Archive for October 26, 2011

There is No Profit in Education, No Competitive Advantage to Better Learning.

I have come up today with an answer to several questions that have been vexing me for some time.  Here are three of those questions, and the answer that I’ve come up with for all three.

  • I tried to upgrade my desktop computer to the latest Mac OS X yesterday, but I couldn’t.  My 2006 Mini-Mac has a Core Duo processor, and Mac OS X Lion won’t run on such an old computer.  Georgia Tech, like most research-intensive universities, has no policy to upgrade computers for faculty.  Faculty are expected to bring in research funding to pay for their own computers.  All of my funding is from NSF which explicitly prohibits purchasing computers for faculty’s general use.  (Overhead, which is supposed to pay for infrastructure like computers, is instead used to pay for new initiatives in healthcare and for wine & cheese “networking receptions.”)  I complained to my Chair, who pointed out that other faculty don’t have this problem.  They get corporate funds or defense contracts to pay for their equipment. Why don’t I?  What’s wrong with computing education research that it doesn’t attract more corporate or DoD funds?
  • I’m going to be interviewed for a podcast Friday, and one of the questions I’m going to be posed is, “Why doesn’t computing education research get the same respect as other CS research areas?”
  • I’m not quite done yet with Abelard to Apple.  I’m really enjoying it, but I’m realizing that it has nothing to do with me.  Rich DeMillo talks about the three broad classes of universities: Elites, Middles, and the For-Profits.  Elites succeed, and Middles can succeed, because they offer a compelling “value proposition.”  That doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with learning. DeMillo also talks quite a bit about faculty and University reluctance to measure anything.  Research is about measuring everything.  My research is about improving the quality of education. Does quality matter to the economics of universities?

There can be no profit in education in America.  There is no competitive advantage to better learning.  What’s the first question that anyone asks of a new learning or teaching method?  “Will it work with the disadvantaged, the poor, the urban student with little preparation?”  I agree with that sentiment, but that’s not how you make money.  There’s no profit to be made by making sure that your best work goes to people who can’t pay for it.  While I understand the arguments (and counter-arguments) about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, it’s still pretty clear that nobody knows how to do that well yet.

I expect someone to respond to this post with, “There can be profit in better education! You can find a competitive advantage if you just…”  Yeah? Show me, please. Show me just one replicable example.  Even the For-Profits aren’t saying that they get you better learning.  They just say that they’re cheaper or more flexible (i.e., in on-line classes).

What would happen if we could teach computing better?  First, how could you prove it?  What could you offer that students and employees would accept as evidence?  Second, who cares?  The Elites draw students because they offer far more than simply learning — they offer a network, prestige, great ROI.  There’s no advantage to teaching better.  Will people pay more for better education?  How would you know?  There are schools that say that they lead to better learning (like the liberal arts schools) — they’re drowning in debt, and far more kids are going to the research institutions and the Elites, or the For-Profits.  Better learning doesn’t buy you anything.

What if we could teach computing faster?  All of American education is time-locked.  Classes take 15 weeks, a semester (in most places — a quarter, 10 weeks in others).  What if you could teach the same content in 12?  Well, what would you do with those other three?  Schooling is 12 years, and even if you could achieve the same learning in less, you run into huge obstacles of culture and economics to finish earlier.  You can’t save time in schools, which means you can’t save money by doing better in less time.

Every other field in computer science offers a competitive advantage to somebody.  If you can make operating systems better, you give your funder something to sell, you save people time and money.  Security is all about protecting what you have.  A better visualization system gives your analysts a competitive advantage.  Better graphics get you more movie and video game sales.  Health systems and technologies flourish because people can and will pay more for better healthcare.   Why should Universities respect the field that brings no profit?

Education research can only succeed in non-profits.  It’s a form of social work, “Computing at the Margins” as my Chair likes to say.  But Universities aren’t non-profits — they’re totally in it to maximize profit, as DeMillo points out.  I’m in the wrong job.


October 26, 2011 at 8:56 am 39 comments

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