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).


uair01 said...

Right now I'm following a course on Udacity. I really like it and wish I had more time for the lectures.
And this is just a "baby phase" so I wonder how this field will look when it's more mature. It could have great consequences (that are impossible to predict).

MtMoru said...

"Signaling or sorting? "

Needless to say this means of signalling and sorting is 1. very approximate and 2. absurdly expensive and time consuming/inefficient.

But it's a lot more complicated than that. One's merit is defined by the society he lives in and this varies in time and place. One succeeds or fails to get in to HYPS and thrives there or doesn't for reasons other than the generally accepted virtues.

Furthermore, whether an individual has these generally accepted virtues is determined by his fit with his society. An American sociopath who wasn't the victim of the worst sort of abuse, would his twin living with savages have been banished by his tribe for "not being nice"?

In Liar's Poker Michael Lewis says that economics, or academic economics, has nothing to do with investment banking and the transcript in econ is a proxy for general intelligence...that is if it were from Lewis's school, Princeton.

But would Lewis have gotten in with just high SATs? No.
Even with his degree from the LSE he didn't apply to Salomon Bros. He knew/met someone. The myth that "It's what you know not who you know" is one professors love to believe, few of them ever having had real jobs.

MtMoru said...

"For average students, the main barriers to learning have to do with self-motivation...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..."

The average student has NO trouble studying for an exam without lectures or a professor or tutor IF the reward is assured. What you are really saying is that you, high IQ millionaire Steve Hsu, are employed as a motivational speaker, only you don't live in a van down by the river The enormous insecurity and lack of assurance of the free market in education and employment qualifications is yet another example showing the bankruptcy of Friedmanomics.

But you are right that the current model fits the mediocre much better than the superior.

I was not an average student I suppose, but in my case I couldn't pay attention in class and COULD pay attention to a textbook. My own performance grade wise was always limited by the demotivation of being DISGUSTED by formal ed as it is done in the US. If you think your teacher is effectively a thief, and the grading system is subjective, etc. it's hard "to get out of bed".

"when will employers start accepting a high SAT score and some narrow skill certification in place of, say"

If only. Elite schools in the US do not even use SATs or other cognitive tests alone. I applied to a few of them who sent me applications (unsolicited) because of my test scores. I got interviews for Yale and MIT, maybe every one does. No acceptances.

It is not extreme to characterize the current model of higher ed in the US as satanic.

Kyrilluk said...

The best way of educating people is to get people to learn by themself and then to share it with other students. In my experience -being a mature man doing his Msc in Theoretical physics - the best teacher were fellow students that were able to explain to me things that they worked out themself listing to a boring teacher. Student interaction is crucial because: 1) this is the way we learn the fastest (look at your own kids: they learn must quickly -and not necessarily the useful stuff- when they play with the other kids rather than listening to a lecture 2) the other student give us a benchmark toward which we can compare ourself ("if he was able to understand this then I should be able to as well) and 3) we are social animals.

Taia Gelhaus said...

One of the best people I ever worked with was a widowed mother of 10 children. Her children were mostly grown by the time I knew her, her husband died of cancer when the oldest were teens. She could keep track of lots of stuff, didn't complain, and almost nothing got by her. As far as I know, she had no formal education beyond high school and I have no idea how an IQ test would classify her. Her children turned out well (married, employed, at least some college educated) and she supported them herself.

Benjamin Schwyn said...

For the same price of tuition at my public university, I can get a total of 7 hours of personal tutoring per week (for the entire quarter!) at 50$ an hour. Many tutors in my area are half that. If I didn't have to worry about credentials, I would love to do this. It doesn't take into account laboratory resources, but I wouldn't mind volunteering without having to pay for the credit of doing so.

hajasheriff said...

it is really good post i liked it it is awesome

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