Monday, September 13, 2010

An Immodest Proposal for Reinventing Higher Education

USA Today reports that student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt! $828 billion!

Huge waste. I could provide a great college education for every undergraduate student in the nation for decades for 1/1000 of what the current student debt is: Interactive, simulation-based online courses taught by the nation's leading professors. A computer would keep track of courses taken and passed and degrees automatically awarded when requirements were completed.

Because this education would be so clearly superior and less expensive than traditional college education (and it would become a profit center for a university,) I believe I'd be able to convince a designer-label college to award degrees to completers of the program. My pitch: Do you want your name or a competitor's name on it?

26 comments:

Justin Wehr said...

I'm curious: Would you invest in such a company?

I am wondering whether you think such a plan would succeed or just that it would be great if it did succeed.

Marty Nemko said...

I would start, run, and invest in the company and work on getting a name-brand associated with it: e.g., Harvard or the United States. I believe I could convince Harvard to say yes in explaining that their choice is to have me compete with it, and they'd totally lose, (both because its substance would be so superior to a traditional Harvard education) and because I'd ask them, "Would you bet that I won't find one prestigious university willing to do this?"

Anonymous said...

The entire MIT curriculum is already available online (lectures, syllabi, etc.) and has been for about five years or so.

One big issue that hasn't been sorted out yet is how you'd grade and credit people for participation in this kind of training.

Justin Wehr said...

I would love to see that happen and you would have my full support.

I understand that the need is highest for undergraduate because of student debt, but is there any reason, practically, why not to extend it to all levels of education?

Jacked Up said...

It would not only reduce student debt but disrupt extremely high institutional overhead. I'm having trouble even imagining the resistance to your idea.

I work in the Education Technology sector and we are slowly starting to see paradigms change but not to the extent you suggest. Maybe someday.

Marty Nemko said...

Justin, the development costs wouldn't be as amortizable. There are so many more undergraduate students who take a given course--e.g., calculus than a graduate course, say Advanced Topology.

Marty Nemko said...

Re the question of assigning course credit and degrees, I explained that in my post. Online exams (sophisticatedly developed so even multiple choice questions could get at deep understanding) with the computer simply keeping track of whether the student completed enough courses. Iris-recognition software would reduce fraud. But remember that even in traditional colleges, there's massive fraud--downloading term papers, paying graduate students to take your undergraduate exams, etc.

Underachiever said...

To reduce fraud even more, students could be required to take a multiple choice test on a subject in a secured building to pass a given class. These tests could be given every few months like the SAT is.

Marty Nemko said...

Underachiever, that would be an unnecessary cost. The same fingerprint recognition software that would verify the student's attendance would verify that he and only he was taking the exam. Of course, nothing is foolproof, but that's more foolproof than exams in in-person lecture classes.

K-Dog said...

Marty, your idea is great, but it is unlikely to work in the near term. The reason is that universities will not leave a dollar on the table.

Many have online courses now—but here's the catch—they charge just as much for the online course and curriculum as for the onsite versions. And the books are still required and cost just as much as for the onsite courses. In addition, online students usually get to pay all the mandatory student fees that those actually on campus pay. Someone's got to pay for those football coaches' salaries, so everyone gets to contribute—even those not using the actual bricks-and-mortar campus.

The temptation for any private company to start online curricula equivalent to those at universities would be the same: to charge as much as would bricks-and-mortar universities. Businesses are even worse at leaving money on the table.

Something in the higher-ed system would have to be totally revamped to make your idea feasible. And that's a pity.

Marty Nemko said...

K-Dog,

I understand that universities will get all the money they can, but my focus will be on contracting with top INSTRUCTORS and instructional designers to create the courses. I'd only need one prestigious university to lend their name to the degree program. And in their desire to be associated with the best program, and their desire for getting money for essentially doing nothing, I'd bet that at least one designer-label university would say yes.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea...however we have to realize not all learners could/would be successful in this type of teaching style.

I've often encountered students that needed face-to-face interaction. They simply need to have a person to "read" when proposing ideas/thoughts.

Underachiever said...

"The same fingerprint recognition software that would verify the student's attendance would verify that he and only he was taking the exam."

Online or in person?

Marty Nemko said...

Online. No need for the expense of rooms, proctors, etc.

Underachiever said...

I agree that the vast majority of the class could be online. However there are many ways to cheat online even with fingerprints; therefore, finals might need to be in person. Otherwise, how would employers know if you know anything? At the very least, the final test you take to get the degree should be in person.

Anonymous said...

k-dog: the MIT curriculum is free.

http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/biology/7-03-genetics-fall-2004/assignments/

is the problem set and solution set for a genetics course.

I'm not sure that you can really do multiple choice tests to evaluate knowledge on every subject. When I was in college, I had an advanced science seminar which was taught by a prof who preferred multiple choice tests. It was a small course (about 10 students.)

In the middle of the midterm, I realized that there was a typo, and hence no correct answer, to one of the questions, and I brought this to his attention. He told everyone not to mark it.

Everyone in the course was disappointed in the test as a whole, and as a class we asked that the final exam include essay responses. Since there weren't too many of us, and since we were unanimous, he said "OK."

Later on, I found that the best professors tend to prefer essay exams over multiple choice, even in science courses.

Have you talked with professors about their takes on using the multiple-choice format, not simply to demonstrate pass versus fail but to rank students?

Anonymous said...

I think we already have such for profit colleges, Marty, and they're not doing such a hot job. Do you really feel you would intimidate Harvard? That's pretty funny since you have not achieved any notable success as a college teacher.

Go ahead, mail Harvard. Upend the educational system by investing and running a proprietary school like the proprietary schools we already have. Kaplan would be very interested, I'm sure.

By the way, I wonder if the U of Pheonix has proven to be a wise financial choice for its students? Hmmmm....

Marty Nemko said...

Most multiple-choice tests overemphasize the trivial. Sophisticated ones don't.

And even if an excellently devised multiple-choice test doesn't capture all the nuances assessable in a multiple-choice, doesn't mean that the huge cost of requiring essay exams is worth it. I am clear that it would not be.

Marty Nemko said...

Underachiever, as I wrote in a previous comment, in-person exams can often be cheated on. As in all decisions, we must look at the risk/reward and cost-benefit of insisting on in-person proctor exams. In my mind, it's clear that we're best off with an online exams with a fingerprint or iris recognition device to reduce the chances of cheating. Also tests would need to be open-book-type tests to eliminate the obvious source of cheating: looking at the book. That would have the side benefit of meaning that the exam would focus more on thinking skills than fact regurgitation.

Jeffrie said...

Here's the story of a student who reportedly graduated debt-free from UMass. And here's the book just released a couple of weeks ago that tells his story in detail.

Some of the things he suggests are things I've heard you say before, Marty, like choosing a state school rather than a private, name-brand school, and starting at community college.

ST said...

Marty, you haven't commented on the free MIT course ware where the actual professors are teaching the courses via video. That's the first thing I thought of, but then saw someone else commented on it.

I realize there's absolutely no accountability with it, but it would be an interesting thing to investigate as to the viability of a similar, but controlled system. Is it even working in any way? I suppose it's the same thing as asking if a library works.

That really is too bad that the online courses charge the same as on-site classes. They do the same at the community college where I like to take classes. But, a lot of them are half and half, so you get a break every other week from having to commute to class, but you still get the interaction with the teacher.

You would think, though, with Kindle, iPad, even just a laptop, the textbooks could somehow be secured from copying and allow the students to read them electronically (maybe somehow also be able to mark them or attach reference marks at various points) at a fraction of the cost of a 10 pound paper weight. If there's a racket besides tuition itself, it's the educational text book industry.

Marty Nemko said...

MIT is but one university and a research-, not teaching-centric one at that. What I propose is to identify the best instructors (many who would NOT come from the professioriate) around the nation to be the instructors, and rather than plain ol' boring online classes, they'd be paired with instructional designer and computer programmer to create truly breakthrough courses.

ST said...

Marty, thanks for the explanation and your reasoning. The Teaching Company does a similar thing with their "Great Courses" DVDs (I have many :) ), but I think almost every lecturer has a PhD. Plus, it's a one way street and not a rigorous, interactive class.

I'm almost thinking it would be better to undercut the market and do it independently, but then there's the hard sell that it's really a college degree. Also, universities would be sure to try and stop it. If a university takes it, and it took off in the market, their revenues would drop as students converted their way of learning from traditional classes to online (unless maybe they got many, many more students nation-wide).

Then, competition would arrive and every university would have to adopt the technique to survive. A nation of online learners at a fraction of the cost.

The key to start would be, of course, great professors, and a great computer system.

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, ST, it needs to be a private venture, which would include one designer-label university involved as licensor of its brand.
The Teaching Company is fatally flawed for the reasons you imply: they're eminent professors (you can't be eminent unless you're a top-quality researcher and the kind of person who is that can almost never be a transformational teacher. Indeed, some of the greatest teachers are probably not PhDs but might, for example, be someone who struggled to learn calculus, is an actor, and can magically and entertainingly explain algebra to the typical undergraduate.

And finally, Learning Company lectures are pure lecture, one-way instruction, and filled with professor-focused detail and arcana. (I'm now listening to one: A Question of Value taught by Patrick Grim. It's alternatingly too easy, very occasionally too convoluted, and never interesting.)

Marty Nemko said...

Yes, ST, it would have to be a private venture, licensing one designer-labeled university's name for the diplomas.

And yes, some universities would try to stop it. But, I could preempt that by involving the media from the get-go as well as a major college accrediting agency, so it was both well-publicized and fully accredited.

The Teaching Company is fatally flawed for the reasons you imply: they're eminent professors (you can't be eminent unless you're a top-quality researcher and the kind of person who is that can almost never be a transformational teacher. Indeed, some of the greatest teachers are probably not PhDs but might, for example, be someone who struggled to learn calculus, is an actor, and can magically and entertainingly explain calculus to the typical undergraduate.

And finally, Learning Company lectures are pure lecture, one-way instruction, and filled with professor-focused detail and arcana. (I'm now listening to a Learning Company course now: A Question of Value taught by Patrick Grim. It's alternatingly too easy, very occasionally too convoluted, and never very interesting, let alone filled with content that would in a major way, elevate me. My college--let's for now, call it Utopia U) would.

ST said...

Yeah, that Patrick Grim one is pretty boring. I never got very far in it (and it's funny someone else on a web board just mentioned trying to listen to it).

Some of the interesting ones I've gotten are in science, and I particularly like Richard Wolfson. He's very engaging, but so far many of them don't have that "it" factor that make you want to "show up for class".

I agree about being a good teacher. In my own experience, I've been told I can explain math better than the professors they've had. I'm not saying I'm great, but I sense that I have the ability to see what the person is not getting. That happens at work a lot, too. A lot of times I get drowned out at work because everyone has to have their say, so sometimes it isn't until all points of view are exhausted that they realize I was right. Not saying I'm always right, either, but I can see where a good teacher has a talent that doesn't need a PhD, and especially one with a lot of emphasis on research.

 

blogger templates | Make Money Online