Thursday, October 25, 2012

Online Education

I've been thinking lately about educational technology. I've posted before about the value of college (particularly relevant as I look at our 529 plan balances and the rapidly closing window of time before the OG is 18) and I've also written about Marginal Revolution University, a free source of online education recently started by the authors of one of my favourite blogs, Marginal Revolution, which I've been reading nearly every day for almost a decade. I've also read a handful of books by the authors.

I've been through over a dozen lectures in the introductory Development Economics course over the last couple of weeks, and I feel ready to share my impressions. This feeling was prompted by a recent Econtalk, interview with Arnold Kling, who is/was a professor of economics at George Mason university, and who recently stopped blogging. His Learning Economics book was the first book I read on the subject, and I've also enjoyed his thoughts on international development and economic growth, some of which are captured in his book From Poverty to Prosperity. The interview focused on his recent article laying out some predictions on the future of educational technology.

He doesn't see much of a future in massive open online courses (like Marginal Revolution University) and at this point, I have to agree. Perhaps it's because neither professor is a strong lecturer, or because the visuals don't add much to the lecture, but listening to one doesn't seem nearly as educational (or fun) as reading a blog post or listening to a conversation. It's a nice resource to have, and clearly of value to people in the developing world, but it doesn't feel new or valuable; it doesn't seem much different than a textbook.

It's obviously wrong to draw conclusions from a sampling of material from one source, but Kling thinks that the issue should be assessed not from the perspective of how to make existing things more available, but how to make them better:
The attempt to achieve large scale in college courses is misguided. Instead of trying to come up with a way to extend the same course to tens of thousands of students, educators should be asking the opposite question: How would I teach if I only had one student? Educators with just one student in their class would not teach by lecturing.
The OG and I were talking about the concept of the flipped classroom (where students watch lectures at home and then do their homework in school under the teacher' supervision) and Kling sees that model, along with smarter "adaptive" textbooks on tablets, as potential winners. The OG was not getting something about a particular unit of algebra this morning, and the prospect of doing her homework under the teacher's supervision was a very appealing one to her.

The other thing Kling sees as a winner, and which is discussed at the end of the interview is the idea of independent certification, a competitor to college, with some way of signaling to employers that a person has the skills for a particular profession. Clearly there's a lot of money to be made by succeeding in this space, and a lot of smart people are thinking about it. It will be interesting to see if there are any major developments over the next decade.


  1. But if you could watch the lectures of Feynman or any of the other greats, wouldn't that be more rewarding that some average Professor? I think it all depends on having good TAs available to ask questions of during/after the lectures.

  2. From each according to his abilities... I like the idea of more people watching the rock stars and collaborating more closely with the average professor on problem solving in the classroom. It might increase inequality in professor salaries, but I think that's happening anyway. We might as well all benefit.