Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Economist on blogging professors

Buried in the article, which is mainly about blogging economists (and mentions a number our favorites, like the two Brads, but unfortunately not Mark Thoma of Economist's View), is the nugget below on how the gap between faculty quality (or at least productivity) at the very top schools and elsewhere has narrowed due to new technology.

Another factor, at least in theoretical physics, has been the terrible job market that persisted through the last 30 years of the 20th century (it seems to be better now, as sputnik era professors finally seem to be retiring). From around 1970-2000 there were only a handful of jobs per year in particle theory, and even average research universities were able to hire exceptional people. In many of those years, the new crop of PhDs from any one of the top programs could have filled every faculty opening in the country. A little arithmetic is enough to understand the consequent logjam, and why there are so many former theorists in finance, technology, even biology.

With professors spending so much time blogging for no payment, universities might wonder whether this detracts from their value. Although there is no evidence of a direct link between blogging and publishing productivity, a new study* by E. Han Kim and Adair Morse, of the University of Michigan, and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, shows that the internet's ability to spread knowledge beyond university classrooms has diminished the competitive edge that elite schools once held.

Top universities once benefited from having clusters of star professors. The study showed that during the 1970s, an economics professor from a random university, outside the top 25 programmes, would double his research productivity by moving to Harvard. The strong relationship between individual output and that of one's colleagues weakened in the 1980s, and vanished by the end of the 1990s.

The faster flow of information and the waning importance of location—which blogs exemplify—have made it easier for economists from any university to have access to the best brains in their field. That anyone with an internet connection can sit in on a virtual lecture from Mr DeLong means that his ideas move freely beyond the boundaries of Berkeley, creating a welfare gain for professors and the public.

Universities can also benefit in this part of the equation. Although communications technology may have made a dent in the productivity edge of elite schools, productivity is hardly the only measure of success for a university. Prominent professors with popular blogs are good publicity, and distance in academia is not dead: the best students will still seek proximity to the best minds. When a top university hires academics, it enhances the reputations of the professors, too. That is likely to make their blogs more popular.


Anonymous said...

You always seem to digg up interesting articles. Really appreciated that you're sharing, Steve!


rz said...

"the best students will still seek proximity to the best minds."

I wonder if this is also bound to change in the near future. Physical proximity is already somewhat unimportant when it comes to doing research and business (think teleconferencing/email). There is no real reason why we couldn't teach that way also. Except maybe that students would need to find a way to get bandwidth. Nonetheless, I see no problem, for example, with an MIT professor teaching a web class to students at the UofO via some hybrid of teleconference and blackboard. Maybe "going to college" will become redefined in the next 15-30 years.

Anonymous said...

Quite the interesting article; I will write something on it myself, as it's something the internet savvy yet prestige-centric peers of mine might not have thought about. This blog is a neat little treasure!

Steve Hsu said...

Proximity to the best minds will always be valuable. Technology changes the rate at which utility decreases with distance. Once we have good virtual reality (and perhaps canned AI avatars of great teachers like Feynman!), students everywhere will have access to nearly equally good educations.

rz said...

I think we are a lot closer to the Feynman-avatar virtual reality classroom that we may realize. The internet is still evolving and rapidly. I would not be surprised at all if we saw a 'web2.0' app that allowed people to integrate a 'virtual' blackboard with streaming audio and video and a chat feature -- heck I might even go and write it myself (after quals ;-). It seems that most schools could afford to set up hardware in order to have these virtual classrooms and they might even run inside firefox!
Now, when I was thinking about this earlier, I was only being a technology nerd, but I didn't consider the deeper implication that this kind of technology would help bridge some education gaps. That's a very good point and yet another reason to give this sort of a thing some consideration, no?

Steve Hsu said...

I'm shocked at how slowly virtual collaboration technology has evolved. I discussed it with colleagues almost a decade ago, but then did a quick calculation of the potential market size and realized that for what we theorists want -- really, the ability to simultaneously view equations and little sketches while chatting -- the market opportunity is fairly small. You can already chat using the phone (VOIP makes it almost free) and exchange documents or both view the same computer screen using various applications. Handwritten equations aren't so important to the broader market.

The AI avator is really important, as interaction matters a lot for learning. Sure, I can interact with a student in India, but I am only able to do so serially, one or a few at a time. Now, if you produce many virtual copies of me, that would solve the problem :-)

rz said...

Do you really think the market is small? I figured that a tool for technical communication would be used by theorists, experimentalists, engineers and mathematicians. Now, I wouldn't charge you guys anything -- specially not the theorists as you are my favorite people ;-). Nonetheless, I'd certainly would try charge NI a hefty amount to display an add for their latest FPGA-thing during a conference between Ray, Eric, and their other high energy buddies. Then again, all my estimations are better called guesstimations as I'm not taking the time to actually research the earning potentail, but I want to believe it can work and post-quals I might take this more seriously.

brad said...

Interestingly enough, I am the child of a recently retired Sputnik era professor, tho not one who ended up in either theoretical physics (he dad was a physical chemist did lots of high energy kinetics I think using lasers to excite halogens to make them less chemically inert). I think you are on to something with the "logjam" after the sputnik era expansion and then consolidation. the net result was that my dad ended up training the next generation of Russian, Indian and Chinese physical chemists -- second-tier US research institutions filled positions abroad, as first tier us institutions filled all the positions in the US.

It woudln't surprise me if economics ends up with a log jam too -- I am not part of the academy, but it seems like there has been a big expansion in many econ departments recently .. . and at some point, the pace of growth will slow just as all the expanded departments start producing more students ... pure speculation on my part. econ may do a better job of limiting the number of new students entering the profession.

Steve Hsu said...


I remember a post on DeLong's blog about how economists had made smart decisions about the malthusian grad student problem, which partially explains why the academic track in econ is pretty appealing today. I think he contrasted it with history, which actually has some overlap with econ -- i.e. economic history. He was pointing out how much better it is to be looking for a faculty job in econ than in history.

CS went through a golden era when PhDs could go right into good faculty jobs. It's gotten a bit worse as departments are now full with relatively young faculty. Still better than physics, though, because of demand from tech companies!

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Unknown said...

For some reason, this came up as the first link in Technorati today.

Things have changed - this is from Scientific American:


and, hoping not to sound self-promoting, it's also in Boston Globe, Washington Post, NY Times, etc.:





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