Free: The Future of a Radical Tuition

July 26, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Some new interesting nuggets from the online learning revolution: Bill Bennett’s feature of Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun notes that when you rank the 20,000 + graduates of Thrun’s massive online open graduate seminar on artificial intelligence that the first in-person Stanford student ranked 411th. In addition, Thrun notes that he has 20 companies lined up to hire Udacity certificate holders.

Today comes word the UC Berkley will be joining forces with Harvard and MIT in the EdX project, and that:

Though it won’t offer college credits, the edX website is expected to give certificates to people who complete courses and to charge for some of those certificates in the future. Birgeneau said that some California community colleges later may use UC Berkeley’s edX courses as part of their regular campus classes that would earn students credits to transfer to a UC.

Higher education inches ever closer to disruption. Institutions must sort through security and other issues, but institutions will have to grant credit for high quality courses that address them. If they don’t, then the monopoly on credentialing people currently held by universities may crumble faster.  The media is likely to focus on the chaos of it, but let’s not take our eyes off the ball: free university training holds the potential to provide opportunities for advancement for billions of people.

It’s difficult to wrap your head around the implications of all of this for higher education and, for that matter, K-12. My feeling is similar to that expressed after second 53 in this clip:

Oregon Takes First Steps Towards Reform

June 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Longtime readers of the Jayblog may recall that I have, from time to time, asked exactly what is going on in K-12 in Oregon, which is very Anglo, relatively wealthy and sports bad NAEP scores.

When the Urban District NAEP came out, I noticed that several big city districts beat the statewide average in Oregon as well.

Oregon had an interesting election in 2010, splitting control of the House evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to testify before the House Education committee on the Florida reforms, which was an interesting experience as the committee had co-chairs.

Once I was finished, the lobbyist from the Oregon Education Association testified that she had done some “homework” over the weekend, and had calculated A-F grades for Oregon schools. She claimed that (gasp) many Oregon charter schools would get a grade of F.

I found this very interesting, as she had no access to student learning gain data for any of these schools, and learning gains make up half of a school’s grade under the Florida formula. Oh well, why let your credibility get in the way of a good  story?

Representative Matt Wingard, the Republican co-chair of the House Education committee, is a dogged supporter of education reform. Rep. Wingard discussed the Florida reforms on this newscast:

Rep. Wingard introduced the Florida reforms, and encountered the predictable wave of opposition. Rep. Wingard’s efforts were rewarded this session, however, as Oregon passed an open enrollment law, an improvement to their charter authorization process, and an improvement in their online learning laws.

While these gains are incremental rather than revolutionary, trust me when I tell you that they were not easily achieved. Many people take open enrollment laws for granted or think of them as weak tea while failing to appreciate the huge impact they have had in shrinking dysfunctional districts such as Detroit and Tucson.

Congratulations to Rep. Wingard for getting the reform ball rolling in Oregon.

Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker on Online Learning

February 3, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Dillon and Tucker weigh in on virtual learning at Education Next. The Ed Sector duo make a number of good points drawing from the experience of the charter school movement.

I am especially struck by the problem they point to in determining appropriate funding levels for virtual schools. An education savings account funding method for virtual schooling would create a market mechanism for determining cost per course, driving productivity gains. If given the wrong set of incentives, providers will have their profits determined by the success and failure of their lobbying efforts rather than by parental demand.

Of course, high-quality and free online learning tools have appeared on the scene.  Public funding schemes could limit development if compensation systems are not carefully considered.

UC Berkeley Going Online

July 14, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Interesting article about a controversy at UC Berkeley concerning the provision of online coursework.

Of course, Edley is right and his opponents have their heads buried in the sand.  Remember, you heard it here first:

The only question in my mind is how long it will be until an elite player has the necessary vision to defect from the comfortable cartel. Several universities have the means to do this, and could receive philanthropic help to do so. Attention Oxford and Cambridge: it wouldn’t require an American university to pull this off. A British university could put out a low-cost version of this, and unlike their American counterparts, they aren’t swimming in resources.

This is not what Berkeley is doing.  At least, not yet. Their approach seems like a more limited foray into the use of technology to lower higher education costs, given that their state government benefactor is completely bankrupt and dysfunctional to boot. I’m amused by the resistance. Guess what Berkeley reactionaries: if you don’t start down this course, someone else is going to do it to you. 

I bounced my theory that it is only a matter of time until an elite private university begins offering tuition free online degrees under a Google financial model off of two executives from a private for-profit online university a few months ago. Their response:

“We know it is coming. We are trying to figure out what to do about it.”

Jay has touched on the impact of general fiscal calamity and specifically Obamacare will have in moving states to consider innovative approaches for lowering costs in education. After a recent conference in Las Vegas, Patrick Gibbons of the Nevada Policy Research Institute summed it up:

Dr. Greene didn’t make this point to scare people away from Obamacare. He was pressing a point about the financial imperative of using existing resources more efficiently to provide a better system of public education. We have to reform, because public education is simply unsustainable in its current form.

I wrote recently about the Carpe Diem charter school’s successful use to boost strongly boost academic scores while fundamentally incorporating technology into the education model. The good in all of this is that while creative destruction is painful, the fact is that we can get better schools and better universities out of it. International comparisons show that American K-12 schools spend lavishly and teach ineffectively.  American universities, in my opinion, tend to be overpriced, overrated and blissfully unconcerned with student learning or their own ever-increasing costs. If ever there were two sectors in more dire need of a shakeup, I would be hard pressed to think of better examples than American K-12 and American academia.

The Way of the Future in Higher Education

November 27, 2008


aviator-leonardo-dicaprio-11(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Sector’s Kevin Carey’s article on the technological transformation of American higher education is a must read. Carey’s article leaves much to discuss, but a bottom line conclusion is that computer based learning at traditional universities is improving instruction, lowering costs and moving us in the direction of outcome based assessment- all very positive developments.

The other story however is that many universities are pocketing the efficiency savings and jacking up tuition, making undergraduates even bigger cash cows than they used to be. Higher education is on an unsustainable path, and yet Carey writes:

Long-prosperous colleges risk finding themselves in the perilous state of the newspaper, with competitors using the Internet to drive down prices in businesses that were once profit leaders. That would be a mixed blessing, at best. The Web is a boon for those who need to access higher education at a distance. For colleges that have grown complacent and inefficient—and there are many—a dose of fiscal reality would do them good. But the financial cross-subsidization at the heart of the modern university also sustains much of what makes it a uniquely valuable institution, more than a mere conveyer of credits and degrees. Much as newspapers use classified advertising to support money-losing foreign bureaus, subsidized scholarship makes huge contributions to the scientific, cultural, and civic lives of the nation. The University of Phoenix does not.

Carey is of course correct about the huge contributions of university academic departments which cannot financially sustain themselves. I suspect however that the costs of many such departments are far greater than their benefits. It’s not a stretch, for example, to view, say, a Sociology department with a large number of faculty and few students as a group of self-indulgent rent seekers whose dead-weight cost helps drive up tuition and wastes taxpayer money. Mind you, there has been some great work done by sociologists, but there seems to be much more taxing of plumbers to subsidize coffee house revolutionaries going on.

Not just to pick on the Sociologists, when I was a Political Science graduate student in Texas, my fellow graduate students and I once counted up the number of Ph.D. programs in political science in the state. We wondered “do we really need so many?” The answer was obvious: no, hell no.

I think Carey’s use of the newspaper analogy is an apt one- it just hasn’t happened yet. A little Schumpeterian creative destruction in higher education seems long overdue.

The Shape of Things to Come

June 11, 2008

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Recently I described how the primordial soup of a market system could transform education. A new article suggests that this is already well under way.

The article How Do We Transform Our Schools? in Education Next by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn has created a big buzz. Christensen and Horn have now released a coauthored a book on the same subject: how technology will fundamentally transform American K-12 education:

That schools have gotten little back from their investment in technology should come as no surprise. Virtually every organization does the same thing schools have done when implementing an innovation. An organization’s natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is the predictable course, the logical course—and the wrong course.

I had always thought of online learning as interesting, but ultimately only a niche activity. Christensen and Horn, however, maintain that filling niches is exactly how a disruptive technology like online learning advances:

The way to implement an innovation so that it will transform an organization is to implement it disruptively—not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to let it compete against “non-consumption,” where the alternative is nothing at all.

The essence of the argument is this: a disruptive technology starts off as something which is perceived to be of inferior quality to the dominant practice. It gains a foothold however by satisfying the needs of consumers who otherwise would have gone under served by the dominant technology.

Online learning seems to fit the bill. Distance learning for example is very popular in Alaska, where children might otherwise have to commute vast distances through dangerous weather to attend a traditional school. Homeschoolers have taken to online learning and the authors point out that only about a third of American high schools have Advanced Placement courses. Better, many school administrators are now reasoning, to adopt such courses online than not to offer them at all.

Christensen and Horn describe the progress of online learning to date as being broadly similar to past disruptive technologies. The key moment of transformation comes years after the disruptive technology has filled niches here and there. Through the normal course of incremental improvement, the disruptive technology becomes superior to the dominant technology, and displaces it. Projecting from the limited amount of data available, the authors project 50 percent of K-12 courses will be delivered online by 2019.

 Whoa, I know calculus!

Bill, forget the phone booth, I just downloaded our history report straight to my brain dude!!

Out with the old, and in with the new. In this case however, the “old” is the labor intensive method of teaching students which has gone more or less unchanged since before Socrates. Could we really be on the verge of transforming the basic method of content delivery?

When I first read this article, I was skeptical. It seemed to me that the authors had underestimated the political obstacles standing in the way of such a transformation even if online learning does become recognized as a superior form of learning, which to date, it has not.

And yet…

It isn’t that hard to imagine the day coming when online programs would improve to the point where they were of demonstrably better quality than the tried and only sometimes true methods. Innovators are working on computer based learning programs that will adapt to the individual learning styles of children. Such programs will present information in a variety of ways, figure out which way works best for the individual learner and adapt the presentation accordingly.

Enormous promise also resides in the area of personalized, self-paced learning. Both fast and slower learners often find themselves frustrated by the pace of a course which settles on a class average which doesn’t suit them.

Can you imagine some clever team designing an online course around, say, the work of Milton Friedman and coming up with something better than the average high-school or college economics class? It doesn’t sound implausible to me-I can’t remember the name of the graduate student who taught my Econ 101 course, but he wasn’t Milton Friedman. He didn’t adapt his presentation to my learning style either. Come to think of it, I don’t think he spoke English fluently.

Exactly how such a transformation would play out, none can say. This was one of the lessons of Chris Andersen’s excellent book The Long Tail.  Andersen convincingly made the case that the internet is fundamentally transforming society. The transformation is simply different and more subtle than expected during the height of the bubble. The change isn’t exactly subtle for newspapers and record labels, which are being pushed aside, or network television, which draws starkly smaller audiences for top programs today than 30 years ago despite a much larger population.

I’m inclined to think that education will remain primarily a social enterprise, but mixed models of classroom and online instruction are already underway. The nonsensical notion of teachers being a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage” might actually make sense when the content comes primarily through technology.

Can technology deliver learning better and cheaper than today’s schools? NAEP shows that thirty four percent of American 4th graders can’t read. Somewhere close to that percentage of students drop out of high school, and many others graduate in need of remediation. The Colossus has feet of clay.

Politics will doubtlessly play an inhibiting role, but bet on the better mouse trap in the long run.


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