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Au Contraire, Kevin


HarveyIt's not often that I disagree with Kevin, and when I do it is usually over a detail and I let it pass - keep up a unified front and all that. 

But I have opted to take inspiration from Elwood P. Dowd who said, "an element of conflict in any discussion's a very good thing. It means everybody is taking part and nobody is left out."

In his post The Online Education Tsunami Kevin challenged some of the observations made by David Brooks in his article of the same title.

Kevin wrote, "The top tier schools will presumably develop methods and technologies to enable real distance learning. That will turn the typical university experience on its head. The ability to think outside the traditional "degree" and "program" via the mass customization ability of the online world will be interesting. The lower tier will probably continue to be the lower end of the spectrum. And the middle? With top tier professors able to reach millions around the globe, it may become hard for middle tier schools to compete."

Brooks wrote, "Online learning could extend the influence of U.S. universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from U.S. schools could permeate those institutions."

Both of them seem to view the future of education as basically the same structure - only with online courses.  Same universities - top tier, bottom tier, and so forth - just a different medium. I suspect the folks at Blockbuster Video, Borders Books, and every mom and pop music and DVD outfit thought the same - right up until their particular tsunamis hit them.

My epiphany moment on the subject actually came better than eight years ago.  I was on the road (as usual), jet lagged (as usual) and awake at 2:00 AM for no good reason. Flipping through channels on the hotel TV I came across an English professor from Ohio State giving a lecture on the local community college public access station.  I was 1,000 miles from Columbus and apparently the idea was that kids at the local cc were supposed to tape this lecture and watch it as part of the curriculum.

He was good - very good. I ducked out of every English lecture I could back when I needed to listen to get a degree, so you can imagine how good it had to be to kep me listening at 2 in the morning when I had no such gun to my head.

Then it occurred to me.  Universities as we know them are doomed.  They don't know it and they will certainly go down kicking and screaming, but they are as dead as Marley's ghost - as dead as Blockbuster and Borders.

In his comment to Kevin's post, Tony pointed at the heart of the matter when he said he "would put more value on a science or engineering degree from the University of Phoenix than a sociology degree from Harvard."  In fact, there are 2,474 four year colleges and universities in the United States - most of them good at something, none of them good at everything.  There are another 1,666 two year schools.  How many English professors do you suppose that means?  Fifteen, twenty thousand, at least, and most of them mediocre.  Who needs any of them when we have this guy from Ohio State and the wherewithall for every kid to learn from him?

In fact, why can't a kid learn science from some wizard at Cal, law from the best at Harvard, English from this guy from Ohio State?  Where is the value proposition in a kid paying for some ivy covered birck and mortar joint, putting up with a load of mediocrity in order to pluck a sporadic gem or two?

For that matter, why do we need to have the bricks and mortar at all?  They made sense in the last century when lots of kids needed to learn from a few professors, and face to face was the only way to communicate. The reasons for their physical existence have disappeared in precisely the same manner the reason for physical CD's and DVD's; and physical books, magazines and newspapers disappeared.  The physical stuff is what costs all the money and it does not add a whit of value to the information being transmitted.

If everyone stayed at home and learned on line from an all-star team of professors, the quality of the education goes up radically while the cost goes down even more radically.  Whether some body of grand poobahs wants to cobble together a collection of courses necessary for someone to confer a degree is really beside the point.  No matter what the course load, it will be radically better and cheaper.

Kevin decries the loss of the needed opportunity to "reflect on the information, think about it, apply it, scramble it, etc."  "A formal degree from an accredited institution does that", he says.  David Brooks asks, "How are they going to blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects?"

I suggest all of that can be better done with a group of folks in your own neighborhood - probably done better.  Defenders of the academic status quo seem to gloss over the preponderance of classes that are so gargantuan in size that no interaction takes place at all.  They skip over the load of pure, 100 proof horse dung that many required classes consist of (on the massive heap of student loan debt my daughter owes are several hundred bucks for a mandatory course on the influence of communism on blacks in northern Alabama during the depression).  Want some meaningful interaction? Better off forming a Ben Franklin style junto club and meeting in the local pub with people actually involved in the subject instead of a bunch of inexperienced college kids.  Better discussion - and beer!  Of course, there can't be more than a hundred ways to sit at home in your boxer shorts and electronically connect with like-interested souls - and even see each other's faces.

Brooks asks, "If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?" I dunno ... Walmart is usually hiring, but the ex-profs will have to actually show up and do some work.  Walmart doesn't have a tenure system.

He worries about diminishing "the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience."  If by the face to face community he means what are the kids going to do without a solidly entrenched partying network to keep their social calendars full, I wouldn't worry.  They will find a way to fill the void. 

Whatever the social value of college, the current system costs a kid $85K for a four year degree - and that is at State U - plus living expenses; the average kid walks away with $25K in debt; and the taxpayers pick up another $25K on average.  Stiff price to pay for non-value adding waste and the privelege of social interaction.

Original: http://idatix.com/manufacturing-leadership/au-contraire-kevin/

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12 Responses to "Au Contraire, Kevin"

  • Kevin
    7 May 2012 - 9:54 pm

    A couple of the commenters on my post, as well as you, made me think a bit and somewhat skew my original perspective. Yes learning requires some form of processing of the knowledge provided in class or online. But I could see how that processing could become radically different. Perhaps analogous to how in light of doctor shortages medicine is shifting so that the doc provides high level care, then turns things over to nurse practitioners and such for the routine lower level care. Perhaps a good prof, like the Ohio State guy you mentioned, lectures and imparts knowledge to millions, but the secondary learning steps fall on others. Why is a professor required to administer tests, experiments, and the like? So now we no longer need vast legions of mediocre professors, we may actually need fewer of the good ones. To take it to an extreme, why do we need more than one exemplary Particle Physics professor in the world? He keeps up on the latest knowledge, and imparts it because he’s damn good and doing that. We could staff a university with perhaps 50 profs, and they could deliver the knowledge to the world. The rest could cure cancer or something. And secondary transformation of knowledge into learning would be accomplished by groups, in the real world, or whatever.

    So yes, from that perspective, traditional universities truly are doomed.

  • Bob Emiliani
    8 May 2012 - 4:32 am

    As a full-time university professor , I agree that colleges and universities face big challenges in the future and most may indeed be doomed. That is why I recently wrote the e-book “We Can Do It! Improving the Relevancy and Value of Higher Education Using Lean Management” (see http://www.bobemiliani.com/b12wcdi.html). It addresses the cost and quality problems in higher ed, in the face-to-face learning environment. There remain great opportunities for process improvement in academics, as face-to-face teaching will never completely go away.

    As far as my own teaching, I have begun the process of moving towards online education – live streaming and recorded videos for all of my undergraduate and graduate courses. I have applied Lean principles and practices to my face-to-face teaching since I joined academia in 1999 (learn more about what I have done here http://www.bobemiliani.com/papersforeds.html). I intend to continue to do the same in the online context, hopefully pioneering some new methods or practices along the way.

    It is a fun challenge that must be addressed directly, rather than avoiding the problem or wishing it did not exist.

  • Dale Savage
    8 May 2012 - 5:49 am

    I would hate to see the professor pool limited too severely on any given subject for the same reason that it is good to have two individuals who post on Evolving Excellence – it keeps things from becoming too one-sided. Any subject that is taught is effected by the preconceived ideas of the professor. There is always a need for a variety of viewpoints of any subject to keep it well rounded and to keep them “honest”.

  • Steve H
    8 May 2012 - 6:54 am

    I agree with @Dale Savage. Bill, I can sense your resentment of an overpriced and under-delivering university system – I’m not particularly a fan either – but the solution can’t be to turn education into a virtual relationship. Like Dale brought up, do we really think that one person can be the “guru” for a subject? I think that presumes that the body of knowledge is fixed, and the delivery style is something that is universally accepted/rejected. Look, some people could listen to Obama read the phone book all day long, others would rather spoon their eyeballs out. I’ve never heard that guy you saw at 2AM in Ohio, but he might sound like nails on a chalkboard to me – who knows? And, do we really want people in the workforce, in this country, to all have been taught the same view of Shakespeare? Diversity in education is what allows the whole process to evolve, and it enriches our society. Every new professor is an experiment, if you will, and without those “tests” the system goes stagnant.

    I agree that there are some really poor professors out there, but going online won’t eliminate them from the pool; the unions will see to that. What will happen is that the budding “superstars” of education will get smashed by the demigod status we will undoubtedly place on these online cults of personality. Then we can be glad that we’ve created a system that engenders aloof pricks who can talk to a camera, but have the social skills of a block of salt. Look at what “media” has done to the quality of our Presidents over the years, and you can see the future of online education.

    And at some point these kids are going to have to put their computers down to work with REAL people who have flaws. If all my professors in college were “perfect”, I would not have learned how to stand up for what I believe in the face of an arrogantly wrong person in a position of authority. I learned a lot from bad professors: how to deal with less than “ideal” people. As kids today are umbilically-connected to their i-devices already, do we need to plunge them further into this obsession by making the status quo of education come through that same medium? College is not just about learning Sociology or Engineering, it’s also about preparing people for the workforce which is not, and will never be, filtered down the best-of-the-best.

  • Stan Heard
    8 May 2012 - 7:13 am

    Bill and Kevin,

    When I first saw the Interactive Laser Disc I thought it was only a matter of time before every 6th Grader in the country would have the benefit of the best 6th Grade Math teacher on an infinitely patient computer. Little did I know how resistent the education system would be to having only a few highly effective teachers paid like rock stars.

    I still believe the day will come but it will be the result of reducing the cost of education rather than improvement of education.

  • Doc
    8 May 2012 - 7:42 am

    So it is not out of the realm of possibility to put this all in the hands of the consumer, eliminating a multitude of non-value added wastes that justify bricks and mortar with bloated budgets.

    Imagine, as you can with multiple online options for movie/video viewing, being able to put together four year (or lifelong) coursework that holds true value to you, get it ‘approved’ and have it be a degree program. (Why do I hear Pink Floyd in the background?)

    As all this comes to pass, the secondary impact will be on collegiate sports being seen for what they truly are and are not. That is a whole different thread.

  • Bill Waddell
    8 May 2012 - 7:49 am

    Dale and Steve,

    I have great faith in the power of competition. I can’t envision the professorial pool dwindling to just a few. What I can envision is a few hundred English professors (rather than 20,000) emerging from the competitive arena as the ones with the most valuable knowledge and best communications skills, and those who merely regurgitate that which someone else taught them as quickly as possible, then running off to their office to work on their next book becoming unemployed.

    The pool of professors in each subject area would be a constantly changing group as new, better instructors emerge. The market would determine which professors gets work and which don’t.

  • Tony
    8 May 2012 - 9:38 am

    Some additional comments:
    — I do think there can be a lot of value in a traditional, liberal arts education, where the students and teachers learn in a seminar format with no TAs, lots of interaction, small classes, no BS courses, etc.
    — But I don’t think most colleges provide this, including Ivy League colleges. Most colleges are about prestige, which means sports, research, and rich & famous alumni, with teaching being down at the bottom. It’s “publish or perish”, not “being a good teacher or get fired”.
    — Thomas Aquinas College is an example of what I’m talking about.
    — In the sciences, there’s no room for BS, and you have to be pretty dedicated to survive, not party animal. And maybe I got lucky, but my class size ranged from 2 people to 40 people (intro classes).

    I do think there will always be room for the brick & mortar college experience, but not necessarily as the current mass market approach. Just like there will always physical books, but not the same mass market for them (e.g. no need for paperback best sellers).

  • Paul Todd
    8 May 2012 - 11:11 am

    Bill and/or Kevin, I’d like to suggest a future post tying this topic to manufacturing. I see an outline something like this:

    Factory jobs start evaporating in the 1970s, but that’s okay because we’re all going to be knowledge workers. Everyone must go to college (any college, any degree), and here is a fistful of low interest loans to cover the cost. College costs go through the roof, since we’re now paying with cheap loans – other people’s money. Colleges expand massively and compete for students. Graduates soon find themselves deeply in debt and without the high-paying jobs their degrees were supposed to yield. New students begin to shun colleges in favor of tech schools and online options.

    As an employee of a university, I don’t like where that path leads.

  • Alan Mauer
    8 May 2012 - 1:12 pm


    I thought Universities were going to be radically different by now. 20 years ago when my twins were born I had to decide how much money to set aside for college. I was really hoping for a radical change to online education before they would be ready for college but that did not happen.

    The problem I fight with the online options out there is how they are perceived by the companies doing the hiring. A lot of companies actually use the degree (type & credibility) as a pre filter to even be considered for a job.

    My wife and I chose to home school our kids. Mostly because we felt we could do it better than the public schools. They use one model for all kids and yet there is tons of data showing that everyone learns differently.

    Home schooling is growing every year. There are lots of teaching materials out there to pick from (books, classes, DVD’s, internet). What we have found is that some materials work with some kids and not others. I like the idea of having choices on how to learn. Let there be 20,000 teachers to start, the customers will determine which ones have value.

    What about companies driving education? In most cases you are getting an education to get a job. Look at how many people get a job in something different than their degree. How do you know what skills companies really want? How do you know what you really want to do? Many companies complain that people don’t have the skills they are looking for. Instead of going to college first, get a job and then learn. My last two years of college I did the Co-op route where I worked in an engineering department of a company and went to college to be an engineer, alternating semesters. I got a really good perspective of the real work that put my studies in perspective. I really appreciated the wisdom of some the senior engineers I worked with. I was fortunate to have one take me under his wing (mentor). I know I learned more than fellow students just getting the college degree.

    Lots of companies have mentorship programs and ongoing training. I have been a mentor and I have taught classes for my employers. I think people should always be improving their knowledge and fully embrace continued learning.

    To me the ideal new model would be for people to learn the basics (associates “type” degree) that can be done on line, at home, at a high school or at a university. Then go to work for a company and continue the online advanced courses or internal classes under the guidance of your employer utilizing their knowledge base and real hands on teachers/experience. Companies can offer reduced hours and pay for the first number of years as employee’s are learning and taking larger class loads. Maybe the companies can even partner with some local universities to teach certain areas if they don’t want to invest in the resources. I think if companies were paying colleges that the education would be much more beneficial than if the government was subsidizing it.

    I think that before education can really be transformed we need to ask why we need it. Get to the core and understand that part is for learning how to be a responsible person in society, part is to get a decent job to support ones chosen lifestyle and part is to satisfy a personal need to learn (hobby/interests). If there are multiple needs then the solutions can be different for each one.


  • Marty Yuzwa
    8 May 2012 - 1:40 pm

    I thought this question was a very good one:

    “If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?”

    The answer to all of this is to look at the student and find where they see the value in the process of learning.

    Salman Khan is leading a revolution with the concept of “Flipping the Classroom” which totally flips on the end what we traditionally think of is the value that professors supply to students.

    You are totally right that students can hear lectures from just about any source, and why not use technology to have them hear from the best lecturers?

    The real value that professors in a class room can provide that these lecturers cannot is one-on-one interaction.

    This is what “Flipping the Classroom” does. Students watch the lectures on a video outside of class, and they come into class to do homework and group projects where the professor is right there to help them get through the sticky spots of applying theory to real life. This is the REAL value that professors onsite provide to students. NOT the lectures. I think this is the wave of the future. The best professors will be the ones who can help work with students to translate lectures from theory to real life. . .

    I agree that there is an exciting change occurring. . .

  • Paul Todd
    8 May 2012 - 2:43 pm

    Lots of interesting discussion in the comments. As we think of professors competing in an education market, I can say from my limited experience on improvement projects that many will struggle. They tend to consider students not as customers but as the output, the product, of the process.