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Old 09-06-2009, 07:17 AM   #1
FafnerMorell
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Default Where it's going...

This is just an opinion piece off the Internet (and from a technology blogger at that), but I think he's onto something, and what he's got is just the tip of the iceburg...

I sense something similar coming for higher education in America, but this time it is likely to be the embrace of virtuality and what will go away could be the school, itself.

MIT has all its lectures available for viewing for free over the Internet. Why hasn’t some entrepreneur yet leveraged this amazing act of generosity? Some little school could outsource its entire physics department, for example, using MIT lectures and a single professor in-house. My physics department had only 2.5 professors (the .5 was the department chair who drove a cab on the side) and we didn’t have the benefit of MIT video.

There is enough good material available for free online right now that it would be easy to create a virtual university (WikiVersity?) with the only thing missing being the granting of degrees. It’s that whole “degree from MIT” thing that allows that school not to worry about sharing its lecture bounty, because in the education system lectures are viewed as worthless unless they lead to a degree.

Why is that?

My friend Richard Miller (he designed the Atari Jaguar video game console eons ago) is one of the smartest engineers I’ve ever met yet he doesn’t have a degree in engineering. Apple II designer Steve Wozniak got his degree from UC Berkeley only after leaving Apple in the early 1980s. In both cases their employers couldn’t have cared less.

What drives the education industry is producing degrees while what drives the computer industry is producing products and services.

When was the last time any employer asked to see your academic transcript? Have they ever?

What’s missing here is the higher education equivalent of a GED. Someone will come up with one, or they should, because all the other parts of the system are ready to go.

Cushing Academy, a tony prep school in western Massachusetts, is right now replacing its 20,000-volume library with a “learning center” containing 18 eBook readers, three giant TV screens, and a $12,000 espresso machine. I wonder why they need a building or even a room at all; wouldn’t it be cheaper just to give each kid an eBook reader and a Starbuck’s gift card?

We’re on the cusp of a new era where the marginal cost of insight is low enough to create new kinds of virtual education institutions. The important concept here is insight, which means more than fact, more than knowledge. It is the link between facts and knowledge, a true act of understanding that enables thinking people to create something completely new. Without insight you don’t know jack. But insight generally comes through personal connections — connections that to this point we’ve typically had to create campuses and pay $50,000 per year to enjoy.

That no longer makes sense.

Education, which — along with health care — seems to exist in an alternate economic universe, ought to be subject to the same economic realities as anything else. We should have a marketplace for insight. Take a variety of experts (both professors and lay specialists) and make them available over the Internet by video conference. Each expert charges by the minute with those charges adjusting over time until a real market value is reached. The whole setup would run like iTunes and sessions would be recorded for later review.

Remember, all lectures are also available online for free. What costs is the personal touch.

Say a particularly good professor wants to make $200,000 per year by working no more than 20 hours per week or about 1000 hours per year. That gives them a billing rate of $200 per hour.

Now look back at your university career. How much one-on-one time did you actually get with the professors who really influenced your life? I did the calculation and came up with about two hours per week, max. Imagine a four-year undergraduate career running 30 weeks per year — 120 total weeks of school — times two hours of insight per week for a total of 240 hours. At $200 per hour the cost comes to $48,000 or $12,000 per year.

That’s a huge savings compared to the $200,000+ an MIT-level education would cost today (remember the MIT online degree — there is one — costs the same as if you were attending in Cambridge). And ideally the pool of insightful experts would be far greater than any one university could ever employ. And that’s the point of this exercise; it can’t be an emulation of a traditional university, because that would inevitably disappoint — it has to be in at least one way clearly, obviously, stupendously BETTER than what’s available now.

This could happen tomorrow, the pieces are all there ready to be put together. Ironically it leverages one of the great red herrings of the Internet era — micropayments. So much could happen, we’ve all said, if only we could build a micropayment system that would actually work. Well we can, and what makes it work is that the payments at $200 per hour aren’t so micro. But they are micro enough
Where I also see this going is also the K-12 eduction market. The in-roads will be made at higher education first - the incredibly high prices and underlying but seldom stated belief that college students are paying $28,000+ (often into six figures) for a piece of paper which serves as a key when passing through corporate resume gatekeeping and little more. And folks can argue that places like Harvard & Yale serve as the social networking for the extreme-upper end elite - but that's a pretty small percentage of the population.

But the underlying "quality and value of education" is issue w/ the entire education process. Public schools vary widely in quality (if you're in the wealthy suburbs, it's less of an issue) - but tend to be controlled by the lowest common denominator, Private schools generally have good quality, but high prices (hard to justify the value). Homeschooling varies a lot - it depends on what resources the parents have - the general problem is unless the parents have both a very broad and deep knowledge themselves, the ciriculum tends to be overly narrowly focused (there's often local homeschooling groups to help pool resources and such - but you're dependent on how good those groups are). Also, as Adam Smith/David Ricardo would point out, homeschooling is inheritently inefficient.

I could see something evolving that takes homeschooling, and allows the customization of courses with a widely available Internet-based material. I've heard mention of this from parents in Texas - that there's development of "virtual schools", using state-supplied laptops & instructors - but haven't found much in the way of details.

Most of any education-related debates we have here are based around our political stances - but from the standpoint of a parent, well, politics aside, you need to pick out something that's going to work for your kids.
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Old 09-06-2009, 11:10 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by FafnerMorell View Post
...what he's got is just the tip of the iceburg...
I can imagine some ancient ice fortresses being quite large. Perhaps as large as, and maybe even larger than, an iceberg.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.
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Old 09-06-2009, 11:27 AM   #3
AjTaliesen
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Originally Posted by FafnerMorell View Post
Most of any education-related debates we have here are based around our political stances - but from the standpoint of a parent, well, politics aside, you need to pick out something that's going to work for your kids.
Add to that: our push for "Everyone must be educated" has actually caused it's own set of problems that nobody is even talking about yet. I'm sure I'm not the only one here who has been in a class where the material was dumbed down severely so that everyone could keep up. Not to be too realistic about it, but someone destined to be one of natures bus drivers isn't going to have the same level of drive towards knowledge that future nobel prize winners will show.

But our educational system is under constant ever increasing pressure to insure that they both get through the class, get into college and get that ever decreasing-in-value degree. Whenever we talk about schools, it's inevitable that drop out rates get listed as a failure in the system. The solution to which is to make it so that the future bus driver can keep up with the material, which makes the material all but useless to the future nobel prize winner.

I'm sure we've ALL been in classes where we might have learned something valuable, but what we actually got was another month of "basics in filling out worksheets and ditto forms 101" because "success" is determined by how many were able to handle it.
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Old 09-06-2009, 06:18 PM   #4
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I'm actually pursuing an Information security degree, and I prefer B&M classrooms. I just don't get as much from virtual classes, personally.
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Old 09-07-2009, 10:30 AM   #5
Michael Cumberlan
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I think the trick is to be able to augment the virtual with a real person. Treat the lecture as similar to a book, and use face time to talk about ramifications / implications / insights. That's the reason I went to college, anyway - to get more than some regurgitated book./ (BTW - I failed - badly - college was as bad as the rest for the most part.)
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