What If We Could Cut the Cost of a College Education…

by Dave Schuler on February 27, 2013

…in half? Or more? Joanne Jacobs reports on the effectiveness of a “hybrid class” that combines online instruction with a on hour face-to-face session:

College statistics students in a hybrid class — online instruction plus a one-hour face-to-face session — performed slightly better than the control group and spent 1.7 fewer hours per week on the course, write William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, Kelly A. Lack and Thomas I. Nygren in Education Next.

“The effect of the hybrid-format course did not vary when controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, parental education, primary language spoken, score at the standardized pretest, hours worked for pay, or college GPA,” the authors report.

The lecture format used in so many colleges and universities originated in, roughly, the 13th century. It is not so perfect a technology that it cannot be improved using some of the developments in telecommunications and information technology that have come about over the last 800 years.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds February 27, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Hybrid classes are transitional. In the end it goes fully on-line, which will cut the price by far more than half, and put a lot of universities out of business. After all, if all the courses are online, why would I listen to Associate Professor Schmo from Missouri, when I can get Professor Poobah from Harvard for only a slight increase in cost?

You’ll be able to mix-n-match. MIT for physics, the Sorbonne for art, Columbia for English. Unit pricing. You’ll be able to fit college around your schedule and geography will be irrelevant. No rush to complete in four years, why not take ten if that suits you better?

You could have one expensive full prof and a bunch of cheap TA’s plus computer-grading, and handle a thousand students. No need for a physical plant and fewer tenured PhD’s, global competition, prices will fall like a rock.

Dave Schuler February 27, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I don’t know what the best solution is from a pedagogical standpoint, Michael. I doubt that anyone else does, either.

However, I find it incredible that teaching at the university level is pretty much the same as it was in William of Ockham’s time. There’s no scientific basis for it. It’s nostalgia run riot.

I think that you or I would do equally well (or poorly) regardless of the academic setting. We’re not really the targets for university education. I think the targets are prospective professionals (between one sigma and two sigma), a little bit below, and a little bit above.

jan February 27, 2013 at 1:42 pm

One of the few times I find common ground with Michael, is the future of on-line classes.

A friend of mine recently received her BA taking all on-line classes. I met her afterwards in a class setting for some post graduate work, and she was at first a little lost with real people sitting around and interacting with her!

It’s similar to renewing one’s professional licenses … I used to piecemeal my CE units by going to seminars, which was time consuming and expensive. Now, I just do home study courses, and can chose from such a variety of subjects, doing the work on my own time.

PD Shaw February 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm

In my undergrad days, attendance at lecture tended to vary based upon student perception of the value of the lecture to the exam(s). I don’t know how well that worked, I attended every lecture as long as I wasn’t bed-ridden. It may also play into things that I am not a particularly good note-taker, nor do I feel like I absorb lecture material through other people’s notes.

OTOH, for one of my economic statistics courses, I don’t think my t.a. lecturer could have passed an English fluency exam. The schools themselves do not always treat all of their lectures as important either.

PD Shaw February 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm

One of the schools out East recently said that they would no longer accept AP credits without an independent test. That seems to open up an approach to introductory courses that can be satisfied by testing, perhaps irregardless of whether you also took a specific course.

Icepick February 27, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I’m not sure what the big deal is about ‘on-line’. We had tele-courses at UF in the 1990s. They were boring as Hell, though. I’d’ve much preferred sitting in a lecture hall working on the crossword from The Alligator.

michael reynolds February 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Have you guys seen this? This is the famous SOLE experiment in which computers are left with illiterate children.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sugata-mitra/2013-ted-prize_b_2767598.html

This is basically how we learn most of what we know. Babies don’t go to school, but they learn the substructure of language and spoken language, they learn basic physics (No, mommy has not ceased to exist, she’s in the other room), they learn gestural language, some bits of math, and they do all this while still wetting themselves.

This is how I learned. (Without the wetting.) Not from school. Definitely not from school. My son learned to read by some process we don’t understand. One day he started reading street signs – Dempster I recall distinctly. No one taught him.

I am increasingly convinced that formal education does as much harm as good. We force feed subjects when kids have no interest and manage to turn them off to it. I had no interest in history at age 12 — who the hell does? And why should they? Now, if I had to retire tomorrow, I’d spend my days reading history.

It starts in early education and continues up through university. We’re taking a natural, organic process and making it miserable and ineffective all in the interests of uniformity and so that we can warehouse kids.

steve February 27, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I think that a relatively small percentage of kids will be able to learn much online. THe idea appeals to bright people who are out of school. Could probably be used well for big survey courses where kids are just passing a required course.

Steve

Andy February 27, 2013 at 6:20 pm

I don’t know, it seems that college education is mostly about credentialing and status. When anyone can get a Harvard education, then the value and prestige of being a “Harvard man” diminishes considerably.

Then there’s the fact that online course mean colleges could cut most of their professors.

I don’t think the established educational system are at all interested in either of these options and so I don’t think things will change much anytime soon.

Dave Schuler February 27, 2013 at 8:06 pm

Could probably be used well for big survey courses where kids are just passing a required course.

I don’t know what things are like now or at other schools but at my (elite) alma mater most students spent their first two years in large lectures, fulfilling prerequisites for more advanced studies.

Icepick February 27, 2013 at 8:22 pm

I don’t know, it seems that college education is mostly about credentialing and status. When anyone can get a Harvard education, then the value and prestige of being a “Harvard man” diminishes considerably.

Which is why Harvard is NEVER going to put their courses online for the masses. Will not happen.

Then there’s the fact that online course mean colleges could cut most of their professors.

At elite institutions, and institutions that aspire to eventual elite status, professors aren’t there to teach. They’re there to do research. Online courses would cut the need for TAs and adjuncts, however. But that would mean schools cutting back on their graduate student admissions (and eventual emissions), which might be contra-indicated.

Big changes aren’t likely to come from the major institutions at the apex of the current pyramid. It will have to be outsiders.

Icepick February 27, 2013 at 8:23 pm

I’ll also point out that there is a very large education/financial/government complex that is dependent on things staying the way they are. You think those education colleges are going to give up that easily? Not to mention the med schools. Or any of them, really.

Drew February 27, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Various:

1) I wouldn’t want to have entered into what I do today without a first grounding in formal education followed by what was basically an apprenticeship. Its not either/or; its both. That tells me there is great bias in this thread. I read some of the comments here and elsewhere about business/investment/finance etc and shake my head. Shorter: some of you don’t know what you don’t know.

2) Yes, early year formal college level education is dominated by TA’s and large lecture venues. But that’s because its just the rudimentary basics. Read the book, attend the lecture. When you have a basic grounding we can go to where the action is. If you can’t bifurcate the activities I think you’ve entirely missed the point.

3) To continue that thought, I wouldn’t trade for all the tea in China the post-basics more intimate educational opportunity afforded by high level institutions and professors who were/are leaders in their fields – Reinhardt Schumann or Prof. Sato at Purdue for physics and extractive metallurgy; Gene Fama, Ken Fisher or Kevin Murphy at Chicago for derivatives, corporate finance and economics. You don’t get the same experience on line. You may THINK you do. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. Test: what does the efficient market hypothesis REALLY say?

3) steve says: I think that a relatively small percentage of kids will be able to learn much online. The idea appeals to bright people who are out of school.

Can’t agree more. There are times when you can self teach to a degree. Probably Michael’s very early childhood for certain things. Maybe later in life, when more accomplished. Question: who do you want to treat you in the ER, steve, or a Phoenix U educated doc? Investing your money, me, or some on line guy from Roosevelt College who moonlights on the Saturday radio shows? (That’s a loaded question, but with me you would do quite well, thank you. ) When they wheel you into the OR to do that spine surgery…….you get the point…….my guy was at Texas Back. (steve will get that reference) No online BS.

4) I don’t know, it seems that college education is mostly about credentialing and status.

There is a lot to that statement, but it misses the point of playing to the competition. We understand that in sports. We seem to discount it in education.

5) At elite institutions, and institutions that aspire to eventual elite status, professors aren’t there to teach. They’re there to do research.

This is simply false.

6) I’ll also point out that there is a very large education/financial/government complex that is dependent on things staying the way they are.

You bet. Dave made one of the great observations of institutional behavior (government, corporate or education) on any website recently: start at the top and get rid most of the administrators. Now THAT would reduce education costs. And no one would notice……………President “Sequestration is the End of the World” Obama.

Icepick February 27, 2013 at 11:25 pm

This is simply false.

LOL, yeah, John Thompson is all about teaching the undergraduates! That’s why the only people attending his lectures were his PhD students and other tenured professors….

PD Shaw February 28, 2013 at 7:54 am

I read recentlyfrom one of of Tolkien’s students at Oxford* that the professor was a horrible lecturer, usually talking down into his books or with his back to classroom. The lecture audience thinned out over the term to just a few students, whom thought he was lecturing poorly just so he could recaputre the time to himself.

* from a Dianne Wynne-Jones autobiography

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 8:05 am

Professors at big time universities, and lesser institutions as well, don’t get tenure because of their teaching ability. Some like to teach and do it well. Others put forth an effort and do or do not do well, according to their ability. And some teach certain courses well but not others. (Linear Algebra courses heavy on theory are generally difficult to teach. One professor told me that he had known someone that did teach the course well while confessing that he hated teaching the course.)

If as an undergraduate one gets a professor that is both a good and motivated teacher, that is quite by accident.

PD Shaw February 28, 2013 at 8:46 am

Right, Icepick. I’ll be convinced that colleges value teaching as much as research and publishing, when they show that they are investing in it. Does the college require a teacher to have previous training in teaching? Does it require a teacher to pass an English fluency exam? Does the college provide financial and nonfiancial compensation for quality teaching as it does for research and publications? Is tenure based upon being a good teacher or number of quality publications and research grants? Has the graduate student received as much training in public speaking as he/she has in technical writing?

steve February 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

“Not to mention the med schools. ”

Feel free to go see the docs who did all of their training online.

“Professors at big time universities, and lesser institutions as well, don’t get tenure because of their teaching ability. Some like to teach and do it well. Others put forth an effort and do or do not do well, according to their ability.”

This is an important point. I am not sure how to get around it. Our prior minister also taught Physics at a local university. Bright guy, good speaker. Was voted best teacher by the students. But, given the time he also devoted to our church, he really wasnt doing research. If he had opted to stay with teaching, it would have been a relatively low paying job with no shot at tenure. OTOH, especially at elite schools, you are going there to learn from the guys at the cutting edge doing the research (more so at the graduate level, but still true for upper level undergrad). Unfortunately, these guys may or may not have good teaching skills, but by and large, I think they are mostly really interested in passing on what they know and recruiting students to study what they study. When you devote your life to studying one small part of the universe, most people are pretty enthusiastic about it.

I think they may need more of a two tier system that will reward good teaching. We already do this a bit in medicine. Maybe use the “teachers” more for entry level courses. (Even with this I have to confess it would be a loss to not have Mankiw for econ 10 (101). One of my best friends had Milton Friedman for his econ 101. Guess I was lucky, but I distinctly remember having a lot of interaction with my undergrad profs. In my last semester I took a course in business law. I was the only science major, along with a bunch of business majors. I loved the course and answered all the questions, sometimes arguing with the guy. The other students sat there like lumps. At the last class he told me I didnt need to take the final, I had an A.

All that said, I think there is room for a hybrid system that could save costs.

Steve

sam February 28, 2013 at 9:20 am

I once went for an interview for a teaching position (=Asst. Sub-Junior Professor) when I was a graduate student. The chairman of the department told me the job was, his exact words, ‘junk-teaching’ (it was a job teaching intro philosophy to stressed-out STEM majors at a “great American university”.)

I got the job. And loved it, but then I love teaching more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. And from what they told me, the students enjoyed the classes. But that ‘junk-teaching’ remark has stayed with me all these years later. I despised that attitude then, and I find it even more despicable now.

michael reynolds February 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm

It’s not surprising that an institution that is now centuries old would create a sort of paradigm prison and that people raised up in that system would have difficulty seeing beyond it. But just as we moved over time from education-by-tutor, or far more frequently education-by-experience to a system of industrialized education, we will move beyond this into something new and different. When? Don’t know. But we’ll see revolutionary changes in the next 20 years and beyond.

We are teaching people the wrong things, in the wrong way, at the wrong times, and doing it both expensively and poorly to boot.

I understand this makes people defensive of their own learning. But it’s just possible that our prized educations were sub-optimum.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm

I’ll be convinced that colleges value teaching as much as research and publishing, when they show that they are investing in it. Does the college require a teacher to have previous training in teaching?

Wait, I thought you wanted them to teach well.

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Feel free to go see the docs who did all of their training online.

Please find a statement of mine that conforms to your straw man argument. I happen to believe in the value of formal training for the most demanding careers.

Drew February 28, 2013 at 4:26 pm

“Guess I was lucky, but I distinctly remember having a lot of interaction with my undergrad profs………”

My experience as well. Three of us took Schumann’s grad level class in thermo. Just 3. An Indian, a Chinese guy and me. We could hardly talk to each other. But in the vernacular of phase diagrams and kinetics it was magic. BTW – it was pre-ordained we all got “A’s.” If you survived, it was an A.

You don’t forget that stuff. You don’t forget a guy like Prof. Sato with the proverbial pulsating brain who would make certain self important types on this blog whither.

I think I understand Michael’s general point, for he and I share a certain disdain for authority and norms. But I still think that wholesale rejection of formal education is problematic. For the vast majority there is a starting point; grounding. Then, as steve says, take over the plane, its yours………gulp. Hey steve! How did you feel the first time you cut?

PD Shaw February 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm

“Wait, I thought you wanted them to teach well.”

Good one. I mainly had in mind a comment I believe James Joyner had made about how ridiculous the system was in which he and others had become very knowledgeable about a concentrated area of study and academic writing, being told to teach classes that may or may not be in their area of interest without demonstrating any ability to teach. I don’t know what training I would expect, but perhaps something?

Icepick February 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Three of us took Schumann’s grad level class in thermo.

That’s a little different from taking Physics w/ Calc 1 with several hundred of your closest friends. You think the profs in that section are engaged with their students?

There’s some validity to the idea of a rigorous formal education. I believe this is even true for younger people, as well. Letting people study only what they’re interested in is a guarantee that very few EVER study algebra … or even learn their fractions.

I have no problem with the idea of a formal education, especially in some fields. The starting questions are “What should be taught to whom?, “How should these things be taught?”, and “When should they be taught?”

* Who/whom? I don’t care.

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