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Culture and technology
29 November 2012

At last, a serious challenge to our medieval system of higher education

Universities regard themselves as oases of free-thinking. But as Alex Taborrok observes in a brilliant essay for Cato Unbound, they are in fact among the most hidebound institutions in our society. Oxford University, for instance, was founded in 1096, but still works in much the same way as it ever did – “seated students listening to professors in a classroom.”

It is a time-honoured practice, but a terribly inefficient one:

  • “Teaching students 30 at a time is expensive and becoming relatively more expensive… The productivity of teaching, measured in, say, kilobytes transmitted from teacher to student per unit of time, hasn’t increased much. [Because of productivity improvements elsewhere] the opportunity cost of teaching has increased, an example of what's known as Baumol’s cost disease.”

Luckily, there’s a remedy: online education, which hugely increases the rate at which information can be transmitted from lecturers to students. But this isn’t about increasing the quantity of teaching that can be delivered, but its quality too:

  • “The best way to increase the quality of teaching is to increase the number of students taught by the best teachers. Online education leverages the power of the best teachers, allowing them to teach many more students.”

Of course, those who say that you can’t reproduce the ‘experience’ of a live lecture are absolutely right: Most university lectures are mediocre and many are dire. As higher education progressively moves online, much of the dross that passes for teaching in our universities won’t make the transition.

Taborrok practices what he preaches and – together with Tyler Cowen, another leading US economist –has produced his own online courses:

  • “In putting together our first course, Development Economics, we were surprised to discover that we could teach a full course in less than half the lecture time of an offline course. A large part of the difference is that online lectures need not be repetitive.”

That, of course, is the great advantage of digitally recorded lectures that can be played and re-played as many times as the student finds helpful (and at any time too).

Furthermore, if lectures can be delivered over the internet, then so can much of the associated testing and assessment. Computerised tests can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses in skills and knowledge, telling students where they need to shape up and where they can confidently move on to the next level.

None of this means that face-to-face teaching has no value. Despite the increasing sophistication of the technology, it cannot substitute for everything that a good teacher can do. But by dealing with what can be substituted, teacher time is freed up to be used where it can make the biggest difference.

Finally, as well as testing the students, online education also tests the teachers:

  • “…online education is inherently data-rich. Every video watched, every link clicked, every question answered or not answered, all can easily be collected and analyzed. Randomized controlled trials, which are very expensive in the offline world, become very cheap in the online world.”

In other words, we can find out which teachers and teaching methods actually work. The disastrous ‘modern’ teaching experiments of previous decades, which were imposed on entire generations at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, would, in future, be quickly exposed. Given how many young people are still being failed by our schools, colleges and universities, the online future cannot come quickly enough.


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