolled in STEM classes, students enrolled in large classes subsidize those enrolled in small ones. Sports programs which make no money rely on the increasing commercialization of the ones that do. Vocational and technical skill sets which had previously been the province of individual schools and business training programs have been absorbed by colleges on their path toward university level status.

In a way, the debate over whether someone can lecture more effectively in person or through a computer monitor (or tablet, smartphone, etc.), is a distraction. The real question is to what degree new technologies will make the “something for everyone” approach economically and culturally unsustainable, and which of the university’s components can and should be unbundled. I think a growing consensus already believes that big college sports are an easy place to start severing. A less obvious example might be university libraries, which have been rendered all but obsolete with the digification of academic journals. Whether a physical space for studying in social silence can be maintained in the absence of rows and rows of stacked books is, for me at least, an interesting question. But it seems clear that university libraries could perform their primary function more efficiently if they were converted into glorified Wi-Fi hotspots surrounded by computer labs instead (and most have already begun this transformation).

And a third place to cut will probably be, yes, large lectures. The original point of the university was the efficiency of large classes and large faculties all housed in the same location. That efficiency can now be gained in other ways. Especially if you already have the tools to do most of the learning on your own, which large lectures more or less require anyway.

My professor for Chemistry II second semester of freshman year was so bad that my two friends and I stopped attending lectures after the second week. Instead we met at one of the campus’ study lounges, read and outlined our textbooks, and fielded questions from one another when we had them. If none of us could answer the questions ourselves we would email the professor. All of us got As in the class, and spent less time on that specific class because we had saved ourselves from wasting three hours a week in lecture but still got credit for it.

I bring up this anecdote to illustrate two things. First, any lecture that gets above 50-60 students will be just that: a lecture. Second, lectures are already creatures of efficiency, and putting them online will do no less to address differences in how students learn than the currents ones do. What putting lectures online does do is allow them to be revised, stored, and retrieved whenever need be. This is the point of textbooks, and while I would be the first to recognize the limits of most of them, they are extremely effective as repositories for standardized information and references. I did well in Chemistry II not because some inspired professor was around to chat about mols and valence shells, but because the textbook made the material accessible enought for me to digest on my own.

Of course, to simply recommend then that all large lectures be turned into online courses skips an important question, which is whether they should be turned into small seminars instead. And this is the real alternative to online lectures (since, unlike Bady, I do think the physical lecture is a dead medium). Despite doing well in intro level chemistry, I don’t know nearly enough about it to suggest what the best way to teach it is. Perhaps the current method, in which beginning classes simply try to help students digest large amounts of information, is the best one. Or it might be that certain courses (e.g. physics, calculus) need to be re-thought and more organically organized around the methods of inquiry which underlie them rather than as tutorials for solving certain kinds of math problems.

As an undergraduate I had classes that ranged from 200 students to ones with 10. I always preferred the ones with 10. But those also happened to be subjects (Philosophy of Religion, Great Books) which really benefitted from greater student interaction and more time for the professor to spend assigning and grading papers. Still I can see students benefitting from more one-on-one time if they really like chemistry as well, but this wouldn’t apply to students who are doing fine in the class and are only taking it because it’s a requirement (like I did). And this issue already works itself out to a degree since students who are genuinely interested or need help will go to see professors during office hours while others won’t. This is then another form of cross-subsidization since office hours benefit only a few while everyone taking the class is pressumably paying for them.

Chemistry cost me several thousand dollars to take across two semesters. I also didn’t want to take it. Once again, the solution to this poor fit could be cheap (or free) online classes. It could also be the unbundling not just of lectures but of what constitutes the undergraduate degree. Ultimately then what the proliferation of online lectures will do is push universities to defend both their value propositions and their effectiveness. Is the current model the cheapest and best way for me to increase my wages or get a job doing X? Is the current model the best way for me to learn Y and meet other students and faculty who share my interest in the particular field as well as a general predisposition to scholarship and research? I think the obvious answer to both of these questions right now is unequivocally no. And online courses will be a first step toward dismantling the current higher education system, and allowing us to reconsider the goals of those involved so that we can reconstitute institutions more appropriate to meeting them.

One last point on all of this: the kind of crucible I’m advocating for could well end up undermining egalitarian goals for higher education in the long run. This would be both unfortunate, and potentially a reason to resist the unbundling of the university, though possibly a futile one. I am under no illusions that when the economic goals of higher education are separated from the intellectual ones, the latter could very well lose even more public funding.

Part of the American dream is being able to send your children to quality universities. But post-secondary education no longer means more money and a better job. Specialized education and training do. Specialized degrees do. But not general four-year ones from mid-tier (or especially lower tier) institutions. Which means that if we do ever get around to solving the disconnect between employers and employees currently filled by university middle-men, I don’t think there will be funding for general intellectual pursuits.

That is, there won’t be cheap state universities where I can go study rhetoric, literature, and philosophy within accomplished academic departments for four years on low-interest loans before going to join the white collar workforce instead of continuing on to Masters or PhD programs. Pure intellectual development “for all” just won’t be a priority of the public. And maybe it shouldn’t be.

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48 thoughts on “Is Unbundling the University Such a Bad Thing?

  1. This debate is kind of silly, IMO.

    Some things to keep in mind:

    “But post-secondary education no longer means more money and a better job. Specialized education and training do. Specialized degrees do. But not general four-year ones from mid-tier (or especially lower tier) institutions.”

    That’s at best a kind of half-truth:

    There are people who get four year, non-specialized degrees, who end up doing work that high-school alone would qualify them for, but even then, the degree makes their promotion somewhat more likely. It’s still economically worth it to get a general BA, even if you never pursue graduate or specialized education. Moreover, you might need to BA if later in life (very common these days) you decide to pursue a new specialization, say a PsyD to do counselling, or law school, etc.


    Also, note that newspapers got killed economically very early by the internet because no one has ever, ever wanted to pay anything (even 25 cents) for the news. TV news is cheap and directed at consumers, and it often loses money and needs to be supported by “bundling it” with other programming.

    By contrast, demand for a university education is nearly boundless. People keep paying more and more and more. Administrators know this and are burning money and raising tuition with no worry that enrollment will decline. The source of money is (and compare this to newspapers) available to universities is endless.

    Folks like Shirky argue that eventually people will realize their mistake in wanting to pay for education. But that is a joke. As society becomes more efficient, people will have more disposable income, and people go insane tryng to give their kids a leg up on the other kids. They are willing to spend fortunes just to give little Sally or Johnny a three percent greater chance at being upper-middle class.


    Finally, I think unbundling education is the opposite of where we need to go. Students are awful, just awful at picking their own education. Awful. (The fact that we allow them to pick their majors and option classes is the primary source of grade inflation and the degradation of the curriculum and the lowering of standards for good writing. Of that I have no doubt.) They pick the easiest classes, whether that be in terms of effort required to pass or where grade inflation is greatest. They avoid harder disciplines like math, analytic philosophy, languages, physics, core economics in favor of fuzzy-sounding cool stuff like “History of Rock and Roll” or “The Economics of Baseball”.

    If anything, we need to move in the opposite direction: if you want a degree (and there will be few choices of major), her are your classes: X, Y, and Z. If your classes are too hard and you don’t see their immediate practical value? Good. Congratulations, you are becoming educated.


    • To your first point, I agree. That quote is more trying to consider how worthwhile an unspecialized post-secondary degree is IF you are competing with people trained for those positions from 4-year institutions that are actually focused on preparing you to enter that field.

      If you still disagree, I’m curious what examples you’d put forth for occupations/fields where you don’t think that’s the case.

      To your second point, “university education”–what exactly are you referring to here? Because what I’m trying to get at in the post is that this concept is full of lots of things, and that no one who goes to get a “university education” is really pursuing the same thing, and that I think what’s ACTUALLY boundless is the demand for education/training that facilitates command of higher wages or a job doing something specific (doctor/journalist/teacher/engineer, etc.)

      So if/when the economic training is unbundled from the scholarly training, I don’t think there will be much demand for the latter at all–at least compared to present trends.

      Finally, I think you can unbundle the university without unbundling the degree. The university is what says I need a year of math and science even though I’m studying literature. The degree is what says you need X and Y to be proficient in Z.

      I’m all for maintaining the integrity of the latter, but I think whatever replaces the university, either in name or form, needs to be reconstituted around the degree, rather than have degrees evolve out of the sprawling behemoth that is the university.


      • “If you still disagree, I’m curious what examples you’d put forth for occupations/fields where you don’t think that’s the case.”

        Business, management, marketing, international relations (or whatever), are all supposed to offer a specialized education that gives you an edge, but don’t.

        There are some degrees where you are actively prohibited from competing with certain majors by licensing and professional rules. Nursing is a good example. With these degrees, the “education” you receive in, say, nursing doesn’t really prepare you for the job. (Ask a nurse.) You still need to train once you start work, and hospitals could -if they were so inclined- train students with other majors (as long as they can work and learn on their own -proven by their degree- and have a basic familiarity with biology) to become nurses fairly easily. (Social work is an even better example. Education, too.)

        I think all specialized educations (except Engineering and maybe accounting) that have some “practical job training aspect” are pretty much completely unnecessary. (In fact, I think a lot of medical education is pretty impractical, too. The reason we should keep it is not that MD’s use their training on the job, but they have to learn to work hard and to research and study on their own. I have a suspicion that a really good biology or chemistry student could leave school, fake an MD to get into residency, and become a fantastic doctor as easily as the MD’s. Maybe that is too strong, but there is some truth behind what I am saying, IMO.)

        That is not to say these degrees are bad. Nurses and people with education or social work or business degrees learn how to investigate and research, how to communicate abstract ideas, they learn more of the basics of advanced science and math. All of that “scholarly training” IS the value of a nursing, education, business, marketing, or whatever degree. But the same value is present in a philosophy, math (really the most useless in a lot of ways, IMO), history, or sociology degree.

        Maybe we’re talking past each other here.

        I’m actually for killing the hold that people with nursing degrees and education degrees have on nursing and education careers.


        ” that no one who goes to get a “university education” is really pursuing the same thing”

        I am arguing that this is false. Almost everyone (maybe Engineers aside) is pursuing a piece of paper that proves that they can research, present complex ideas simply, work on their own, work on team projects, write analytically, and learn on their own. That is what the value of the scholarly education is, regardless of major.

        “when the economic training is unbundled from the scholarly training, I don’t think there will be much demand for the latter at all–at least compared to present trends.”

        Again this is mostly false, IMO. The value of the scholarly training IS what has the economic value. Really, the subjects that we teach are unimportant. College is a kind of proving ground where students go to learn and show that they can research, argue, investigate, give presentations, and write analyses. It doesn’t matter what they are researching.

        The true threat to universities comes from grade inflation and the desire to make the students happy and to think of education as something we give them in a lecture or a video. If we make all the students happy with high grades and by giving them easy, clear lectures, and not demanding that they learn on their own and show us that they can learn even when the lecture sucks, university is as worthless as a bunch of videos.


        BTW, you don’t need MOOC’s. We already have -and have had for centuries- books, readily available.

        Want to listen to JS Mill? Read the book. Or have somebody do a book on tape. No need for somebody to do a video.

        Want something more introductory. Have an actor read Russell’s Problem’s of Philosophy. No need for universities?

        Have the students do a correspondence course after listening to Russell on tape. (These have also been around for decades, and are dirt cheap in some cases, and haven’t reduced demand for brick and mortar universities.) There. No need for universities anymore.


      • BTW, I want to point out this about some people’s (I don’t think this is Ethan’s position) position on scholarly education.

        Put crudely there are people who believe in the following argument:

        P1: For decades, people have been willing to pay huge sums for a scholarly education.
        P2: For decades, employers have preferred to give better jobs and higher pay for people with a scholarly education.
        P3: For decades, the market has valued laborers who have a scholarly education.
        P4: A scholarly education isn’t worth anything practically

        (C): Therefore, people and markets are acting irrationally (stupidly) and will soon realize that they are wrong.

        My take is that P1-P3 are evidence that P4 is false. But some people take P4 as evidence that in the future, markets will operate differently.

        But I see no reason whatsoever, apart from some anecdotes about “a bad class I took” that P4 is true.


        • I think the advantage of a scholarly education, in regards to P4, is that it teaches people to think and learn. We’ll all forget loads of the stuff we learned in college (I have courses on my transcript from almost-30 years ago that I literally don’t remember having taken), and much of what we remember we won’t remember where we learned it.

          But the skill of mental and cognitive adaptability, the skill of being able to learn something new quickly…that’s what the scholarly education is good for. At least when done right.


      • Sorry to bomb the thread. I like the post, even if I disagree:

        “The university is what says I need a year of math and science even though I’m studying literature. The degree is what says you need X and Y to be proficient in Z.”

        I don’t understand this and am worried we are now really missing each other.

        The university is happy to let you take a single course, or set of courses, as a non-matriculated student (you might have to pay more) in computer science, or philosophy, or biology. They have already “unbundled” education in that sense.
        (So has University of Phoenix. And lots of these individual courses are dirt cheap at community colleges. Some places even do them as mixed-internet-brick-and-mortar classes.)

        The university, in conjunction with the faculty, requires that you have to do X, Y, and Z courses to get a degree.


  2. Lots of thoughts, but none organized enough to throw out there right now. So let me just say that I thought this was an excellent, thought-provoking post.


  3. Great essay.

    I think the United States needs to have a serious discussion about what the point is the point of a university education. Is it to create smart and efficient workers that will help the United States remain competitive in the global economy? Is it to produce citizens who are curious about the world and continue their educations sua sponte after graduation in order to protect Constitutional Government? Both? Neither?

    The truth is that a lot of subjects like accounting, business, marketing, do not need to be taught in the university setting. They should be taught via apprenticeship but our corporations have hoisted the responsibility on the education system and this increases student debt. It also seems unfair and unwise to make people who want to be teachers and social workers go into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for a professions which are not known for financial gain. We can probably get more people to become teachers if they did not fear the specter of life-long student debt. Same with many other needed but low-paid professions.

    My general stance is that the point and purpose of an education is to become a curious and well-rounded citizen but I am told this is quaint. It should also be noted that I attended a small-liberal arts college (Vassar). I needed this kind of higher educational setting. All of my classes (except one or two) were below 30 students. Many were below 20 students. Hence almost everything except language was a seminar without being officially labeled one and we often sat around a table conference style. I would have been lost and drowned at a large university like Pitt, Cal, or even Cornell. In my Masters program, my subsection had 9 people and my law school could roughly be described as being equivalent to a small-liberal arts college because each year was capped at about 230 students. Harvard Law admits about 500-600 students a year.

    Many of my classmates in law school attended the UC system. Usually Cal or Santa Cruz. They often looked amazed when I described what Vassar and grad school was like. They found it too intimate to be in classes of 9 or even 20-30. They wanted the large lecture setting where they could be a face in the crowd (or just not show up and still get As.)

    In short, the problems of the American system are also its strengths. While my European friends think our system is bonkers*, I think it does provide a wide-range of options that allow for multiple types of learning and experience. As far as I can tell, most other nations do not have institutions like Williams, Vassar, Hampshire, Smith, Oberlin, Kenyon, etc. Maybe the individual colleges at OxBridge are like that but not much else. Our system also allows for people to attend college and university later in life.

    *I often need to explain that just because Harvard and Vassar are private colleges and universities, it does not mean that they are for-profit**. A European friend of mine had his mind blown a bit when I told him this. He thought that private universities were just part of the American love affair of capitalism and that Harvard and Yale were no different than a place like the University of Phoenix.

    **Of course many private universities have endowments that give a ton of money.


    • I think the United States needs to have a serious discussion about what the point is the point of a university education. Is it to create smart and efficient workers that will help the United States remain competitive in the global economy? Is it to produce citizens who are curious about the world and continue their educations sua sponte after graduation in order to protect Constitutional Government? Both? Neither?

      Definitely, people have glommed on to the idea that education is good, without actually working out what specifically is good about it. It matters for policy reasons, if education is good because it helps people earn more, then there’s no externality to it, and little reason to subsidise it at all. If you’re worried that this will stop people from having any opportunities to make a decent living, then you have to consider how the subsidy for a 4 year degree could be used to generate other opportunities, like starting a business.

      The truth is that a lot of subjects like accounting, business, marketing, do not need to be taught in the university setting. They should be taught via apprenticeship but our corporations have hoisted the responsibility on the education system and this increases student debt.

      I think there are good reasons why corporations don’t take apprentices. Remember that apprentices were bound to their masters for a period of many years and were generally paid little beyond room and board. A labour contract like that would be illegal today, and if you don’t like the idea of young people being paid subsistence wages at a job they’re not allowed to quit for several years, I think we’re going to have to leave education as a purchased service.

      In short, the problems of the American system are also its strengths. While my European friends think our system is bonkers

      Yeah, well your tertiary education system is generally considered to be superior to theirs, so I wouldn’t let their incredulity get you down too much.


      • “Definitely, people have glommed on to the idea that education is good, without actually working out what specifically is good about it.”

        I consider education to be a natural good for reasons that it hopefully builds a society of curious and eager independent thinkers. Keep in mind I went to an undergrad that is a sort of self-selection for the intellectually precocious. Most people would probably have found us intolerable at 18, we loved being surrounded by like-minded souls. It is a special type of student that wants to go to a school like Vassar.

        “I think there are good reasons why corporations don’t take apprentices. Remember that apprentices were bound to their masters for a period of many years and were generally paid little beyond room and board. A labour contract like that would be illegal today, and if you don’t like the idea of young people being paid subsistence wages at a job they’re not allowed to quit for several years, I think we’re going to have to leave education as a purchased service.”

        This is a good point and part of my reasons for wanting these subjects out of the university are snooty. I believe in the liberal-arts education and there was no such thing really as a practical major at Vassar. You could major in a pure science but not engineering. You could major in economics but not business, marketing, or accounting. Art but not Interior Design or Fashion Merchandising. The Drama major required at least half the classes be in dramatic literature, theory, and history. I have a love for “impractical” academics.

        I also get snooty at engineer types who dismiss my BA, MFA, and JD as not being an education.

        If not separate from university perhaps we can create streamlined programs for those degrees.


      • My broader point on the issue of teaching via apprenticeship is that we need more mentorship in the job structure especially for young employees but very few employers seem to be able to mentor. I can’t tell how much of this is through lack of time or a simple non-desire.

        One of my professors in law school told the class once that when she was an associate at a big firm, a partner would review everything she (and every other associate) wrote with a red-pen while the associate was in the partner’s office.

        People who graduated law school more recently do not seem to get this review. Job postings now always ask for people who can work independently. I take work independently as a euphemism for “We want to be able to give you a task and have it be done without asking for help or guidance.” Ironically law students and newly minted lawyers are also given tons of lectures about the importance of mentors that we can ask questions to because otherwise we will fuck things up and that would be bad for the clients and us.


        • This is why I think the bond was so important to this process – developing an employee was an investment, but for it to pay off the employee has to hang around. If they take the new skills with them and go work somewhere else then you’ve sunk time an effort in for nothing.

          As people stay in one job less often than they used to, the private sector has much poorer incentives to develop its employees.


          • I’m curious about how employers perceive the costs and benefits of this type of training. I’m in the tech industry, which is probably more extreme than most: Training goes out of style quickly so you need a lot of it to keep up. Job terms are short–employees leave for more money and employers go under or downsize regularly.

            Training can mean anything from a thousand bucks for a short seminar to a multi-year apprenticeship with a skilled craftsman. When people talk about on the job training, I don’t know which one they’re leaning toward or which one is realistic for most employees.


    • We can probably get more people to become teachers if they did not fear the specter of life-long student debt.

      As I have teachers in my family, I’ll add that teachers never really get out of student debt. Licensing and certification requirements in almost all states require them to go back for “continuing education” every year. So they almost all go for a Master’s degree, and then a Doctorate, or else say to hell with this and switch professions to some other field.

      Of course some of that has to do with how overworked teachers in the USA are (don’t laugh). European systems have continuing education or “professional development” requirements, but they subsidize it and arrange for the time as part of employment. It’s a very different environment in that sense; here in the USA, a teacher is working from early morning (before the kids come in) to at least 5 pm closing things out, they’re taking grading work home, they’re trying to deal with after-hours email and phone calls or meetings with parents, and they’re trying to fit in the “continuing education” on that schedule either during the summer time or evening hours. Most of them also work summer jobs either teaching summer make-up courses or in community education, the myth of a “3-month vacation every year” that conservatives have promulgated the past few years is just that: a myth. Oh, and did I mention that the school districts don’t pay for the “continuing education” aspect, that’s a requirement the teachers have to pay for out of pocket, but lapsing certification means getting fired?


      • My mom was an public elementary school teacher and later education administrator. Though she graduated in a very different time.

        As a lawyer, I also have continuing legal education credits and these cost a pretty penny along with bar dues. Bar Dues suffer a bit from price discrimination. I pay just as much as a veteran lawyer making 6 figures or more. Though I also pay as much as a legal aid lawyer making much less than me.


  4. “A less obvious example might be university libraries, which have been rendered all but obsolete with the digification of academic journals.”

    All-but is doing too much heavy lifting here.


      • I think he is saying that there is still a lot of materials that is not digitized like many books and other research needs. Plus we still need librarians to help teach new students proper research. Also not every student has a laptop or computer.

        I am also a romantic sap for libraries of the academic or public source. I think that it is vital for democracy on a local and national scale to support libraries as public spaces for the free flow of information. There is a glory to seeing strangers share a desk and reading books.


        • Yeah, that’s basically where I was going. I’m a big supporter of things like Google Books that put the stuff online, but they just haven’t done nearly as much as it’s believed. There are tons of materials that still exist only as books and, when you need those books, it’s much easier to have access to a good library. Not to mention what NewDealer said about the class aspect- you’d be surprised how many students don’t have their own laptops or access to regular internet access. Finally, a lot of them struggle with the debts incurred in getting all the books they need for their classes, so I’ve seen many of them avoid that by using the reserve books in the libraries. In many ways, libraries are great social levelers, which is what universities used to be, but are increasingly much the opposite.


          • On the cost of laptops–that’s why I note the conversion into mass computer labs. But also, everyone can afford an e-reader. And if they can’t afford the e-reader, I can gaurentee they can’t afford whatever school it is that they are hypothetically at–so I don’t see the libraries solving that inequity anyway.

            And perhaps other schools are different, Pittsburgh never had more than one, two, or maybe three copies of course books available on reserve. There’s no reason why the library couldn’t loan out that many digital versions.


            • So here’s a question I’ve been wondering. I’ve been thinking about creating a sort of on-line textbook, all the readings students would need, to replace the stupidly expensive (and generally crappy) standard textbook.

              But apparently fewer people are even buying laptops, and everyone’s shifting to reading stuff on tablets and e-readers. How would that I affect how I would want to structure such a site to make it match up with how students are actually reading it?


              • Would you be loading pdf. files onto it, or embedding them onto the actual pages of a site?

                I’ve had enough courses to know how much, on average at least, profs hate having to find a textbook(s) to suit the particular course they are teaching or have designed, that I’m surprised more of them don’t just do this.

                I know at both undergraduate schools I attended profs used some variation on the schools web portal software (or where ever it is they log your grades) to store both assignments and class readings. Would anything be stopping you from just photocopying/scanning/and uploading them there? A pdf editor that one of the schools computers might have loaded on it could even rearrange a collection of them into one cohesive file.


                • I figured I’d do both, since it would be easy and cheap to do. Have the page with the reading open up, but at the top have a link for the pdf version. Everyone who wanted a pdf could click it, and those who didn’t could ignore it. So it’s really about formatting of the embedded text that I’m wondering about.


      • I had some books in college that were so out of print* that the only available copies were at the reserve desk. Some of these might be available on-line now, others not so much.

        *Hernani by Victor Hugo and other bits of dramatic literature.


    • When you get to grad school, you soon find yourself heavily dependent on the libraries to track down the books that are still central to your discipline. As nice as it would be if Google Books had digitized even a tenth of the books I find myself using, they haven’t. So, at least for grad students, libraries aren’t obsolete. But they also still seem to be packed with undergrads, partly just because they can still get free books there that have yet to be offered on Google. To be honest, I’m not even sure what you mean about academic journals, which are only a small part of what libraries are used for.


      • I was overly enthusiastic on this point (and held back, since I have a post on this topic alone for the future).

        This same argument could be made against online lectures: there are still too many courses that haven’t been recorded/revised/moved out of the beta phase. There is still the problem of how people who don’t have computers participate…though they are so cheap that this is probably a non-issue (especially when taking into account how much students arleady need to spendo n books).

        But the point is that there is no reason why, after say five years of development, large segements of the curriculumn could not undergo this transformation. In that respect, I likewise don’t see why libraries could not offer digital versions of all the books grad students need for loan, and especially undergrads, given how much less escoteric and specialized the research they may or may not do is.

        Out of curiosity, what might be some examples of the literature you need to access that is easiest for you to get through the library?

        (note: I shouldn’t have singled out journals, since the point is about academic literature in general. To reiterate, I don’t see what part of the library’s primary purpose cannot be provided, in theory at least, at even 1/4 of the space.)


        • It tends to be the books about the books- if there’s an academic study of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet from 1972 that made an important argument, I have to demonstrate some mastery of that text. However, if it was a small print run that nobody but academics reads today, it likely won’t be digitized, which means I need to use some library to get it, even if it’s through inter-library loan.

          The thing is, at my university, the library isn’t a great waster of resources. They own the books on the shelves and buy a small number of new books and are staffed largely by undergrads. Late fees probably offset some of the costs. It’s just hard to see why they should now spent millions of dollars to digitize everything and step into the digital future just because they can. Is there a pressing need for more internet labs? Large institutions seem to suffer this mania where they constantly have to be changing what it is they do, in order to stay current, but what quite often happens is they forget just what it is they do.

          I mean, a lot of this discussion sounds to me like, “universities could do X now, so they should do X now.”


          • U Pitt’s Library Science program is all about cataloguing and understanding data, be it in book form or on the internet. Perhaps one ought to do it because it’s a key part of understanding an evolving discipline?


          • This could very well be the case. My unsubstantiated assumption was that the number of libraries on campus at Pitt (5-6 smaller and/or departmental ones with a large monolithic one) cost a substantial amount in overhead that could be saved over a 10 year period if the same university presses that publish them develop digital copies.

            I should add that, while it’s against the law, most of my profs (though admittedly not for graduate courses) assigned readings that were pdf. files they had made from scanning sections of books they owned.

            To the degree that digifying the library is more expensive, I would guess than that it is mostly the result of copyright, which, if we’re discussing every other aspect of higher ed, could probably be rethought as well.


  5. What does online education offer that wasn’t available in the pre-online era? It’s not the delivery of a series of canned lecture to thousands of students at once. That was available as soon as VCRs were invented, and it didn’t revolutionize the industry. Sure, distributing VHS tapes costs more than streaming videos online, but compared to the cost of a university education, they both round down to zero. And books, of course, have been available even longer.

    Cheap mass evaluation of exams and assignments isn’t new, either, at least for a certain kind of task: scantron machines have been around for years. Has the ability of a computer to grade a student’s test improved? A little, probably, but there’s hardly been any revolutionary breakthrough. So I don’t see the “self-scoring tests” as being a game-changing new technology, either. The internet does break down geographical barriers to detailed and/or personal interactions, including grading of sophisticated exam question. But it still a labor-intensive process, so it doesn’t scale the same way.

    Does this mean that there won’t be any revolution in online education? Not necessarily. Maybe there is a new, revolutionary technology available now. But online distribution of video-taped lectures, reading materials, and computer-graded tests isn’t it.


    • What does online education offer that wasn’t available in the pre-online era?

      As someone who teaches both F2F and on-line classes, I think the only answer is convenience. My online classes have a handful of 18 year olds fresh out of college, but mostly are populated by older people who work for a living and find it hard to make it to a regularly scheduled class time (due to work obligations, kids’ schedules, being deployed to Afghanistan, etc.), and students at big-state U who want to take an extra class some terms so they can graduate early (or on-time) or so they can get their requirement out of the way on their own time, instead of having yet another regularly scheduled course.

      I think that’s very valuable. But obviously not a real revolution.


      • This.

        The same is true of old, snail-mail correspondence courses.

        They had a place. And can be decent courses for the right person. But correspondence courses didn’t and couldn’t replace traditional education.

        I am optimistic about using video, chatting, email, etc. as a supplement to education to make it more cost efficient, which will allow more people to be educated and will save resources for more one on one (or small group) education in a brick and mortar setting. That is the future, IMO.


    • You don’t think even in terms of production/distribution costs? That is, that online courses present a dramatic increase in the efficiency? Especially if they used exclusively for materials which can be tested en masse (the majority of classes that are currently attended by undergrads, I would wager, are 1. lectures and 2. graded via scantron.)


      • Well, you might be right about that. I don’t think it’s quite as cheap as everyone thinks. Students are required to have access to a computer, which is a cost (although it’s becoming so normal that for many it’s not even a marginal cost–they’d have the computer anyway), and the tech infrastructure for colleges/unis has to be continually upgraded, and the software keeps getting “upgraded” (I’m dubious that term often applies to newer versions of software). And you still have to have qualified instructors for the courses, or the accrediting agencies will be all over your ass, and there’s still only so many that any one instructor can manage. And the instructors still have to be paid; in my own experience–teaching on-line for a community college–an online class taught by a full-time prof just substitutes for a F2F class, and the pay for F2F and on-line adjuncts is the same, so there’s little labor cost savings. And at that school, at least, enrollment in those on-line classes is capped at, I think, 30, so they’re not running a section of American Gov’t or U.S. History with hundreds of students enrolled. (And there’s no TAs at a CC, so while I can set up a multiple choice quiz that the software can automatically grade, every other assignment requires actual grading time by by me, so I can say bluntly that if I had a section of 100 students, either the quality would drop because I wouldn’t require the assignments that actually make them go beyond multiple choice questions, or I wouldn’t teach the course for the amount I’m currently getting paid.)

        I don’t know all the variables that go into the issue of efficiency of production/delivery, but that’s some of them. I’m not rejecting the idea that there could be some efficiencies here, just suggesting it may not be as straightforward as some folks think. But, yes, I think you’re right to suggest that point.

        Of course all that doesn’t apply to the model of just putting the classes online for free, but without allowing any credit for them. I think that’s potentially an awesome idea, but probably limited in revolutionary power because of the credentialing problem. “It says here on your resume that you took Chem 101; can you prove that you actually did the whole course and learned something?” “No, you’ll just have to take my word for it.” “Thank you, we’ll be in touch.”


          • That’s a different approach to take (it may well have it’s own advantages, though), but it’s not really connected to online education. Self-taught programmers are nothing new.

            It’s also not likely to apply to, say, civil engineers (at least not new ones).


        • Also, some grading of analytic writing and the giving of presentations, and instruction therein, needs to be one on one. To put that kind of instruction on the internet just means it is done one on one over the web instead of one on one, face to face, and that doesn’t save a whole lot of expensive instructional resources.

          But making more courses web-based, might make classroom use more efficient, so there is some infrastructure savings costs, but not that much, IMO.

          And of course, the big selling point at a lot of campuses right now is “campus life” (gyms, cafes, library labs, etc.) that can’t be replicated at all online.


      • A correspondence course/set of educational videos run by postal mail also has dramatically lower production/distribution than a traditional university course. But that didn’t revolutionize education.

        One reason why not is that I think you’re dramatically overestimating the proportion of classes taught that way, even for undergraduates. No science and math questions that require the student to show their work? No essays or papers? Because none of that can be graded by a computer. No discussion sections? Yeah, a bunch of the work is done by graduate students and/or adjuncts instead of tenure-track professors, but it’s still not something you can scale freely. It might be possible to unbundle a selection of freshman classes that way, but not a whole undergraduate education. Upperclassmen are not taught that way, in my experience.

        Indeed, there’s already a bit of unbundling for freshman classes in the form of Advanced Placement programs, etc. But not without its own problems (Mr. Truman had a post about that recently).


    • Mentorship with people around the world.
      the ability to market your skills as an undergraduate, and get immediate feedback.

      Done right, the internet allows collaboration with likeminded individuals — and gives you a vast wealth of “real world knowledge” (how exactly should I write ISSE code that takes advantage of MMX technology? -or- Why oh why, Adobe!!)

      And, done right, the internet allows for more INTEREST in learning, through dynamic feedback, helpful teacher interaction (some of which may be automated)…

      Aww, hell, just go build a video game to teach folks how to balance their checkbook.


  6. I find it really interesting here that you used Chemistry here as an example of a class that could be taken online without large lectures. While it doesn’t necessarily invalidate your argument about unbundling the university (quite the opposite actually), chemistry courses are probably not the best example. Were you not required to take a laboratory component in addition to lecture? I don’t disagree that the lecture could easily be conducted online, but laboratory science is not something that can be taught with a video. Indeed, the major problem with science education in general is a lack of laboratory education at all levels. Of course, if a university spends less resources on giant lectures for science, which are mostly an annoyance for professors at research universities anyway, more resources would be available for laboratory courses. Laboratory training is also the kind of directly valuable skill that would make someone more employable. Even if one does not go directly into physical sciences or engineering, developing experience with experimental reasoning is quite valuable. It’s also probably a bit more fun than learning the rules of valence.


    • There was a lab componenet, but it was, to the best of my memory, divorced from the actual class, so that it counted for it’s own .7 credits and the labs were managed and graded by a separate TA.

      I completely grant that perhaps the way Chem is taught (e.g. integrating the lab with in-class material) should be reconsidered. But at least as it currently is, at least in many of the larger schools (and my Chem class was at UMBC–a big STEM school) there’s nothing about the lecture/discussion components that couldn’t be replaced.

      Which is partly why I think the competition from online lectures could be valuable in forcing physical courses to be re-organized in a way that actually demonstrates their value beyond simple transmission of information.


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