Friday, July 20, 2012

A Bit More on Online Education and the Future of College

I often wait a week or two between when I find a topic and when I write about it, in large part because there are so many other interesting perspectives on any topic that I want to get a more complete picture. But my last post, on the ways online courses will change the way we think about education, went from seed to sprout more quickly, and I didn't get a chance to consider this post by Benjamin Lima. He writes about the unbundling of higher education (and uses the term the same way I use disaggregation), and makes some great points. First, that education is much more than a bundle of courses, it is a bundle of different benefits and experiences: 

A college education has traditionally bundled several different kinds of goods together: 
  1. The curriculum: mastery of specific knowledge and development of more general reasoning, analytical, and communication skills.
  2. The extra-curriculum: a network of friends and contacts, and experience gained from clubs, sports, internships and other activities.
  3. The signaling process: validation of general talent or status by completing all of the above at a “better” or highly ranked college.
  4. The college experience: everything that is personally interesting, enjoyable or rewarding about living in a certain place with certain people, and having experiences that are personally valuable to the college student, regardless of their value to anyone else or to society at large—everything from late-night conversations about the meaning of life, to road trips, to pranks, sports rivalries, and “school spirit.”
Traditionally, colleges provided all of these goods in a bundle, simply because the best way to provide them was to expensively gather a lot of students, faculty and resources in one place for several years at a time. But now, with the internet, is the logic of bundling starting to break down?
I think this is a great summary of why we consume college, and he goes on to note that the Internet can probably do a good job of unbundling #1 from the other three benefits, but those other three benefits still retain significant value. He additionally notes that the second and third benefits (arguably, at least) have value to society and are thus worth supporting in some way, while "the college experience" is essentially personal consumption, comprable to travel. Therefore, it is unlikely society will continue to subsidize it once it is unbundled from the other benefits. His conclusion, then, is worth noting:
Top colleges might be able to continue to use their vast resources (in the words of Kevin Carey: wealth, prestige, and exclusivity) to provide an expensive, valuable college experience (category 4) that helps attract top students, high-paying students, top faculty, and donations, in a self-reinforcing cycle as the rich get richer. This self-reinforcing cycle might very well increase the stratification among colleges, as fewer and fewer colleges are able to “play the game” and attract scarce “stars” among students and faculty. Over recent years, one could argue that this has already been happening, as top public universities in the U.S. are less and less able to compete with top private universities.  These top universities provide their students with bundle that includes both a lot of “college experience” to consume, and a high return on their human-capital investment.
If I was an administrator at, say, Providence College, this would terrify me. My alma mater is a good school, that offers a solid combination of the four benefits listed above. But it doesn't have the massive endowment of many schools in the Northeast, and it doesn't offer any elite academic programs, its alumni can't necessarily open a lot of doors for new graduates, the name doesn't cause HR directors to stop and take notice, and Providence, while wonderful, can't compete with Boston as a host for the full college experience. So how does it continue to fill its classrooms when those same students can virtually enroll in Ivy League courses? (If they hired me to do their strategy, I'd give a long look at doubling down on their Catholic identity, on the theory that there will always be parents who want their children to be morally educated and will steer them away from schools that indoctrinate their students in liberal secular humanism.)

Elsewhere, Walter Russell Mead, who inspired the original post, notes that studies indicate students learn as much from online courses as they do when they park their butts in the classroom, removing one obvious objection to online learning.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Online Education and Student Psychology

The always thought-provoking Walter Russell Mead wrote a little ways back about the coming revolution in education. (He also points out the challenge of building a viable economic model around online courses.) His thesis is that the advent of high-quality online courses and the ubiquity of the technology needed to access them will make education cheaper, more readily available, more customizable...just BETTER, for the most part. In his words: 
Online ed will accelerate rather than retard the transformation of American higher ed. Education needs to be cheaper and higher quality than most of it now is; there is no way universities can meet that demand without fundamental change.
 Mead has written about the topic at length, and sees expanding online education as a solution to the problem of the "higher education bubble" pointed out by Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) and others. The absurdity of paying so much for a degree that may not even reliably provide opportunities for well-compensated employment is now undeniable, but so is the reality that moving to online courses may dissolve the business model of bricks-and-mortar higher education, with unpredictable results.

However, the economics of online education is not my primary interest, it's the psychology. How will our perceptions of the value and importance of higher education change if it moves into cyberspace? (And how often do you hear anyone use that term anymore? I miss cyberspace...) A few thoughts:

1) The perceived value of an online education is likely to be lower even if, and maybe especially if, you earn your online degree from a prestigious school. Live attendance is likely to become a status marker, as well as enhancing the social bonds between those who did so while making them resentful of others who took what they will perceive as shortcuts. You can imagine an interviewer probing a candidate who lists MIT on their resume to see if they literally went there.

2) Pretty much every generation after World War II was brought up to function within an institutional setting. The basic model is that the institution (school, corporation, etc.) sets the rules by which success is judged, and the best rule followers succeed. But online education promises to take away the guiding role of institutions. Don't like what Harvard says a well-rounded education entails? Then take just the class or two from Harvard that you really have interest in, and don't worry about their degree. Feel constrained by what you need to do to get a psychology degree? Some university will probably help you design your own curriculum, pulling from a variety of sources, to help you achieve the education you want. This is a variation of the same disaggregation that has devastated newspapers, the music industry, and anyone else who makes money by bundling content. So what's the problem? We'll all be able to get our custom-fitted educations, and be more fulfilled, right? Well, while we might be comfortable mixing news from a bunch of different sources, educational institutions have a much more powerful claim to authority than the media does: their role is to teach us what we need to know. How, then, can we choose what classes we prefer without leaving holes in our education? My prediction is that students and professors will look for new ways to create virtual institutions that still set norms and aggregate classes into coherent programs of study. The alternative turns education into an overly self-centered exercise.

3) In an online educational world, we will see an odd race to the bottom to attract students with money to spend on education but without the wisdom to know what they really need to learn. Get ready for students taking classes on critical television analysis and the like. While many educators will no doubt look to online education as a way to positively influence more young minds, there will be many more who see that creating courses that pander to students' existing knowledge and interests is a quick way to make a buck. After all, a professor probably needs only a few hundred enrollees to make an online course a profitable venture. The division, already so familiar to anyone who goes to college, between people who are determined to push themselves (the minority) and those who navigate the easiest path to their degree, may be exacerbated.

4) The long-term psychological shift that is likely to play out is to greater, but more sporadic, consumption of education, with more value placed on utility and less on the badge value of the institution hosting the course. I'll use myself as an example. I went to a reasonably well-respected Catholic college, majoring in English, with the intent to be a journalist or writer. I'm now a marketer, and while the skills I learned have broad application to my work, I was never formally schooled on the ins and outs of my craft. I have no strong interest in an MBA and no ability to suspend my career to pursue a masters degree in Anthropology, which I'm otherwise interested in. Now, imagine I was living in a world of disaggregated higher ed. I may well have gotten an English degree, and maybe, if I could afford it, would have spent some time physically on campus. But at some point I might well have switched to taking classes online while I took my first steps into marketing. Then, periodically, as my career advanced, I would be likely to seek specific knowledge that might aid my advancement (and I'd feel pressure to take courses because a lot of other people would be doing it). Eventually, I might work with an institution to define a degree program incorporating some of the one-off classes I already took with a more focused course of study. And if I'm interested in pursuing a new career, I could take a course or two to test the water before I really commit. Suddenly your education becomes scalable to the scope of your ambition, because not everything needs to be oriented towards getting a degree.

In short, the short term reaction to disaggregated online education is likely to be mixed, with people's excitement tempered by online being seen as second rate and with a tendency to create courses that are easily marketed rather than rigorous, challenging options. But as we come to accept that the notion of young adults sequestering themselves on a campus for four years is an arbitrary, and maybe not even ideal, way to deliver education, I think we may see a culture that begins to prize relevant, on-demand learning over a lifetime. In response, traditional educational institutions for young people will be joined by new organizations poised to help adults identify and personalize more results-oriented educational programs.

And, if the casualty of this change is that many colleges cease to exist, or offer traditional on-site education, those campuses will be lovely communities to live in, with many amenities for those no longer burdened by massive student loan debts.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

How Much Control Do We Have Over Our Brains?

There is a significant trend in neuroscience, and maybe even more so among the commentators who use that science to justify their political or social beliefs, of denying that we are really responsible for our own behavior. The usual argument goes like this: when a person does X, their brain scans light up in a certain way. People with brain damage to that area don't do X, or do it differently. Therefore we don't really have control of ourselves, our decisions or beliefs are just a function of our anatomy. I have written critically about these Just-So Science Stories here. Other writers (ok, better writers), in a political context, have pointed out that some liberal social scientists have started using this same approach to define conservatism as a disease.

However, just because science can be manipulated to support certain dubious conclusions doesn't mean there isn't a lot of interesting work being done in understanding how the brain works. And one such finding has to do with how a parasite in our brains might be responsible for our positive reactions to the scents of certain wines and perfumes. As writer Patrick House puts it:
Why is it that the elite French perfumers (known as “noses”) and sommeliers (“upturned noses”) of the world spend so much of their time inhaling cat effluvia from expensive glass bottles? A guess: It may have to do with a mind-control parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. The tiny protozoan may be getting into our brains and tricking us into liking cats—not to mention certain perfumes and wines.
In a recent study, Czech scientists gave men and women towels scented with the urine of various animals—horses, lions, hyenas, cats, dogs—which they rated for “pleasantness.” Turns out, men who tested positive for Toxo found the smell of cat urine more pleasant than men without Toxo. For Toxo researchers like me, this was a shock but not entirely surprising. Why? Toxo does approximately the same thing to rats.
You'll have to read the article to get the full theory of why Toxo does what it does, but the implications are staggering: a single-celled organism might be altering way our brain processes information from our senses. Think of it: could we find a bacteria that lowers the speed at which our neurons fire, influencing how fast we remember or respond to stimuli? Could we find a parasite that alters our hearing our sight?

Or think of the commercial issues. Some perfume and wine companies would presumably do better if more people were infected by Toxo. Maybe Chanel will start working with animal adoption organizations to try to get cats into more homes, increasing their likely customer base.

If we begin to discover that some significant portion of the way we perceive the world is influenced by outside organisms, will we attempt to purge them all to standardize the way the human mind works? Will we search for those with favorable impacts and try to infect everyone with them? Could this be the next frontier in pharmaceutical development? Or is this a one-off, and our mental machinery is basically unaltered by microscopic invaders? I guess we just have to wait and see.