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MOOConomics

I know you’re already sick of reading about MOOC’s. But I’m afraid there’s no avoiding them. In The Chronicle this morning, UCLA philosopher Pamela Hieronymi argues:

Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error. Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas.

And so forth, before concluding:

Can technology make education less expensive? College is expensive, but colleges do things other than educate. Many courses simply convey information and provide technical vocational skills. These could be automated, presumably at savings. The price tag includes the campus experience—an education of a different sort—with all its lovely, cherished amenities. But the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality.

One can dispute the distinctions Hieronymi makes between real education and the mere conveyance of information and transmission of skills, but I think it’s more interesting not to. Let’s concede for the sake of argument that everything she says about the nature and expense of a legitimate college education is correct. And let’s imagine that every course at UCLA and colleges around the nation that fail to meet her criteria for authenticity are replaced by cheaper technology. Her criteria being:

the training provided by one mind interacting with another—when, for example, a teacher discerns what is on a student’s mind (even though the thought may be novel and half-formed); sees how it relates to the material; and knows how to question, encourage, challenge, or otherwise prompt the student to find his or her own way out of confusion, to a clearer expression of thought or a more powerful argument or analysis.

How many courses does she imagine are left?

A quick look at what students actually major in shows an awful lot of people studying education, business, engineering, health professions, and other fields that involve a substantial amount of technical skill. Even in the liberal arts, many introductory courses are so large as to preclude interaction based on the magical spark of insight gleaned from the student’s eye. And then there are the courses that ought to involve a great deal of intensive student-teacher interaction but don’t because nobody is paying much attention to the quality of teaching.

That’s why the comparison to journalism is apt. The Internet can’t replace the expensive, time-consuming process of investigative journalism, in which a highly-trained, expensive professional works with diligence, skill, judgment, and insight. The problem with newspapers is that they have traditionally lost money on investigative journalism while earning healthy margins on things that can, and have been, replaced by the Internet, such as classified advertising, sports updates, and opining. So, too, with the kind of high-quality education in philosophy that I’m sure Dr. Hieronymi provides. Even if she’s entirely correct that she’s not replaceable by a MOOC, that misses the point: Low-cost Internet courses will replace many other things that subsidize real education as she defines it.

 

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