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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Whither higher education?

John Hennessey (Stanford president) and Salman Khan (Khan Academy) discuss higher education and digital technology.

Learning or Credentialing? Signaling or Sorting?


Some comments:

 1. Internet technology can enhance learning. However, I think the largest impact will be on cognitively gifted or very motivated individuals who will be able to accelerate their education (see, e.g., Khan Academy). For average students, the main barriers to learning have to do with self-motivation and I am not sure that streaming video of lectures, or even a virtual classroom environment which allows rich interaction, will provide better stimulus than the traditional lecture. It seems to me that my intro students have trouble paying attention even when I am literally dancing around at the front of the class, telling jokes and working through elaborate physics demonstrations (which often include explosions or bouncing balls or colorful animations). Moving the lectures online will be cheaper, but not necessarily better -- a win for efficiency, perhaps, but no solution for the difficulty that the average individual has in mastering challenging material.

Ask yourself what the ideal learning environment would be for your child if cost were no object. I think it might be the Oxbridge tutorial system, where a real expert devotes their full attention to training a small number of students (perhaps even a single individual) in great depth. Almost as good would be training in an environment where the student to faculty ratio is low, and the faculty are very focused on pedagogy. Interactions with peers of similar (or superior) ability are as important as those with the tutor/instructor. This ideal limit is quite far from the online systems currently envisaged. Is America too poor to provide this old-fashioned but superior education to (say) the top 10 percent of students? I doubt it.

At the highest quality levels, educational productivity has increased little in the last 100 years. We might improve things around the edges by, say, having lectures from the top scholars available online, along with tools enabling students from different universities to exchange ideas and answer each other's questions. But I don't think we'll see substantive productivity improvement here until we -- gulp -- solve the AI problem and create robot genius professors. Only a small number of students could crowd around Feynman at Caltech's Physics X to hear him explain the EPR paradox. I don't expect that to change anytime soon. (You can record Feynman's comments about EPR; you can't allow thousands of students around the world to interact with him one on one.)

2. Credentialing is complex and even the system we have had in place for several generations is not well understood either by students or by employers. What are the key factors that employers need to determine about an applicant? Intelligence (reasonably well measured by simple tests; but even this is not widely acknowledged in broader society), Conscientiousness (difficult to measure without actually putting someone through a challenging program over a period of years), Ambition/Drive (similar to Conscientiousness), and finally: Creativity, Adaptability and Interpersonal Skills -- all extremely difficult to measure.

I am not sure that Internet technologies will really improve our Credentialing capabilities. We already have testing centers, GRE subject exams, Actuarial exams, narrow skill certifications like Microsoft MCSE, etc. It's more a matter of cultural attitudes than anything else -- when will employers start accepting a high SAT score and some narrow skill certification in place of, say, an engineering degree from a well-known university? Has anyone done systematic research on the relative validities (predictive power) of different kinds of certification for a wide variety of employment settings? I only know of results for general cognitive ability (g).

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