Thursday, September 07, 2006

Taking education online

(Addition below)

NPR's Neil Conan hosted an interesting discussion regarding the growth of online education on Wednesday's Talk of the Nation. While overall higher education enrollment growth is stagnant, growing at around 2% annually, online course growth enjoys over five times that rate. The online university market caters mainly to graduate students, and is billed as the ultimate in andragogy, being ideal for working professionals with schedules that make traditional semesters difficult to attend. But in my view there is no reason online's astronomical growth shouldn't continue.

The benefits are numerous. Academia is a bastion of leftist thought. Seventy-two percent of faculty members are self-described liberals (compared to about 20% of the US population nationwide). Only 15% are self-described conservatives (compared to about 40% nationwide). So the professoriate is about ten times more leftist than the population at large.

That's nothing new. A social groupthink that has preserved itself with little alteration for a half-century is monopolistic. It stifles ideas (or the professors who present them) that disagree with rigid sets of theoretical dogma about human nature, morality, politics, economics, and so forth. Online courses allow for competition, because students can scour the country for degrees and courses.

As astounding growth continues, I suspect universities will look at removing out-of-state tuition premiums (around three times the in-state rate) for online courses, or at least slashing them drastically, to compete with programs in other states. In absolute numbers, there are still lots of traditionalists, rightists, and empiricists out there teaching. Online courses, because of a lack of geographical and space constraints (why can't an instructor lead an online class with a few thousand students, with multiple online discussion topics and lots of TAs for grading written assignments and electronic grading for other forms of testing?), can break the academic orthodoxy that runs guys like Lawrence Summers and Andrew Fraser out of town. Let the market have a say. Additionally, this will eliminate preferable tuition rates for illegal aliens.

Putatively mature though they may be, lots of college students don't like to engage in in-class discussions. The larger the class, the more truth there is to that. Online discussions and virtual classrooms are different. Students can speak with relative anonymity, the time constraints and discomforts of a sterile setting are removed, and ideas can be expounded upon or more fully defended. Certainly some will thrive in this environment, anyway.

Online classes remove the need for physical classrooms, utilities, land, transportation (university busing, etc), maintenance crews, parking departments, and all the other costs that are incurred (with a government-subsidized, quasi-monopoly inefficiency premium added on) in the routine operation of a public university. Further, they remove the loss that is borne from student travel to and from class. KU has 30,000 students. Say they spend fifteen minutes commuting to and from campus three days a week, 32 weeks a year. At minimum wage, that's $7.5 million in deadweight loss. Not to mention room-and-board, which typically doubles the public in-state college cost per student to $15,500 annually.

Currently, online courses are comparable in cost to the $210 average public in-state credit hour. But a host of factors will push that down in the future. Skeptical professors are often paid a one-time bonus in the thousands to convert their courses to an online format, and get extra renumeration for teaching courses online rather than in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Some public universities do not (yet) receive state funding for web-based courses. I suspect this will change when states begin to realize the revenue potential that opening up courses to students across the country represent. Also, for-profit private institutions are getting lots of the business. Apollo Group Inc., which owns the University of Phoneix (unless you block pop-ups, you've seen the ads) and has 10% of the online market (that comes to some 160,000 students at present), was $450 million in the black last year. As public universities continue to enter the market to challenge the new and existing Apollo's and DeVry's of the world, costs will come down.

Online's biggest obstacle revolves around the question of its effectiveness. Can courses via the web boast the same user competency as classroom courses? Can you really learn over the web? (A few hours spent on the 'insight' sites listed to the right should provide a definitive answer in the positive). Surprisingly, students aren't convinced even while most businesses are. Peter Stokes of Eduventures reported on Talk of the Nation that while only one-third of students believe that online courses are equal to or better than traditional ones, 62% of the business world does. If you've been hesitant to enroll for online out of a fear of resume damage, be stultified no more. The business world likes your efficiency. It evinces personal responsibility (assuming you perform well).

Ultimately, I hope online education ruptures the senseless marriage of instruction and research. Let good researchers research. Keep the direct state funding there and tag public funding to the student rather than the university. This will accelerate the growth of online courses, as it has been the private sector that has taken the lead, with public universities desperately trying to play catch-up. Separate research from the pedagogy of the teaching arena. There's little reason for someone to spend eight or more years working up to the doctoral level only to turn around and teach to undergraduates. Real-world professionals can generally do a better job as they operate in the real world, not a theoretical one. Top-notch researchers are notorious for neglecting teaching responsibilities and opting instead for spending time and energy on research interests.

++Addition++Although academia is ten times more leftist than the US at large, in absolute numbers there still exists plenty of professors with moderate or conservative, pro-empirical viewpoints. Business and engineering have a greater supply of said instructors, but even the humanities have a enough.

To combat the intellectually stultifying post-modernism that turns our brightest youths into knee-jerk leftists hostile to reality, we need to find a way to replace numerical superiority with content superiority. Online classes provide a way to do this.

Think of online course to brick-and-mortar course comparisons in the same way as debates with people at social gatherings versus online debates.

In the three philosophy courses I took in college, I inevitably was standing almost alone as the arguments heated up (especially in one class where we discussed 'practical philosophy' and took it into immigration/citizenship. Initially I shared the support of much of the class, but as I entered the IQ and disease realms, I became a lone wolf). When there are twenty people in the room and you're trying to argue against ten people at the same time, inevitably the ire of those in the room, the cacophony of charges you struggle to keep up with and answer, the feeling that you're hogging the discussion, the physical and mental exertion expended to keep on your toes and keep answering one charge after another and then trying to strike back, combine to weigh almost unbearably. Even if objective standards put your side (that is, your solo contribution) ahead of the opposition's (the sum of the rest of the debaters) ahead, commom perception will likely be that you're getting routed. Surround even a Spartan warrior (not that I'm at all analagous to one!) and even with Athenians you can bring him down.

But online discussions allow you to go into hostile territory and use borrowed tactics from the Battle of Thermopylae, or employ a 'choke' as the terminology goes in the world of my addiction. With infinite time (who currently reading hasn't stayed up until four in the morning letting it fly on some obscure or not-so-obscure discussion board/comment section?), and infinite space, every charge can be answered with due consideration, every counter argument examined and a thoughtful riposte offered, and total verbage matched word for word, even if you've wandered into rabidly hostile territory.

Online courses, without space and distance constraints, can potentially work in the same way. So there are one hundred Cornel Wests out there and one Richard Lynn teaching Psychology 205: The study of psychometric variance across groups. With brick-and-mortar nearly everyone gets some zaney shamanistic Marxist (?) viewpoint about racism and testing bias. Online, if Lynn is the best, theoretically everyone can be instructed by him. Let the market decide.

Online education presents a monumental opportunity for moderates and rightists to regain at least neutrality in the educational realm. Reclaiming this territory will do wonders for the future of empirical thought.


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