Big Debate Over Online Education

Each month, Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, publishes a feature called “Cato Unbound.” It features a lead essay on some important topic, several reaction essays, and a concluding response from the first author. November’s topic was online higher education. In my view, its proponents made by far the stronger case than its detractors.

Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University contributes the lead essay in which he explains why he thinks online education works very well. He maintains that it has three principal advantages.

First, online education “leverages” good teaching, enabling the professor to reach for more students than otherwise. In 2009, Tabarrok prepared and gave a 15-minute talk about the economics of growth for TED, a non-profit organization that hosts many talks about “ideas worth spreading.” That talk has already been viewed over 700,000 times—the equivalent of 175,000 student-hours of teaching. “It’s now possible for a professor to teach more students in an afternoon than was previously possible in a lifetime,” he writes.

Moreover, professors are apt to put forth their best efforts when they are going online, Tabarrok argues. For his TED presentation, he writes, “I honed my talk and visuals with months of practice. I’d rather be judged by my best 15 minutes than by my average 15 minutes.” I think that is a very important point and will explain why toward the end of this piece.

A second advantage to online education is that it saves time, in several ways. For one thing, students save the time it takes getting to campus and the classroom. Also, online lectures tend to be far more concise than face-to-face teaching. Students can view and review the material quickly, easily, at their own pace and convenience. That’s good because for many students, the standard 50-minute class period is far from ideal.

Third, online courses enhance individualized teaching and the development of new technologies. While some object that online education must be inferior with respect to individualized teaching, Tabarrok replies:

The truth is that the online space is better both for asking questions and for   interacting with professors and other students. Put aside that students from all over the world can ask questions online. The problem is that the classroom lecture is constrained by the costs of coordination to begin and end at the time fixed in advance. If every student in a class of 50 asked one question per lecture, there would be no time for the lecture. In contrast, questions can be asked at any time in an online lecture….

In sum, the online world permits more interchange between faculty and students and encourages equally valuable exchanges among students. Furthermore, innovations are making it easier to assess student learning, adaptive testing in particular. “Analysis of answers can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery,” Tabarrok writes.

His case sounds strong, but it was attacked by two of the contributors. Professor Alan Ryan (formerly of Oxford and now on Princeton’s faculty) argued in his essay that more skepticism about online higher education was in order. Among other points, Ryan contended that the online revolution may lead us into “a two-tier or multi-tier system in which the well-off and well-endowed academically and socially, received personalized and individual attention, while everyone else gets a mass-produced and uniform product tailed to what the better-off believe are their needs.”

Ryan’s egalitarian objection is, I think, off by a mile. He’s assuming that the well-to-do students will get the advantage of “personalized and individual attention” in what he regards as “real” courses (like the ones he teaches at Princeton, no doubt) which will be very good for them. Most other students, however, will have to “settle” for those mass-produced online courses (like Professor Tabarrok’s Marginal Revolution University, perhaps), which will supposedly be less beneficial for them.

Those assumptions are mistaken. The “real” college courses he adores are not necessarily great (students often complain that tenured professors at prestigious universities don’t teach well) and the online courses he looks down his nose at can be excellent. The widespread availability of online courses gives a greater range of choice to all students. If anything, that militates against the “tier” problem Ryan imagines.

Another critical (indeed, rather snide) response was written by Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia, who called Tabarrok’s case for online education “unfounded hyperbole.” Vaidhyanathan argued that the good old classroom “has rich value in itself.” That’s because it is “a safe, almost sacred space where students can try on ideas for size in real time, gently criticize others, challenge authority, and drive conversations in new directions.” That’s no doubt true of some classes, but many others don’t resemble that idyllic description in the least. (Here is an especially nasty example of classroom “education” at its worst.)

There is more to Vaidhyanathan’s reply, but Tabarrok deals handily with each of his objections in his concluding essay.

Lastly, Kevin Carey (director of education policy at the liberal New America Foundation) argued in his essay that Tabarrok hadn’t praised online education enough. Carey writes, “It seems unlikely that traditional universities will be able to keep charging students thousands of dollars for ill-designed commodity courses in basic subjects when much better courses can be found online for free.” I can’t fault that logic.

Carey also writes that those offering online courses will be “highly motivated to articulate clear academic standards and set a high bar for excellence.” Again, I think he is right and that observation brings me to the point about quality I raised earlier but deferred.

Nothing so spurs efforts at improving the quality of a good or service like competition, while nothing does so much to weaken or eliminate such efforts as monopoly. In the traditional college setting, professors faced little or no competition. Those who taught, for instance, American Literature 101 at, let’s say Faber College, wouldn’t gain anything by teaching the best course possible. If there were two profs who taught the course, they shared the monopoly. Neither would earn more money by establishing a reputation for excellence; nor would either lose a dime by slacking off.

With the student “customers” a captive market, professors had a strong incentive to slack off—the time and effort saved could be put toward other work or leisure. In that environment, the “faculty/student non-aggression pact” (a hat tip to Professor Murray Sperber for that useful phrase) is altogether too likely. That is, to be popular and save work, the professor entered into an implicit deal with the students: relatively easy assignments and high grades for students, but in exchange they wouldn’t expect much from the professor.

Large numbers of students who would have liked a challenging course have had to settle for the dumbed-down (or highly politicized or narrowly-focused) classes offered on campus because they had no other choice. Online education gives them an abundance of choices and the competition to attract eager students will guarantee that the courses will be prepared with great care. As Tabarrok said, he took pains to make sure that students got his best 15 minutes.

If you’re familiar with the superb lecture series marketed by The Great Courses (or other companies in that business), you’ll understand my point. Instructors who put themselves out for the whole world to evaluate behave quite differently from those who shuffle into a classroom to face a group of students who are probably more interested in last night’s basketball game than whatever the course may be.

Moreover, whatever institution is associated with the course also has a powerful incentive to make sure that its value is high. Reputation matters.

In time, we might get to the point where employers or graduate schools will look askance at credits earned from dubious courses taken on campus when the student could have chosen from such a plethora of rigorous online courses. If poorly taught on-campus courses can’t survive in an academic race to the top, good.

More competition is just as beneficial in the world of higher education as it is in any other field. Online education, I believe, will be to learning what the airplane was to travel.