Online Education: What I Got Wrong

Economist James D. Miller now thinks online education could increase demand for instructors, not destroy their jobs.

April 5, 2017

In 2011, I wrote Get Out While You Can for Inside Higher Ed describing why I thought online education would threaten professors' jobs. Since then I created a lot of online content (microeconomics and game theory), and have spent many hours with my young son consuming internet educational material. I now realize that I overestimated the appeal of online education partly because I generalized from myself and my peers -- people who intrinsically enjoy education -- and I committed the cardinal sin, for an economist, of ignoring the key tradeoff.

I’ve been supplementing my son’s elementary school education with online learning. (He receives video game time as an inducement and reward.) For Vsauce, his favorite YouTube science channel, I can trust him to diligently watch the material by himself. But to get my child to pay attention to the far drier Khan Academy, I usually have to watch the material with him, periodically pausing the videos to ask and answer questions with him. I don’t blame Khan Academy for being less interesting than Vsauce; Khan comprehensively covers much more material, while Vsauce only discusses topics that can be presented in a captivating manner.

In 2011, I thought that much of online education was boring, but I expected content creators to eventually succeed in making their material interesting enough to hold the enthusiastic attention of most students. Here I failed to realize that people like me are, of course, going to find educational content more interesting than most students do, and so I underestimated how much improvement would be needed to make online courses as exciting as video games.

I further forgot to take into account that teachers have, for literally thousands of years, tried to make their lectures more interesting and yet, as most of us can attest, we have still not succeeded in consistently producing lectures that most students find more enjoyable.   

Of course, computer learning provides new opportunities for improvement and, for example, the game DragonBox makes algebra almost as fun as a mediocre video game. (My son tells me he agrees with that last sentence.) Still, for good teachers, there will always eventually be a tradeoff between how interesting and how informative material is.

If you can make your lectures more interesting without sacrificing rigor or content, you do it. Similarly, if you can cover more material or increase the difficulty of the material covered without decreasing how interesting students will find your lecture, you cover the extra material.

Therefore, a good, well-prepared teacher will run into the tradeoff between excitement and rigor -- meaning that he will only be able to cover more challenging material if he makes his class less fun for his students. And the learning cost of having a less exciting lecture is that students will pay less attention to you. 

The Human Factor

But having a real-human teacher watch them causes most students to pay more attention, and this comes without any cost in rigor. Just by sitting next to my son I can increase his level of attention and I suspect the same is true with most learning. So even if online education drastically improves, and is able to present in a fascinating manner everything currently taught in college courses, having an instructor -- plus online material -- would allow courses to teach students even more than most of these students could learn from the online courses alone. 

Contrary to what I wrote in 2011, I can even imagine online education increasing the demand for instructors, at least at expensive colleges. I still think that internet learning will replace traditional large lecture classes. As with their textbooks, students at elite and less-expensive schools will mostly use the same material because once you have spent the upfront costs to produce either the online course or the textbook, it is cheap for the copyright owner to make additional copies. 

But elite colleges will want to differentiate themselves from what they hope prospective students will perceive as “lesser schools.” Today elite colleges do this by claiming that their teachers do higher-quality research and have Ph.Ds. from better schools than their competitors. But will this matter in a world where college students mostly watch videos and do online exercises and tests created by people outside of their college?

I predict that in the near future, elite colleges might do what I’m doing with my son -- give one-on-one tutoring to students where the instructor watches videos with his pupils. This will involve almost zero preparation time for instructors who have a solid understanding of the underlying material. If, say, a student gets a hundred hours of tutoring a year for all her courses combined, then colleges would need one full-time tutor for about 20 students, which is a financially feasible number especially since these instructors would replace other faculty positions.  


James D. Miller is associate professor of economics at Smith College, the host of the Future Strategist podcast and the author of Singularity Rising.





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