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

October 26, 2011 at 8:56 am 39 comments

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.


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39 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  October 26, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Hi Mark

    Of course Socrates pointed out that one should not charge for education and teaching.

    One of the reasons translated into modern terms is that now you have a customer-marketeer relationship and there will be a slide to cater to what the customers want rather than to give the learners what they *need*.

    So I think universities, etc., are quite in the wrong business, by trying to be in business at all. They have long missed the main points.

    You might be in the wrong job, but you are definitely in the right calling.



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  October 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

      Thanks, Alan! Now if only Socrates were starting a University today…

      • 3. Alan Kay  |  October 26, 2011 at 12:26 pm

        To Socrates a school was a log with a learner on one end and a teacher on the other …

    • 4. reestheskin  |  October 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm


      Can you expand this a little — ‘ the wrong business, by trying to be in business at all’. Or point me to where you have written more
      jonathan rees

      • 5. Alan Kay  |  October 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm

        Real education is a tricky thing — but one idea to ponder is the state of a student before entering a school of any kind. Unless they are very unusual, the school will have a much better idea of what they should be learning, and how.

        But in a consumer society, the customer is always right — so we have conflicts between “wants” and “needs”. The student may “want” to just get certified to get a job — but a good university (and society) will have larger ideas — e.g. that the student “needs” to get generally educated to have a larger grasp on all the systems in which they live, and will need to contribute to beyond just earning a living.

        This is a hard sell in today’s society and many universities have knuckled under in order to attract students. Even mighty Stanford with its huge endowment became a Java training shop for undergraduates (and could still be).

        One code word to understand what is going on is “retention”. When places worry more about “retention” than “enlightenment” etc. they are more about business than real education.



  • 6. Tom Hoffman  |  October 26, 2011 at 9:23 am


    • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  October 26, 2011 at 10:16 am

      Pearson doesn’t sell learning — they sell books. They have a niche market. They cater to professors, and try to provide the books that say what the professors want to say. They cater to students, and try to provide materials that students like. But learning isn’t what they’re selling. Read their marketing literature — it doesn’t say anywhere that students learn better or are better retained with these materials. We’ve tried to get the marketing people to include some of our research results in the materials for our Media Computation books, but the marketing experts aren’t interested. Research results about better learning don’t sell books. That’s what Lijun Ni found years ago when she looked at what led to faculty adoption of curricular innovations. Faculty adopted what they found exciting, not what led to better learning or what was supported better by research findings.

  • 8. Darrin Thompson  |  October 26, 2011 at 10:40 am

    What would the right job be?

  • 9. Paul Gestwicki  |  October 26, 2011 at 10:53 am

    One of the themes throughout DeMillo’s book is the dearth of new American universities despite the global increase in demand for learning (or at least certification). Maybe an upcoming blog post will be about how you have come up with a modern and sustainable university structure based on deep learning, and if that happens, I’ll start polishing my vita!

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  October 26, 2011 at 10:57 am

      I wish, Paul! Maybe Rich has some ideas.

      • 11. richde  |  October 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

        Mark, I have only parables to go on, but my strong suspicion is that quality is not important in higher education as it’s currently conceived. What’s at the top? Access. Cost. The promise of a job (even it’s only a promise). A pathway to completion.

        Here’s one of the parables: I used to work for the CEO of Bellcore — a guy who had been head of marketing for Sprint and was the inventor of the “pin drop” marketing campaign. For those not old enough to remember this little diversion: long distance connections used to be awful, noisy affairs with lots of dropped calls and high costs. Enter the pin drop campaign: “for the same price we, i.e. Sprint, can give you a connection so clear you can hear a pin drop.”

        It was a runaway hit for Sprint and the marketing guy took this as confirmation that people were willing to pay for call quality. Bellcore was pushing VoIP services which of course relied on best effort routing. Lots of dropped connections and crazy distortion. So Bellcore put its VoIP offerings on the shelf and concentrated on the high quality that everyone liked.

        But of course VoIP was free or nearly free and so service providers started to see about 3% customer churn as price sensitive customers chose much less expensive but noisy service. Cell phones had not yet had a major impact but it was a technology that convinced people that they could live with dropped calls and crappy quality if they could be reasonably certain that they would have constant (untethered) access to a voice network. Another 3% started to switch providers.

        So now 6% of the long distance market was constantly up for grabs and that was almost exactly what it took to hollow out long distance profitability. This equation was known to AT&T, Sprint, MCI and others for a long time, but almost everyone was convinced that customers would continue to pay for quality. What no one quite understood was that for most people quality was not a pin drop, it was access and cost.

        Here’s why I think people will not pay for quality in higher education: they don’t believe what institutions say about it. Grades are inflated. IT companies rely almost completely on on-site interviews to select employees. And so on…you know all the examples.

  • 12. Mike  |  October 26, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Fascinating article (as always!)

    I recently read another blog posting that’s kinda about this same thing. That author’s point was that there’s no profit in quality education, but there is profit in cheaper/more convenient education.

    My read was that applying the Amazon/Google/.com approach to low-quality education can be lucrative because you deliver cheap junk to lots of people, and “pay” your computers (not teachers!) less than your customers are willing to pay.

  • 13. reestheskin  |  October 26, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    I have long been an admirer of your blog — even though my field of dermatology in clinical medicine seems a little distant. Your point about computer purchase quickly descends into the world of Flann O’Brien or Kafka — I once couldn’t advertise some research positions because I had no ‘overhead’ money to pay for the adverts. But without the persons starting, I couldn’t earn any overhead……

    Anyway, what piqued my interest today was your musings on who is willing to pay for learning and how ‘learning’ is to be funded. I accept Alan Kay’s distinction between what students ‘want’ versus what they ‘need’, but could he expand a little on the alternatives to considering Universities as businesses. I don’t think of them as businesses, but I have great difficulty advancing a line of argument that convinces sceptics. Could Alan flesh his argument out a little, or point me to where he was written a little more on this.
    jonathan rees

  • 14. Cecily  |  October 26, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I totally agree with your sentiment that there is no profit in most current education systems…. but I also sense that we may be on the verge of a revolution in that area where things may change. Most of education is built on a one-size-fits-all government imposed monopoly at the moment. In secondary education, pay is strictly based on a formula that only takes into consideration how much education you have(anything after a Masters doesn’t really pay) and how many years of experience you have. How much your students learn is not part of the formula, and in a lot of ways the system encourages neglect of students that do not want to learn. The exact formula for budget is distribution is decided by administrators who have their own budgeting priorities that may or may not include increasing learning in your subject area. Most students have one local school where they can obtain a free education and they are forced to take classes taught by the one teacher with an endorsement in the correct area, hence the monopoly. The monopoly is further exacerbated by the fact that the schools are paid according to how many days they can hold the students hostage in the building and claim instructional hours. Now, imagine a bold, new world where instead of the money flowing directly to the local school to be spent by the local administrator, it flows directly to the student in the form of a voucher. The student is then free to take their voucher to the local school if they like the local offering, but they are also free to take the voucher to any online provider sanctioned by the state board of education. Online providers do not appear to have to meet instructional hour requirements. Now the monopoly is gone, and the student has choices, and perhaps we can begin to think about profits in education. Such a bold new program recently passed in the Utah legislature, and since I am fully licensed and endorsed to teach secondary computing here, I am seriously thinking about ways to leverage it in order to create quality,profitable, satisfying secondary computer science education.

    • 15. Eric Hennigan  |  October 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm

      As Kay mentioned above: wouldn’t the student use their voucher on something they thought they wanted, rather than something they needed? I mean, you’re asking them to make an investment decision about their education; which is good. But they have to make this decision prior to receiving the education; which is bad, because they don’t necessarily have the analytic skills necessary for making good choices.

      I think this voucher proposal puts quite a bit of blind faith into the education market’s ability to guide the student to chose what will actually be useful for them. I’m just not so sure that, when consumerism meets education, we can still make the claim that a competitive market outcome is better than a monopoly run by dedicated, educated, professionals.

      Case in point: I already see enough students taking courses to boost their GPA, rather than courses that will challenge them. Research in behavioral economics has led me to believe that that people are terrible at choosing things they actually need over things they merely want. So, if students have to make that choice before they’ve learned to distinguish the two… I’m left worried that we’ll end up providing a buffet-style education. Too broad, shallow, and entertaining; but not deep enough to make a real difference.

  • 16. Alfred Thompson  |  October 26, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Personally I believe that industry, especially the computing industry, has a need for students to be taught better. I regularly talk to executives from various companies who are unhappy with the quality of CS graduates. For some reason though most find it easier to find good smart people and finish their training internally – usually through on the job training – than to invest in fixing education. I’ve heard estimates that it takes as long as a year and a half to take a graduate from a very good CS program and make them fully productive.
    I’ve also heard some resistance from universities about making changes in curriculum and/or teaching style to meet the needs of industry. “We are not a vocational school!” So there is a perception among some that industry help beyond “here is a pile of money go have fun” is not that welcome by universities.
    I also believe that companies have an interest in helping build the pipeline in CS education. Here I see two companies, Microsoft and Google, actually investing some resources. Why more companies don’t get involved I have no idea.
    BTW if you quote me please refer to “some nut in New Hampshire” and not “an employee of a software company.” so I can stay an employee of that company. Thanks.

  • 17. Saad Farooq (@unimpeccable)  |  October 27, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Wow !!! All that from a old Macintosh. Maybe you should switch to Windows !!!

    I think there are a number of questions raised in this article. None have simple answers but I do think the part about funding for research is in some ways the responsibilities of researchers as well. The only reason for a corporate entity to invest in research is if it feels that there will be a return on that investment (barring defence, but boys will always want bigger guns). No monetary value can be seen in the educational research but some of it has to do with the researchers not portraying it as such historically. We also look at this work through the same eyes so it is unlikely that an educational research project will result in a viable business because the researcher would deem it anti-karmic to charge for the educational product.

    On the other hand, people might not want to buy that product. Again, I think researchers are at least partly responsible. Do we really all need handheld touch screen phones ?? Did we feel the same way a decade ago ??

    There is a large number of computing educational products but most, if not all, aren’t really about being polished end user products. And many have a value that the public can be made to realize. If that happens, more money will be available for researchers to maintain a competitive advantage. One simple case is Alice, the CMU software. They had funding from Oracle and EA and have been promising a version that uses the SIMS game engine for years. I’m guessing even those who would have been interested have moved on by now. A do-it yourself SIMS; how cool would that have been ?? Another is the LMS Blackboard. It still doesn’t feel it requires any research on the learning part because people are accepting these software as they are.

    It might still be a few years before a researcher gets the vision to see the monetary value in the products and gets a business going. Maybe then you can a new PC.

  • 18. Rob St. Amant  |  October 27, 2011 at 8:07 am

    I’ve also heard some resistance from universities about making changes in curriculum and/or teaching style to meet the needs of industry.

    My department has a large industrial advisory council that visits us once a year (perhaps twice) and tells us what they’d like to see from our graduates. Some suggestions are about the technical side of CS, but three others always come up as well: oral communication, written communication, and working in teams. We address these last in a few ways; we have a full-time non-CS staff member, for example, with experience in these areas, and several project courses. I’ve sometimes thought, though, that if communication and cooperating are big problems, that perhaps software companies could pump money into the liberal arts side side of universities and high schools to get the effects they’re interested in. We face a few challenges in doing it ourselves: the curriculum is full; budgets are falling; it’s not quite our area of expertise in CS.

    (This is a little bit different from the issue of whether we’re producing good computer scientists, an area that also needs work. That’s why I read Mark’s blog.)

    • 19. Bonnie MacKellar  |  October 27, 2011 at 9:56 am

      We hear the same story from our industrial board – they want good communicators, and people with a business sense. But when they go to interview candidates for technical positions, what do they evaluate them on? For the most part, their technical skills. Most employers in this area do “technical prescreens”, which are often lengthy phone-based or web-based tests of Java minutiae. Once the candidate gets to the interview, he or she is faced with more technical grilling as well as logic puzzles. There is an expectation that the candidate can explain his or her technical solutions, but little emphasis beyond that on communication skills. I think the people who are on industrial boards, who are typically very high level managers, are not making actual hiring decisions on technical staff, so they don’t know how decisions are actually being made.

    • 20. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      I don’t believe that liberal arts faculty are interested in or qualified to teach writing about technical subjects. The demands of the writing are quite different. If your CS faculty don’t care about the quality of their students’ writing and oral presentations, then the students won’t care either.

      I used to teach a tech writing course for computer engineers, alternating with another computer engineering professor. When I switched departments, they brought in a writing instructor to replace me, and the other faculty member eventually burned out also. The course is now a shadow of what it used to be. For example, the assignment for writing in-program documentation is gone, because the instructor has no way of judging the quality or providing meaningful feedback.

      Even when the course was going strong, the prior preparation (2 semesters of college writing courses) was totally inadequate, as students had not be taught the importance of clarity and correctness. Even more, students had not been taught how to organize a paper into sections and paragraphs—humanities writing uses a very different organizational style.

      Bottom-line: kicking this problem over the fence to the liberal arts is not going to do your students any favors. You have to bite the bullet and teach how to communicate in your discipline.

  • 21. Rob St. Amant  |  October 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    If your CS faculty don’t care about the quality of their students’ writing and oral presentations, then the students won’t care either.

    Of course we care, and I don’t think I indicated otherwise. That’s why we’re doing something about it.

    I was suggesting that we might approach the problem from a different direction, in addition to what we already do.

    • 22. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 27, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      Sorry. I must have misinterpreted “perhaps software companies could pump money into the liberal arts side side of universities and high schools to get the effects they’re interested in.” That sounds to me a lot like throwing the problem over the fence for someone else to deal with.

  • 23. Gilbert  |  October 28, 2011 at 4:42 am


    Something feels wrong to me about framing all of this in terms of profit and the bottom line. My roommate is an astronomy Ph.D. I’m pretty sure his research isn’t helping any companies or the DoD. Undergrads still major in Astronomy. I’m not sure this really does anything to help their bottom line.

    If you want to get corporate and DoD funding, more power to you, but that’s kind of f-ed up if you’re expected to. You need some basic resources to get your work done–your teaching work done. I don’t see why you should have to acquire grant funding for those.

    As far as why CS education doesn’t get as much respect as other CS research areas, there are plenty of social explanations that don’t involve money. CS education research is predominantly pursued by lecturers who are generally given second class status in departments. CS education research is (at least in large part) an applied social science, and many computer scientists look down on social science as lacking rigor. If I had to guess, I’d say that the economic value of a research area is not the dominant factor in determining respect and prestige.

    I don’t really have a good answer to the third question.

    • 24. Mark Guzdial  |  October 28, 2011 at 7:11 am

      Gilbert, I was talking about respect within the academy. Astronomy gets no respect. Medicine and Law rule. Money drives everything in universities. You’re right that social science isn’t well respected, and that does explain a lot, too. Now, why isn’t social science well respected? See previous point.

      • 25. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

        Being at a campus with no med school and no law school, I can’t comment on how much respect Medicine and Law get. But Astronomy is certainly highly respected on our campus (it helps that we have one of the best Astronomy departments in the country, and it probably also helps that they bring in money for managing observatories).

        The social sciences get less respect here, in part because they are not doing as well in scholarly reputation, but also because they accept students in their majors who are clearly at the bottom of the class. When you get a reputation for being the major of last resort for failing students, other academics do wonder whether there is any meat in your discipline. I suspect that is hurting academics who specialize in education also.

  • 26. Theron  |  October 28, 2011 at 11:06 am

    So, what would the right job look like?

  • […] touching on a similar issue to Rich DeMillo’s in From Abelard to Apple.  (I was just interviewed last week by Amber Settle at DePaul University for their podcast series, […]

  • 28. Richard Tong  |  November 12, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    I attended a seminar with Professor Roland G. Fryer ( He talked about his experiment in Houston to transform 20 public schools and showing great ROI in both economic term and changing thousands of children’s life for better. It is both encouraging and exciting to be part of the big effort through my work as well. I hope we will change 20 millions or more of children’s education experience for better and achieve “real” profit in the process.

  • […] for student learning. Homework can influence learning, if it’s quality homework. But if quality of learning is not the outcome variable that we care about, then homework is not an issue. We can just have students watch videos instead. The quantity of […]

  • […] another example of students-as-customers and ramifications of that perspective. If students dislike a teaching approach (even if it’s […]

  • […] pleased to see this question being raised in the national media, but I’m not sure that we have any way of answering the […]

  • […] discussion on reasonable effort).  What guarantees can you make about free courses?  Does course quality matter? Share this:EmailDiggRedditFacebookPrintStumbleUponTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  • […] aren’t generating the quality to be much of an impact on traditional universities. Maybe quality doesn’t matter all that much in higher education (as discussed previously), but it does matter if the sense of quality (or lack thereof) impacts success in the job marketplace. […]

  • […] MOOC that can replace what is going on in my classrooms this summer.  Now, society can decide that what I’m offering isn’t worthwhile, or is too expensive, or can be offered to too few st….  Maybe that’s the real danger of MOOCs — it offers something for free (to the […]

  • […] John Henry in this analogy.  Sure, they may do a better job than that steam-powered education, but cheap and plentiful is more important than quality, isn’t it?  Taking the analogy in a different direction, the teachers who are building the new Coursera […]

  • […] a new, low-cost option at the upper end of the higher-education spectrum.  He wants to create an inexpensive, high-quality “Elite” (to use Rich DeMillo’s term): An E-Ivy, or an ubiquitously-accessible Stanford.  The low […]

  • 37. Loving Coursera MOOCs | jill/txt  |  October 16, 2012 at 6:14 am

    […] that can replace what is going on in my classrooms this summer.  Now, society can decide that what I’m offering isn’t worthwhile, or is too expensive, or can be offered to too few students, ….  Maybe that’s the real danger of MOOCs — it offers something for free (to the students) that […]

  • […] won’t learn as much. This sounds like evidence for the argument made a while back that quality isn’t really a critical variable in decision-making about higher education. Completion rates and cost are two of the most critical variables in the Time […]

  • 39. Page not found « Computing Education Blog  |  October 25, 2012 at 9:31 am

    […] Most Americans want … on There is No Profit in Educatio… […]


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