"Online education" has become a hot topic recently, with major universities as well as new startups jumping onto the bandwagon. Not without reason, of course. That said, a great deal of the discussion seems to me to be misguided.

Perhaps I am out of line, being neither a professor nor even an educator, but I found Alex Tabarrok's recent Why Online Education Works to capture much of what is misguided in that discussion.

Tabarrok writes:

I see three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.
These sound like fine things. If online education provides a way to "leverage" the abilities of "the best teachers", provides as good or better learning in a shorter time, as well as better "individualized teaching", then who could object? (I leave aside the matter of "new technologies", as that is relevant only to the extent that such technologies actually provide an advantage to education; technology for its own sake is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.)

Unfortunately, Tabarrok goes wrong immediately. Directly following the paragraph above, he writes:

The importance of leverage was brought home to me by a personal anecdote. In 2009, I gave a TED talk on the economics of growth. Since then my 15 minute talk has been watched nearly 700,000 times. That is far fewer views than the most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson's 2006 talk on how schools kill creativity, which has been watched some 26 million times. Nonetheless, the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career.
I cannot help be see this as fundamenally mistaken. Leaving aside the many concerns voiced about TED talks, and leaving aside that, at least on my viewing, there was little or no "education" occurring in Tabarrok's TED Talk -- it was essentially a spoken op-ed piece that boils down to "the best is yet to come" because "ideas will drive growth" -- there seems to me to be something fundamentally mistaken in equating a TED Talk with education. Certainly the best TED Talks succeed in teaching something, although it will need to be something relatively simple, but this is not what 'teaching' is about, at least inthe sense of providing an education.

Lecturing, involving a professor standing in front of a classroom (or appearing on a computer screen), may well be a part of teaching, but it is hardly the whole. And this is illustrated, unintentionally, by Tabarrok in the the second section of his essay.

Discussing "Time Savings", Tabarrok writes:

In putting together our first [online] course, Development Economics, we were surprised to discover that we could teach a full course in less than half the lecture time of an offline course. A large part of the difference is that online lectures need not be repetitive. [...] In an online lecture it pays to be concise. Online, the student is in control and can choose when and what to repeat.
The problem with this view is that it misses what teaching is about. I suspect everyone who has been to university has experienced, or at least heard of, one of the paradigmatic "bad teachers", who, when asked a question by a student who did not understand something, simply repeated what he said the first time, generally leaving no one any further along in their understanding.

Such teaching is bad teaching because it fails in its interaction with the student. Real teaching requires engagement with the student in order to discover what it is that the student fails to grasp and from there find a way to direct the student towards an understanding. Or, in the other direction, to discover what it is that the student is attempting to express, in order to point the student toward an effective way of expressing it. Such cannot occur in a purely unidirectional lecture, whether it appears on a computer screen or in a lecture hall. (Although even in a large lecture hall, the lecturer is likely to receive some feedback from his audience regarding how well they are following what is said, something that is not possible in a pre-recorded video.)

On the subject of lecturing, Tabarrok notes that

Oxford in 2012 teaches students in ways remarkably similar to Oxford in 1096, seated students listening to professors in a classroom.
It may be that professors lectured in the mediaeval university because books were rare, but it is important to note that the lecture did not disappear when books became common. Indeed, if a professor simply passed out books at the beginning of term and said "read these and come back for the exam", such would not be considered "teaching" at all. But a uniderectional lecture (on- or off-line) is no different than handing the student a textbook and walking away.[*]

To be fair to Tabarrok, he does not say that online students should do nothing more than watch videos. Indeed, addressing "Individualized Teaching", he writes:

The conventional wisdom is that the classroom allows for more questions. The truth, however, is that the online space is a better place both for asking questions and for interacting with professors and other students. Put aside that students from all over the world can ask questions online. The problem is that a classroom lecture is constrained by the costs of coordination to begin and end at a time fixed in advance. If every student in a class of 50 asked one question per lecture there would be no time for the lecture. In contrast, questions can be asked at any time in an online lecture, and they do not impede the lecture.
This is true, and is what leads to experiments such as flipping the classroom or virtual office hours. But there's a problem for Tabarrok's position, which is that this runs directly in conflict with his first claimed "advantage" of online education.

Tabarrok here seems to acknowledge that real education requires engagement with the student, and this conflicts with the idea of "leverage". Interacting with students takes time, and there are no "short cuts" in doing so. A professor has only so much time available for such interaction, and it makes not a lot of difference whether his office hours are real or virtual. A professor cannot actually teach 500 students, let alone 5000.

Of course, Tabarrok gestures at "Computer-adaptive learning", but it is important to note that his example is to a work of science fiction. Yes, at some point in the future we may develop actual teaching software, but at present such seems limited to more "rote" learning, such as mathematics. Doing more than this, say at the level of university education, is still not possible. And, because it will require something like intelligence (if perhaps not actual 'artificial intelligence'), we cannot say that it is on the horizon. Which means that, at least for the foreseaable future, real teaching, involving interaction with the student, will place significant limits on the possibilities for "leverage".

All of which leads me to think that there might be something else hiding behind the idea of 'leverage': the concept of 'leverage' as used in finance, meaning using someone else's wealth to make money for oneself. I generally avoid speculating as to motives, but Tabarrok seems to encourage such an interpretation, writing:

The parallel between movies and plays and online and offline education has further lessons. First, the market for teachers will become more like the market for actors, a winner-take-all market with greater inequality and very big payments at the top. A principal player on Broadway might earn $62,500 a year, perhaps twice what a minor player might earn.[3] One of the biggest stars in the world, Julia Roberts, made $35,000 a week, or $1.62 million in a 50-week year performing in Three Days of Rain. Nevertheless, her stage salary pales in comparison to her typical payment of $10-$20 million per movie for much less work. Bigger markets support larger salaries, so the best teachers will earn much more in an online world.
If one can't leverage the time of the professor, then one solution is to become a "star", and outsource the actual teaching to lower-paid assistants (as is already the case in some traditional offline courses, to be fair). The "advantage" of doing this online is that a single lecturer can employ an almost unlimited number of low-paid assistants to do the actual teaching, while he "will earn much more".

[*] I would also note that Tabarrok's comment about Oxford is somewhat misleading, given that the lecture is not the central part of an Oxford education. The core of an Oxford education is the tutorial, involving direct engagement of the professor with the student in very small groups; it is not even a requirement to attend lectures.

Comments (145)