Technology can help Universities with specialized programs, not with undergraduates

November 14, 2011 at 8:58 am 2 comments

An interesting take, from the NYTimes, on how Stanford’s president sees the on-line Stanford AI class experiment.  The virtual campus is for “specialized programs,” for going beyond the undergraduate experience.  The evidence that technology leads to better learning isn’t there, and the undergraduate experience is better face-to-face.  Further, Universities need the money — someone has to pay for the content.

The market for “continuing education” is potentially much larger than undergraduate.  After those four years of college, there are a lot more years in a rapidly-changing workplace.  Maybe that’s where the real money lies?  Could providing the on-going, lifelong learning be the place where some of the costs for the face-to-face undergraduate education are carried?  Maybe the content gets paid for by the lifelong learners, and the undergrads get it at reduced cost?  Recall what John Daniel said about the US Open University — it failed because it went after undergraduate first, not graduate.

John Hennessy, Stanford’s president, gave the university’s blessing to Thrun’s experiment, which he calls “an initial demonstration,” but he is cautious about the grander dream of a digitized university. He can imagine a virtual campus for some specialized programs and continuing education, and thinks the power of distributed learning can be incorporated in undergraduate education — for example, supplanting the large lecture that is often filled with students paying more attention to their laptops. He endorses online teaching as a way to educate students, in the developing world or our own, who cannot hope for the full campus experience.

But Hennessy is a passionate advocate for an actual campus, especially in undergraduate education. There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills, he says. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.

As The Times’s Matt Richtel recently reported, there is remarkably little data showing that technology-centric schooling improves basic learning. It is quite possible that the infatuation with technology has diverted money from things known to work — training better teachers, giving kids more time in school.

THE Stanford president is hardly a technophobe. Hennessy came up through computer engineering, used his sabbatical to start a successful microprocessor company, and sits on the boards of Google and Cisco Systems.

“In the same way that a lot of things go into the cost of a newspaper that have nothing to do with the quality of the reporting — the cost of newsprint and delivery — we should ask the same thing about universities,” Hennessy told me. “When is the infrastructure of the university particularly valuable — as it is, I believe, for an undergraduate residential experience — and when is it secondary to the learning process?”

But, he notes, “One has to think about the sustainability of all these things. In the end, the content providers have to get paid.”

via The University of Wherever –

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  November 14, 2011 at 9:21 am

    It might be difficult today to show that the printed book enhances learning in HS and UG.

    It certainly changed Europe and then America … but what does it mean if it no longer is a factor in HS and UG?

    On the other hand, if the book “did and does” enhance learning and education, then it’s hard to imagine that the computer couldn’t do quite a bit better.

    The first factor could be a real problem with schools, oral media, and students.

    The second factor could be a real problem with schools, educators and computerists …



  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  November 14, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Computers are now getting cheap enough that they are beginning to provide a cheaper way to provide access to information than books do. I think that price will be a driving factor, rather than the richer capabilities of computers.

    Right now, I can still get better deals on used books than I can on computerized access to the same info, with a few exceptions (like Wikipedia, python documentation, other open-source projects). As long as e-book text books cost more than used paper copies (which they do currently), e-book delivery of material will be unattractive. (Note: I’m looking just at the cost of the content, not of the platform, as the computer hardware keeps getting cheaper and bookcases more expensive.)

    Video lectures and other, more sophisticated attempts to use the greater capabilities of computers for teaching have not been terribly successful. For one thing, they are often much slower than books to provide the same education, without the social benefits of in-person classes. It is also much more difficult and expensive to produce a good video series than it is to produce a good book, and more sophisticated online teaching tools are even harder and more expensive to do well.

    I doubt that on-line universities will replace brick-and-mortar ones for some time. Most of the online schools now are based on a business model of tricking students into taking out huge loans and handing the money over to the school, without really providing anything in return.

    Colleges and universities are selling an experience that is hard to duplicate on-line. Unfortunately, many have marketed it as a job-providing credential, which it isn’t in most cases. Whether the experience justifies the price tag of a university education is now open to question—it certainly used to be, back in the 60s and 70s, when college was much more affordable, but the price has risen rather dramatically.


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