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Why I think Online Education is the Future

Or why there is only little “rock star magic” in education.

No one knows what will happen in the future. If we did, we’d be able to “pick stocks” and get rich. But if I could make a prediction, I would bet on online education.

I tend to teach most of my courses online (though I teach live classes every semester as well).

Christopher Eisgruber, current President of Princeton University, is, it goes without saying, one of the most important academicians in the world. So I tread cautiously before taking him on.

In the video, he argues a certain dynamic exists in face-to-face teaching that cannot be replicated online. For instance, he makes the point about TED where he is giving the lecture raising ticket prices to see their live events featuring superstars like himself, while at the same time making those talks free to the public online. Please watch the whole video to understand him fully.

I’ll give you the perspective as a teacher who has taught many sections of both live and online classes: Teaching live is more stressful because you have to perform and be “on.” But it’s also, for me, something I enjoy more. The atmosphere is warmer and more dynamic and inspirational. So I agree with President Eisgruber in a sense.

But online is still destined to grow and supplant a great deal of what live teaching does.

And that’s because the goal of teaching isn’t to inspire with magic, but rather teach material to students so they pass, get the highest scores they can, go on to get their degrees and so on. So when I was first tasked with teaching online courses my administrators told me the goals of live and online courses were the same. Indeed, the course outlines, a generic term for what everyone who teaches the course at the college is expected to cover, are the same.

So when I construct online classes, I make sure everything that comes out of my mouth in a live lecture is put in the online course. If the students have questions about the material, my answers I type online are the same ones that I speak live in class.

But yes, online is drier, less inspirational, more impersonal, and more reading and writing intensive. So what are the benefits? If you take an online class at a college, price tends NOT to be a benefit, because students tend to be charged as much (and professors paid the same). But given this, students still take advantage of online education in increasing numbers.

The main benefit of online education is convenience in the form of flexibility. While the work expected of both professors and students is on par in both formats, being able to work asynchronously, often from home, or from wherever, helps tremendously. One of the best things about being a full time college professor, even one who has to teach 15 credit hours a semester (standard for community colleges) is the flexibility of scheduling work hours. For instance, where I work many professors (including me) don’t have to come in on Fridays. (Though I tell people I work 7 days a week, because I do work on all 7 days). Our union contract presently says we must be physically present at least 3 days a week.

Administration probably wants to change that so full time professors spend more time on campus. And I understand why. They and the rest of the full time working world have to be present at least 5 days a week. But the growth of online education will only increase the flexibility of scheduling for both professors and students. So I teach overloads, the term for college professor overtime, every semester; but I can still set my schedule such that I miss rush hour traffic both ways (get to work after, leave work before, or if teaching a night class, leave and/or come back to work after). That’s worth all the money in the world to me, hyperbolically speaking.

But what about the “magic” to which President Eisgruber alluded? There is a reason why above I termed it “rock star” magic. I will use rock concerts as an analogy. I have a passion for many different kinds of music, rock included. And while classical and jazz music tend to be virtuosic, rock tends not to be (even though some rock music is virtuousic).

Indeed, the way in which the genres are performed live illustrates the differences in technical approach. Classical music, and (to a lesser extent) jazz, tend to be performed in venues where, in the ideal, you can hear the music’s precise execution, the individual notes, the rhythm and harmony, etc. The acoustics of the concert halls matter.

Rock, on the other hand, tends to be played in places where they crank it up loud. And if the performers are successful enough, really loud in really big venues. Now, some rock performers, because 1. they aren’t expected to be virtuosic technical executioners; and 2. of perhaps drug and alcohol use and abuse suck live; that’s unfortunate. The goal for rock performers is still to hit the right notes and the right time.

But nonetheless, even the best rock star performances in large venues with the music cranked at ear drum damaging levels will produce a muddier sound, not as crisp and clear as what is heard on a record/CD/digitally downloaded “album.” And some of the great live performances can be, likewise, digitally recorded and viewed for free (or charge) on places like YouTube too (indeed, those live performances may sound better on the recording than they do live, given the ability to control the noise/volume/distortion effect).

I remember seeing rock virtuosos Dream Theater and the Dixie Dregs around the turn of the millennium in Philadelphia. Earlier that day I saw Steve Morse and Dave LaRue (guitarist and bassist, respectively, for the Dixie Dregs) give a clinic at a music store (with sequenced drums).

I compared the two performances and thought how, from the perspective of “music appreciation,” I got more out of the clinic performance. Why? At the music store, 1. I was closer to the artists, and 2. I could hear the notes more clearly. But the live concert was fun. Why? I partied. I ran into an old friend from Berklee College of Music and I had a few cocktails.

I still party, but in a much more low key manner. I tend not to go to big concerts anymore because I don’t like the inconvenience of driving, parking, in addition to the high cost of the ticket. If I am driving I have to be careful about how much I drink. I prefer the smaller venues with good acoustics where you sit down and can hear the notes very clearly.

But what was the appeal of big rock shows? Rock star magic, for lack of a better term. The ambiance. The partying. Energy? Yes. The specialness of seeing those performers who you really dig in a live setting where you are in the same venue as they are? Obviously.

And that’s the problem with the analogy to education. As much as we wish otherwise, we academicians or at least the vast majority of us, are not like rock stars. There is little “rock star magic” (RSM). I don’t say “no RSM” because we have with a very small percentage of students a like “magical” connection that can’t be as easily replicated in an online setting. But the problem is their small numbers. I cherish the connections I made with those students whose lives I touched. They really had a passion for the ideas I taught; they genuinely enjoyed the live lectures, savored the moment, had their lives transformed.

Yes it’s true that for such students, they probably wouldn’t get NEARLY as much personal satisfaction from an online class as a live one. But, alas, the vast majority of students are there to get their grade, either passing or the highest one they can. Most students, unfortunately, tend to like it when they get let out early. There is an old adage that education is the one thing you want less of what you pay for.

In this sense online education is a path of lesser resistance. And that’s why I think it will grow and supplant more of live face to face education, especially as Moore’s Law progresses.

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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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54 thoughts on “Why I think Online Education is the Future

  1. Interesting post.

    As someone who got her master’s degree online, and in a purely asynchronous program, rather than NOT get a master’s degree at all (because I had a deeply beloved FT job and a very happy-with-his-job spouse in a city that doesn’t offer my master’s degree), I think you left out that “convenience” may very often equal “only respectable option for education at all”. I’d say that I couldn’t have gotten a master’s degree 20 years ago, except that actually, my field was at the forefront of distance education for graduate students, and already issuing distance master’s degrees back then.

    I don’t feel that our classes / relationships with our professors were lacking in inspiration or personal connections – they had a lot more of both of those things than the 400-800 person purportedly face-to-face “filter classes” I was in as a first-year at an R1.

    But my master’s degree program had 1. mostly small classes (60 felt HUGE), 2. a required on-campus getting-to-know-you “boot camp,” 3. strong existing communication and social skills among students that led to us forming strong bonds with our classmates, 4. strong existing tech skills among students that made the class interfaces more transparent for us, 5. profs who weren’t teaching big overloads and weren’t confined to teaching in exactly the same way they would in a face-to-face classroom, 6. students who had a lot of practice at educating ourselves, many of who also had teaching experience of our own.

    So while I certainly wouldn’t claim my experience was typical, I do think it challenges the bounds of what is *possible* for online learning. Particularly since I had a couple of equally personal online learning experiences as a teenager using telnet. (They were remarkable – astoundingly remarkable even – back in those days, but they were still *possible*.)

    I don’t believe there’s any reason we couldn’t have an online liberal arts college (complete with RSM experiences), given time to hone how it would work – but the standards and practices would look very different than most online education standards and practices do now.


    • I can’t “see” what students may do in private study groups for face to face education. But I can see what they do in the discussion boards. And there’s a lot of freedom there to have extended discussions that you can’t have in live classes because of time constraints.


      • Very true. (And, just as an aside, for all you know your online students may ALSO be having private study groups where you can’t see them :D)

        Do you teach any hybrid/ blended classes? Our professors at my job have increasingly been experimenting with putting some of the classwork online (not just readings) even though they are a firmly (one might even say fiercely) face-to-face culture in general.


        • While I don’t technically teach “hybrid” classes (which do have to meet face to face, but for not as many hours) all of my live classes now have Blackboard where I can send electronic resources. Likewise all of my live classes are wired and I often access the Internet for resources. So my live classes are almost like hybrid classes.


  2. Nice piece.

    I’ve been an online classroom advocate for something over 20 years now, going back to the time when I was doing research on protocols to implement versions of real-time multi-party multi-media communication over TCP/IP networks tailored for specific applications. My goal, as it turned out, wasn’t a distributed form of the giant lecture hall, but a distributed form of a small upper-level class, even seminars. For me, the RSM factor wasn’t on the professor side, but the student side. My belief was and still is that there is a lot of unserved demand for such classes from non-traditional students — they can’t come to campus, they’re not working on a degree per se, but they’re sharp and interested and make the class better for the other students. An online version provides one enormous advantage over the in-person version — it’s trivial to record the entire session and go back to visit some part of it later.

    One of the biggest hurdles, I thought — probably because I was a techie at the time — was the lack of a really good piece of smart shareable paper. It had to be a high-resolution digitizer on top of a good display. Writing, drawing, sketching, using specialized notations like math and music — to do those things well seems to require the feedback loop of hand, brain, and eye working on a single image. Still can’t buy one at a reasonable price.


  3. I can’t help but think that online teaching is absolutely perfect for “People Like Me” and absolutely awful for “People Who Are In No Way Like Me”.

    I could watch Harold Bloom give a lecture on Shakespeare, true…


    There you go. At this moment it has fewer than 20k views. 18,886. It’s been up for a year and a half.

    Should we be thrilled that it has that many or despair that it has that few?

    Because, it seems to me, that, on a mass scale, online learning is ideal for tricky little DIY projects. If I need to figure out how to light the pilot light on my water heater, it’s awesome. If I need to figure out how to do some quick prepwork before I winterize my deck, it’s amazing. Gardening tips? Youbetcha.

    Wanting to get an education for poetry, literature, art history?

    I’m not sure that it will work well on people who aren’t a whole lot like me.


    • And I think this is the key point: depending on the subject and the student, online learning can be awesome or awful.

      Zazzy considered an online degree and took some courses. It didn’t work for her because the asycncronized nature meant she had to be far more accountable for her time management and that isn’t her best work style. Fortunately, she recognized this about herself and identified other, better learning environments.

      For other reasons, I don’t do well with video learning. Any online course that relied on this would be a struggle for me.

      But for the people for whom online learning is good or even beneficial? Yea, let’s make that happen!


  4. Interesting article. I also agree that online education will become a lot more prevalent in the future, particularly with the growing number of non-traditional students who work full time and value the flexibility online degree programs provide. I suspect that online will better accommodate certain subject matters better than others, and some learning types better than others.

    For professors, though, I fear growing numbers of online courses will accelerate the growth of adjunct positions over full time tenured positions, a trend that’s already reduced post-secondary teaching to a temp position for lots of aspiring educators.


  5. I agree that any “rock star factor” is not greatly important, but I think the success and value of online education will depend a lot on the subject and the course. Let’s say there are 3 major types of courses.

    1) Lecture-heavy courses. In my undergraduate biology classes, the profs basically read PowerPoint slides to us and elaborated on the material in the slides; it was well over 90% pure lecture. Being able to take a course like that from home, at whatever time you liked, would be great. Those courses also tended to be some of the largest ones (100-300 people), so if you change them to online, you don’t need as many large lecture halls. Or just provide a transcript of the lectures, for those like me who learn better from reading than from listening.

    2) Problem-solving/calculation-heavy courses. This includes not only math and related subjects but also physics and, to a slightly lesser degree, chemistry. In these ones, professors would do some lecturing, but a lot more working out problems on the board and explaning them; or having us try to do questions, and then explaining how to solve them. Students asked a lot of questions about things they didn’t understand. Not having students in the classroom to ask questions would remove the major purposes of these classes; they don’t work if they aren’t interactive, because the focus of any specific course needs to vary depending on which topics the students need the most help with.

    3) Discussion-based courses. This included a few of my undergraduate history courses, and most of master’s courses. This is a format where the classes are generally smaller (roughly 10-20, though some were smaller) the students interact primarily with each other, and the professor primarily serves as moderator and guider of the conversation. Students discuss journal articles, debate issues, do presentations of their research, work together on major projects. This requires everyone to meet at the same time, and so is best in the traditional classroom environment. An online discussion board doesn’t have the same interest and immediacy and interactivity as a real conversation. These were definitely the most enjoyable kind of courses as well.


  6. Yes it’s true that for such students, they probably wouldn’t get NEARLY as much personal satisfaction from an online class as a live one. But, alas, the vast majority of students are there to get their grade, either passing or the highest one they can. Most students, unfortunately, tend to like it when they get let out early. There is an old adage that education is the one thing you want less of what you pay for.

    This brings me to the question of “What is the point of an education?”

    What are we hoping to accomplish? Do we want a guy who slaps down a sheepskin and says “LO! I AM QUALIFIED!”? Are we hoping for a gal who has demonstrated mastery of… wait, what is the degree in? Demonstrated mastery of art history? Do we want to demonstrate to employers that this person excels at sitting in one seat for 4 years doing mind-numbing work for little personal satisfaction? Are we just trying to figure out how to be able to not offer the job to *THOSE* people but maintain perfectly acceptable plausible deniability?

    What in the hell are we hoping to do with an education?


  7. I’ll offer two observations, for whatever they are worse:

    When I was studying for the bar, I was STRONGLY advised (and did) go to “class” every day where they played lecture videos. There was an alternate option to have the same content on a portable device, but people going that route were significantly more likely to fail the bar (presumably because they didn’t actually learn as much as those of us sitting in a classroom watching lecture videos).

    Whenever I’ve tried to do formal online learning since (CLE, driver’s ed to clear a speeding ticket, etc.) I get almost nothing from it.


  8. I have two strong biases here, and all I’m going to do is share them, not try to defend them.

    1) My first bias is, and again it’s just a bias, is that a lot is given up, as the distinguished academician argues, if one opts for distance learning over person-to-person interaction in the same (exact) course (i.e. with the same teacher, then same semester, etc.). If only, but I don’t think it’s only, because any person-to-person course can be supplemented with learning forms that are essentially like the online form – “Here, watch this video of me giving this other lecture at this other place a year ago as your homework this week, write a paragraph response, and bring it so we can discuss it next week.” That has both components. By definition, however, an online course can’t have the person-to-person aspect of that. We can think different things about how much of a loss that is (but more on whether it’s a los in a lot of cases), but my bias is that, in direct comparison, it’s a significant loss.

    But 2) it seems like online education is nevertheless a massive net value-add for people in general. In-person education is a costly and selective activity. There is a select group of people for whom the question, “Live or Online? – How much do I give up if I choose the latter for this course?” is a salient question. And it’s an important question for them. But there is a much, much larger group of people for whom the salient question is, “Is it better for me to have access to this course only through an online format, or is it better for me not to have access to it at all?” That question seems to me to fully answer itself without much ambiguity. And that’s why, whatever my bias is in terms of the selectively-applicable question of the direct comparison between formats, my other bias is that, on net video/online education is a clear boon for human learning at large, and thus likely has the dominant future you project for it, Jon.

    What that means for the futures and working conditions of content-creators in academia going forward is another question entirely, of course…


    • Excellent comment. However, if both of these are true (and I’m not sure if #1 is always true but I share that bias, though perhaps not as strongly), do we need to distiguish between an online degree and a traditional one? Should employers have a right to ask? Do we put an asterisk next to the online ones? Again, IFF it can be shown that the learning outcomes are necessarily worse.


      • I would say that it is up to an employer to make the determination that one is better or worse for the position to be filled, coupled with the person being interviewed AND what the school presenting this degree as fulfilling. Over time most employers have decided what colleges are worth per the reputation of the university backing the degree. In other words, if MIT says that it is equal for certain degrees that it was acheived online, but not for others, then MIT is putting its reputation on the line.

        I come from a very academic family, but am not a lover of in school education, though I love learning. I am thinking of going back for an engineering degree soon, but the idea of actually sitting in class is enough to make me shelve that idea.

        Online learing is opening new doors, doors that we don’t really want to close before anyone gets through them to show what it is capable of. Will it work for everone? No. But it will work for many.


        • I am all for giving more people more options for learning. But we should not sell anyone a false bill of goods. If an online degree is likely to provide inferior (but still worthwhile!) learning compared to a traditional degree, we should be honest about that.

          Similarly, we’d look down upon Directional State University of Agriculture insisting their law program is equivalent to Harvard’s. It isn’t. And that’s okay. But be honest. Let the consumers (i.e.,learners) make informed decisions.


          • I would say that we are in agreement then! The only point that I would go back to would be who decideds that the online degree is sub the in class degree? That is what often strikes me as the most important part of this discussion and why I mentioned MIT specifically. If a high prestige college, known for tech, says that it is equal and students/employers agree, then yes it is equal. On the other hand, if no one thinks its equal…


            • Agree we do! Even on your last point. The “if” in my statement was a very big one! And even though I’m inclined to believe that both points are true, I cannot say for sure.

              And the difficulty is we will always be talking in generalities and tendencies. Is Harvard a “better” school than SUNY-Binghamton? It’d be hard to argue otherwise. Does that mean every Harvard grad is better educated/prepared/equipped than every SUNY-Binghamton grad? Obviously not. For a host of reasons. So even if we can determine exactly how valuable an online degree is relative to a traditional degree, that still doesn’t necessarily help us on the individual level. Unfortunately, we have to sort somehow someway.


          • My facebook recently had a little Berniestorm where a friend said that we totally needed to institute Free College At State Schools For Everybody.

            My main comment was something to the effect of “You know what high school needs? Another four years.”

            Of course this inspired someone else to respond something to the effect of (and I’m paraphrasing hard here) “people deserve better than they’re getting, and people who oppose this plan of Bernie’s do so because they disagree that people deserve better.”

            I, of course, realized that Facebook is not a place to discuss politics. Again. Dang it.

            Anyway, employers use a lot of different things to try to guess whether any given applicant will be “a good fit” for their department. Until recently, a degree was a decent proxy for a handful of indicators. When employers realized that the indicators were no longer indicated by the proxy, a degree ceased to be, in and of itself, worth what it used to be worth.

            Without knowing what “a good fit” consists of, there’s not really a way to tell consumers what they ought to be investing in.


            • I’m curious…

              Imagine if this plan comes to be… that every state school offers free tuition. And that the ‘sorting’ effect of a degree is lessened. It is possible that students who say, “Hey, my degree from State U won’t be worth much because any schlub can get one. I’ll pony up and go to Private University.” Now Private University can charge a bunch more because demand is up. And Private U degrees open doors that State U degrees don’t. And everyone gets up in arm that the rich folks continue to have a leg up.

              Now, that doesn’t mean that free public college is a bad idea. Only that unintended consequences are a thing.


                • For some, it looks like an extension of the hidden purpose of high school — keep a bunch of young workers out of the job market, which is already overly full. Much like the GI Bill after WWII, one purpose of which was to keep several million soldiers and sailors from flooding back into the civilian job market too quickly.


                  • That makes sense.

                    That makes me jump to all kinds of thoughts.

                    1) What did most of the folks who went to college on the GI Bill actually study or, at least, get degrees in?

                    2) How close are those degrees to the degrees that the kids we’re withholding from the workforce are getting?

                    3) The job market of the 1950’s seems to have been able to eventually absorb those workers… I went here and see that the absolute worst unemployment rate was 6.8% (in 1958) and in all other years it was in the 4s and 5s in that decade. I am not confident that the economy in the 2020s will be able to soak up the degreed to the extent that the 50’s was.


      • I think employers should be free to ask, but I would also hope that eventually if not right now, it wouldn’t be seen as deceptive to say on a resume that you have an XS degree from X college whether that came via all online courses, all in-person, or a mix. I hope colleges don’t start issuing officially-labeled “Online Degrees” that students can only honestly list in those terms on applications. If it’s a degree issued by your institution, you should stand behind it as a a degree from your institution. From there, I think employers are within their rights to ask further questions if it’s important to them, and also to guess that a degree from the University of Phoenix is somewhat more likely to have a higher online-ed component than a degree from Lewis & Clark (even if that’s mistaken). That does seem like kind of part-and parcel of the value tradeoff that comes with availing yourself of lower-cost education compared to higher (and that’s not in any way a judgement of that choice).

        I think realistically going forward the vast majority of people will have degrees that involved a mix of online-only courses and courses with at least an in-person component, so that there won’t be much of a clean distinction, so employers won’t bother with it all that much. “What percentage of your classes were online-only?” probably isn’t a question that many employers are going to deem worth their time, I don’t think.

        I do think you are right to be a bit concerned about this developing into a more clear two-tier set of degree types, rather than the more shades-of gray system we have now. But the fundamental reality is not that different, which is that different degrees have different value in the marketplace. There’s not much we can really do about that, nor should we.


  9. My main concern with online classes is replicating the learning that happens in places like study groups, office hours, and informal student/instructor chats. I have seen good online collaborative learning setups on places like Piazza where the professors, TAs, and students we all involved.. However, it’s also rarer and harder to make happen than many online advocates (particularly administrators) want to it admit. Finally, in many cases, schools don’t or won’t plan or account for how much time and effort it takes online courses actually take to do that well, because online teaching is looked on primarily as a cost cutting and/or revenue generation measure, not an alternative teaching technique with its own advantages and disadvantages.


    • Some of the best times I had in graduate school (and most rewarding intellectually) was going out for drinks with my professors and discussing the material in an informal setting. I think that is an element of “school” an online program will never capture.


      • At least from my perspective, the interesting technology challenge was “How close can we come to that kind of informal real-time interaction?” Based on a variety of unpublished experiments that were conducted in the mid-1990s, the order of importance for the media is audio, then some soft of sophisticated still image manipulation (my description was always “smart shared paper”), then video. Our results for fully distributed sessions indicated that people used the video as a body-language signaling channel. The kind of life-size face-only video windows common in many conferencing tools weren’t as helpful as a waist-up shot that included all the hand gestures and fidgeting.


  10. I find myself agreeing with a lot of the comments here, but I thought I would add my two cents.

    I have studied in both a traditional environment (undergrad and postgrad) as well as online via Texas A&M while I was working overseas in Korea. The online program was great, engaging, had me collaborating with interesting students from around the world, and had a decent level of personal engagement with the instructors. Overall, it was a very rewarding program that helped get me ready for my Masters of Science in international politics from the University of Edinburgh.

    Living in rural Korea, where few English speakers were present (and even fewer interested in political theory and economics), having a place to go online to study and get feedback was a godsend.

    Having said that, it an’t replicate the experiences I had actually attending an institution. Obviously, college is more than simply learning material (I could just drop into my local library if I wanted to learn independently).

    In another 17 years, when my daughter gets to college age, I have no idea what the education landscape will look like. But from where I stand now, I would definitely push her towards attending an actual institution, rather than an online realm.


  11. I finished my masters remotely. I started it at University, but about 2/3rds of the way through, I got an offer from Big Aero & my program was willing to let me finish remotely. I much preferred being able to work asynch, and to be honest, if I had to do it again, I would probably want to do my Junior & Senior years remotely as well. Especially with exams. All of my remote exams were incredibly difficult, but I had 24 hours to do them. I’ll take a bear of an exam that I have 24 hours to work on over an easy exam I only get 90 minutes to do any day.


    • Of course some schools allow one to take finals asynch such as CalTech. They have an honor code of course. But then the finals are all open book, and basically you are told you have X hours to do the exam. It does work but of course CalTech is kind of a unique place.


  12. I’m curious. If we decide that the goal of higher education isn’t learning or growth, but merely curriculum boxes checked and grades completed as inexpensively and conveniently as possible, why do we need online teaching? If this is really what we’re deciding education is or should be, why not spend some time creating an online syllabus you can access and whatever the online version of Scantron tests are?

    I’m a little biased, but it seems to me that a lot of the benefit to an in-person education has to do with the student experience. And not just with the teacher when the feature is lecturing, but class discussions, interactions with other students, control over how much a student has absorbed vs. how mush he or she is referencing when online testing, etc.

    If we decide those things aren’t really that important in a mere grades-to-degree market system, then why do we need you at all, Jon?


    • but class discussions, interactions with other students,

      See Maribou’s comment at the top. Class discussions are not always very good because of time. Online discussions can be more fleshed out because the time constraints are looser.

      Toss in the limited availability of programs & such & distance ed should be a well developed alternative, especially for older adults.

      control over how much a student has absorbed vs. how mush he or she is referencing when online testing

      Tests can be developed that can flesh this out.


    • “If this is really what we’re deciding education is or should be, why not spend some time creating an online syllabus you can access and whatever the online version of Scantron tests are?


      Well that’s a good argument for the MOOCs to take over. The term “growth” is arguably to subjective. Though, as Jason Kuznicki wrote years ago (I think on this site) college may be as much of a “consumption” good as an “investment” one.

      Re “learning” and online education, we would need to see the data that demonstrate online edu. isn’t as effective as face to face. Alas, the data of which I’m aware (and I’ll admit I’m disturbed by it) shows the “value added” of higher education in general is questionable.

      Educational credentialing does have value in signaling. Bryan Caplan’s thesis is to be taken no more lightly than President Eisgruber’s.


    • BTW: There is a guy who last year applied for the Presidency at my college, was the candidate a consensus of the employees of the college desired, but unfortunately didn’t get it (rather, he accepted a position as a VICE PRESIDENT at a nearby New Jersey college). (And no offense to the current President who did assume the position.)

      He also has a fairly widely read education blog. So in perusing it, I noticed a line he had — “MOOC to CLEP” as in the “MOOC to CLEP” option currently exists, but it has not yet taken over. In part, this is no doubt because for such an option to be ingrained, given the nature of higher ed. bureaucracies, there will have to be institutional changes. Those are the kind of future changes to look out for.

      Just last week, we had the administration encourage us to use open source text books (and given the price of text books, I can’t disagree).


    • “I’m a little biased, but it seems to me that a lot of the benefit to an in-person education has to do with the student experience. And not just with the teacher when the feature is lecturing, but class discussions, interactions with other students, control over how much a student has absorbed vs. how mush[sic] he or she is referencing when online testing, etc.”

      You are assuming that everyone has the same experience that you did (and yes, I am assuming that this is a good rundown of your college experience.) Not everyone has the chance or schedule or ends up at the right college for all of that. And this again comes down to what college is for. Knowledge? Not everyone will get the most knowledge from the method that you get the most knowledge from. So, if indeed it is for the gathering of knowledge, which I am no longer absolutly convinced of, than having mutliple means of equally accepted methods is the best thing.


      • I agree that not everyone will choose to go to college for “education and broadening.” I think some will, and some won’t.

        That being said…

        What I expect will happen is something similar to what happened with correspondence schools.

        Some number of people will decide that, for time and $, it makes more sense to do the process quickly, efficiently and remotely. And others will choose to go and have the college “experience.” And then, a few years down the road, there will be a greater chance that the person who had the college experience will be hired to better and better paying positions than the ones that did it online.

        And if I’m right about this, it won’t matter how many studies rightly prove that people who classes online produce workers who are just as good at [insert white collar job here] than people who did the college experience. The ones with the college experience will skew toward better jobs and career paths, for the same reason state university grads skew better in terms of those things than grads from University of Phoenix.


            • I think your thesis only works if an online degree is somehow differentiated from a campus degree. If the degree just says Stanford & not Stanford Online, how would an employer know? If its the same either way, then the posited effect is purely a networking effect.


              • My anecdotal evidence and observations suggests that a lot of elite schools have had “light” versions of their brands for a while. These are usually called extension schools. The extension schools usually offer slightly different degrees and less post-graduate benefits (I know a few people who learned computer stuff at the Harvard extension school. This is not a degree or program offered by Harvard though.) People also always seem to know who went to the extension school because someone over plays their hand and degree.


          • Not just networking. Maybe not even mostly networking.

            Bigger thing: self-selection. People with more resources attracted to the more expensive option. People with fewer attracted to the less expensive option. People with more resources doing better than people with fewer resources would hardly be novel, but it will likely show up as “Online schools are inferior.”

            (Also note, the “resources” can be somewhat intangible. Can include “Parents who believe in mortgaging their house so that their kid can go to Flagship U because that’s how important they think education is.”)


            • That being said, I agree with more than I disagree. I mean, if we had a magic wand that could isolate the effects, I am pretty certain that traditional brick and mortar schools would do better. Of course they would. They just would. For all sorts of reasons.

              That’s asking the wrong question, though. The question is whether or not it’s worth the extra money to the person who is paying for it. That’s where it gets really tricky.

              And it points to something I have been thinking about… for all we talk about how expensive college has become, we really don’t act like it.


  13. I too think online will be more and more popular. For those students who are motivated, it will probably be better or at least not worse than in person. For those not motivated, well, they aren’t by definition motivated.

    The cost savings from not having to pay for buildings, staff, residence halls, food, etc. should significantly reduce the cost of a college graduation, so all that “infrastructure” can go away. And yes, “professors” are going to become even more a cog in the process, with likely 2 tiers; on line teacher and researcher. One will be paid lots lots less.


  14. For what it’s worth, I get, to a rough approximation, absolutely nothing out of a live lecture. I can listen for about three minutes, tops, and then it’s in one ear and out the other. 90% of what I learned in college, I learned from the textbooks or doing homework. Honestly, I just prefer reading, but if it has to be a lecture, I’d rather it be a lecture where I can go back to repeat something I missed.

    I also don’t see that classroom discussions have any major advantage over what could take place in a classroom web forum. I think the quality of discussion is higher when it’s not in real time, and people have time to stop and think.

    So it’s not at all clear to me that brick-and-mortar classes are better even without taking price into account.


    • That may be true for you, and a lot of people. I don’t believe it would be true in the aggregate, though.

      It might be analogous to how if you put me in in-school suspension all day every day throughout high school I probably would have done better than I did. Do that with 1000 kids and compare to a more traditional environment, I think they would do worse.


    • I used to have similar problems with listening. I discovered that writing notes while I listened helped a lot – it forced me to concentrate on what I was hearing so it would stick in my memory. It made studying easier too.


      • You’re lucky you can do that.
        I know a guy who couldn’t listen and take notes at the same time, so he learned a ton of memory tricks to remember what he couldn’t write down.


        • When I took analysis in grad school at UT-Austin, it was the math department’s fail-out class* for new grad students. By the end of the first week, I had a Walkman-sized cassette recorder running while I simply transcribed what went up on the board. Later in the day I would replay the tape while I read my notes.

          * Under Texas statute at the time, anyone who graduated from an accredited four-year Texas state school was deemed qualified for graduate study in their major field, and the UT schools were required to accept them. A substantial number of undergrad math majors who didn’t get accepted at out-of-state graduate schools wound up in Austin. There was no way the faculty could properly shepherd that many through, so one of the first-year required classes was a fail-out class made as difficult as possible. The lectures didn’t line up with the assigned text, obscure material was included, etc.


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