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04 January 2013


Douglas Keachie

Part of the problem now for young people, is identifying what, will pay when they graduate, and then into the foreseeable future, such that the investment is a sound one. Obviously being a university instructor is being fast tracked to the siding gas station attendants have been sitting on for the last 40 years. What other occupations will be automated to death? It doesn't even look like most areas in medicine will escape that fate either, except for the top specialists. And that other question? Who rakes in and enjoys the loot? Football and basketball coaches are currently the highest paid state employees in California. We seem to be a gladiator culture.

Russ Steele

NATHAN HARDEN writing at The American Interest supports many of the points that George makes in his post:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.


The figures are alarming, the anecdotes downright depressing. But the real story of the American higher-education bubble has little to do with individual students and their debts or employment problems. The most important part of the college bubble story—the one we will soon be hearing much more about—concerns the impending financial collapse of numerous private colleges and universities and the likely shrinkage of many public ones. And when that bubble bursts, it will end a system of higher education that, for all of its history, has been steeped in a culture of exclusivity. Then we’ll see the birth of something entirely new as we accept one central and unavoidable fact: The college classroom is about to go virtual.

Here are links to some of the MOOC Universities:

Coursera is a consortium of 33 universities that provide free college level courses in 20 different categories.

edX is a not-for-profit enterprise of its founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the web. UC Berkeley, University of Texas, Wellesley, and George Town University have joined edX.

Marginal Revolution University: On-line education, most of all in economics, is the focus of Marginal Revolution University. Development Economics is the topic of our inaugural class. Supported by George Mason University and the Mercatus Center. The Mercatus Center is the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas—bridging the gap between academic ideas and real-world problems.

Arizona State University OnLine ($) Applicants can earn a degree online and receive the same diploma as on campus students.


I think you're reading too much into this, as the information content of the on line courses is no more disruptive than the text book is in the first place. Maybe less.

In simpler times many gave themselves a good education by a directed program of reading the books in a good library. How is this different?

Russ Steele


I took an R programing course in Data Analysis Using R by a John Hopkins University Professor, one of the Coursera Universities. We had video lectures, online pop quizzes, end of lecture quizzes and programing exercises. We wrote programs that were submitted and graded by a computer program written to analyze the submitted code.

There were student forums that we could use to help with the learning process. By lurking on the forum I snagged some tips that help solve some of my programing stumbling blocks. I learned a lot by reviewing the lectures, and the ability to pause and go back was great. “What did he say?”

Unfortunately I had to drop out 3/4s of the way through the course when life got in the way. I will redo the course later this spring.

I wanted to evaluate the experience and found it very rewarding. I will be taking more courses on subjects that Interest me, especially R programing.

Hope this helps.

Michael Anderson

GG, I think MOOCs will increase the number of autodidacts drastically. And it will decrease the number of "teachers" necessary to impart information, facilitate learning, and evaluate progress with students. It's just more automation at work in the 21st century.

I have no idea what all the idle workers will do once the machines are doing everything, but I have a certain amount of confidence that we'll figure it out somehow. The bottom line is that there will be less physical facilities, and less human beings, devoted to the teaching function 50 yrs. from now than there are today. And there will be a lot more students needing educational services during this decrease in the number of teachers, which will all work out fine in the end.

Douglas Keachie

Of course I think it was Edison who supposedly said during the 1920's that by the 1980's, all instruction would be on film, and books would be obsolete. Let's not forget about TED as a learning experience, when making the lists. Sample below:

Now one minor problem, where to house and how to fund all the researchers at universities such that basic curiosity driven research can still be part of our culture? Yes I know the system is already warped by various industry and political forces, but at least the semi-fiction of pay for teaching did provide some insulation.


Russ, sorry, but I wasn't in need of help. Yes, online courses can impart information.

So do books.

MA, just why would online courses increase autodidacticism more than all the books in the world being online would? Or a great sampling of all the books in the world being available in the library a few miles down the road? Or from Amazon?

It's just one more way to learn, and there's nothing magic about lectures at top tier universities: they aren't all gems, and they tend to be aimed at their top tier students who have the prerequisite study under their belts.

Steve Frisch

Although MOOC's are but one more way to learn, the free availability of the information, coupled with the ability to target learning to bolster specific skills, is somewhat revolutionary. I believe Greg is correct that apprenticeship, or self-learning could fill the same void, and has traditionally, but making filling the void easier and more equally accessible will have a dramatic impact. I've used MOOC's liberally since their rise, taking courses from Coursea, Stanford, Duke, and MIT, and use Khan Academy to hone specific skills. I encourage my entire staff to do the same, and we are starting to provide them with what we will call 'skill development' time to do so partly on company time (although continuing education is something I consider a human responsibility and I choose not to hire people who have not demonstrated that tendency).

Ben Emery

There are many studies that do a cost benefit analysis of public higher education. The low return on every dollar invested was five dollars and the high is twelve dollars in return in increased taxed revenue over a lifetime for every dollar we invest in the higher education for those who can qualify for university and for those who qualify for vocational education.

Green Party calls for a Student Debt Jubilee, urges student protests against skyrocketing tuition costs

WASHINGTON, DC -- Green Party leaders spoke out on education at the beginning of the New Year and called for a student debt jubilee and free tuition to state colleges and universities in 2013.

Jill Stein, 2012 Green Party nominee for President: "A student debt jubilee, with forgiveness for all student loans, would be more than just a New Year's gift for students and former students enduring crushing student loan debt while facing dim prospects in today's job market. Freeing students from the debt trap would be comparable to the GI Bill, enacted after World War II, which sent millions of veterans to college and helped jumpstart America's postwar period of unprecedented prosperity. Instead of buying up $40 billion a month in toxic mortgage securities, we should be buying up student loans and forgiving them. Instead of bailing out the banks, whose waste, fraud, and abuse caused the economic crisis, we should be bailing out the students who are the victims of that crisis."

Alex Shantz, Youth Caucus delegate to the Green Party's National Committee and co-chair for the Green Party of California: "Students in the U.S. are being cheated. Skyrocketing tuition costs have burdened today's students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars as interest compounds. Financial sector companies, including Sallie Mae, have turned higher education into a scheme for indentured servitude, with many students stuck in low-paying jobs. The current system is creating compliant workers for Big Business and is resegregating our schools by race and economic class. Meanwhile, students in Europe enjoy free or low-cost college tuition at state-run colleges and universities."

Samantha Rocknowski, co-chair of the Green Party's Youth Caucus: "I have about $43,000 in student loans, and I'm still without a full-time job a year after finishing school, for all the money I spent getting a higher education. There are millions of college graduates with debts like mine or worse ( We need a student movement against the debt trap and mounting tuition costs -- a movement that's comparable to the student protests of the 1960s. Jill Stein made the $1 trillion student debt crisis and the need for drastic change a top priority in her campaign as the Green Party's 2012 presidential nominee. This debt is a drag on the U.S. economy, while bipartisan austerity measures, combined with high military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy, are only creating more debt and making more students and graduates helpless. We urge students in the U.S. to stand up and protest -- like the students in Quebec who demonstrated en masse against tuition hikes in 2012 and won concessions."


Frisch, the information is already freely available, in books. For example, one of the online courses I might bother with for some fun is a CS lecture class on algorithms by a Roger Sedgewick. What makes that interesting is that Sedgewick's book, "Algorithms in C" has been on my bookshelf for 20 years (as a backup to the classic texts by Knuth) and I might pick up some nuances by sitting in on a versions in Java.

Absolutely no validation of the seat time is given so, as far as convincing someone you've gained knowledge in that subject, it's roughly equivalent to saying you worked through the book.


Ben, the cost benefit analysis for higher ed is skewed by the fact that a high school diploma is no longer a sign of basic literacy and numeracy. The most bang for the buck would be a 'forward into the past' high school diploma that signifies the grad is as literate and numerate as, say, the average (or below) Cal State Anthropology or PoliSci grad and let them take the jobs that such majors are now competing for that don't require specific knowledge.

Even at public colleges, the financial aid counselors have done many students a disservice of walking students though a faulty analysis of their future ability to pay back their loans. Ben, the answer isn't a gift to all students of Other People's Money that they spent on a college education, but to put student loans back into the purview of bankruptcy courts. And stop pushing students into accepting crushing amounts of debt. Some who deserve a college education can't afford it, and some who don't deserve one have the money for it and there will be a "college" out there that will be happy to take their money.

Russ Steele

The trend toward part time employment with limited benefits will present a huge challenge for recent college graduates looking for a job. Many of these part time assignments will only pay enough to scrape by, but will not be enough to pay off huge educational loans, buy a house or a car. Lending institution are looking for applicants with a steady job and good money management skills. The required economic stability is hard to achieve when only working part time, or on a job-by-job basis.

Given this trend high school graduates may want to develop an education and job shop strategy that addresses this new reality in the labor market. Rather than going off to college and running up burdensome loans that come due upon graduation, graduates might want to consider developing skill sets using the free, or low cost, on line education opportunities offer by name brand Universities, like Harvard, MIT, John Hopkins, and others listed in this Coursera catalog ( )or, this edX catalog (

Online universities that provide completion certificates will change the higher education market by providing a high school graduates an opportunity to develop an employable skill set at a reasonable cost. It will also allow collage graduates who are now part timers and contractors to improve their skill sets with competition certificates that more closely match the needs of potential employers. When hiring a part time, the hiring agent is not interested if the student graduated from a Top 10 University, only if he or she has the skill set needed to complete the part time task.

Online education is a good match for part time and on call employees; it allows them to keep honing their skills sets to increase their employment potential. They can complete the courses on their own time line, rather than the campus classroom schedule. For just in time employees, attending regular classes is an impossible challenge due to the shifting work schedules. Employees that seek scheduling adjustments to attend classes are often dropped to the bottom of the calling list. This limits their income even more; therefore being available is an important factor of their success.

The growth in part time employment will enhance the success the of online universities, which in turn will assist those doing shift work to sharpen there skill sets. These factors will become disruptive elements in labor and education markets.


Russ, you keep missing the largest value added service top tier colleges provide... the selection of students that they think can make use of the education provided there, and the weeding out of those who just couldn't hack it.

It isn't the quality of the information being better at Caltech, it's the quality of the student coming in the door, and professors that came from the same pool that understands how much info that can be thrown into the fan. Read the Feynman Lectures on Physics, if you can; even at CalTech, a professor had to make sure enough gets thrown out to make sure the best students had to struggle some, but enough that is at a lower level so that the slowest students (faster than the fastest at many other colleges) can still understand enough to not be demoralized.


Please also note that there are no "skill sets" yet to be available at any of the free course sites. It's just a sampler.

This is not a disruptive technology, just an update of a very old one:

Russ Steele


I am not suggesting that student should not attend Universities such as CalTech or CalPoly. I think our best and brightest should become engineers and scientist and use the research tools that a major university has at their disposal. There will be good paying jobs for these students. Those well paying jobs should cover any student loans, and really bright students get scholarships to help. However, all those students who are not up to entering Stanford or UCLA engineering, CalPoly or CalTech, should not be studying soft subject degrees on student loans that will be very difficult to payback. I am suggesting a better strategy would be to learn a programing language, engineering graphic arts, network certificate, along with some business courses, and sharpen the math skills that were not taught very well in high school. These skills sets will produce better jobs than a degree in Phycology, English Lit, History, Black Studies, Archeology, etc. Skill sets that can be, or soon will be, acquired without running up huge loans. Many of tomorrows graduates will be come just in time employees, just like industry adopted just in time manufacturing to reduce cost, the labor force is on it's way to be come just in time brain power, to augment the robots doing the grunt work. As machines get smarter and smarter the need for middle management paper pushers will vanish. Those humans with an industry adaptable skill set will survive and prosper. I am not sure what will happen to those who are unwilling to invest their time and energy in gaining and maintaining adaptable skill sets.



Sorry, but most knowledge isn't just a bullet point in a skill set that an HR type can check off.

Russ, the "skill set" most lacking among the young remains basic literacy and numeracy. If someone can read, they can pick up what they want to learn pretty easily... it's one of my little secrets, but most of what I needed to know to get through my interview for my first EE job for digital systems design was from a tear out section on gate level logic from Popular Electronics. Of course, I already had a *solid* theoretical understanding from a fresh BS Physics that included much, if not most, of the EE curriculum. What the hiring manager didn't know didn't hurt him.

What you seem to be saying is that it's better to not pay $100K or more for a useless degree if you can just take a few online courses and learn some useful buzzwords and how to do a few useful things in the process. I can't disagree with that, but the issue there is the useless $100K degree, not the comparative value between an online course (or its 1960's equivalent, the mail order course) and getting a good book.

A sad claim of fact I ran across recently was that the average black kid leaves high school with the literacy and numeracy the average white or Asian kid has in the 8th grade. If true, that would be the biggest tragedy of the soft racism of low expectations rampant in the K-12 ed biz.

Douglas Keachie

If there was only one royal road to C++ or whatever, there would be only one book needed. However, we have many, and this is reflective of the fact that different folks, learn easiest through different strokes, and one of the best skills to learn is, how to pick sources that are easiest for you to learn from. At Cal I found that I would pick the best lecturer, and then come back and buy his book selections, just to have it covered, but then I would try all the other books from the other profs. Oftentimes their choices were easier for me to learn from, and thus I bought a few of those, too.

This of course applies to online information/instruction as well.

George Rebane

A rich discussion indeed. However, I do think that there's a little talking past each other because of the number of independent topics/issues being intermingled. To list just a few -
* the efficacy of modern MOOCs in cost, performance, and reach;
* the environments (public, private, institutional, corporate, ...) in which MOOCs will be used for greatest profit, therefore setting their adoption sequence and regimes;
* the integration of MOOCs into established learning channels that involve overcoming resistance of various political dimensions;
* the impact on MOOC developments in the world's militaries which have already adopted both the technology and the paradigm.
* the melding of MOOCs into generally intelligent systems that can also communicate through advanced interface using haptics, olfactory, and direct neural stimulation;
* the end of MOOCs as machine intelligence becomes the neural extension of all homo sapiens that obsoletes the guru/grasshopper paradigm of instruction.

In the meanwhile I notice that MOOCs can also enjoy the reception that was first afforded telephones, automobiles, and computers. Oh well.


George, "MOOC"'s are the latest BSO (Bright, Shiny Object) to hit education. I've no doubt it will settle down when it finds the right niche, but I doubt there will be megabucks of monetization of the ideas. More likely a relieving of professors from some of the more mundane instructional chores and not a wholesale destruction of the current educational model.

Again, I see the big problem with the costs of a baccalaureate more due to the quality of K-12 education and the deterioration of the meaning of a high school diploma. Stop bureaucracies, public and private, from demanding a BA in Something Useless in order to get someone who can read and write at least at the 12th grade level, and they'll be more likely to hire someone with a real high school diploma.

BTW flow charts are so 1960's ;)

Joe Koyote

The hydrogen bomb is much like on-line learning..just because the technology is available doesn't mean it has to be used. That is not to say there is no place for on-line/distance learning as it does quite well for teaching skill sets that are highly defined and structured. However, there are some drawbacks to these as well. It requires self-motivated students because of the non-determinate time frames. Without having to be in class, the student has to create the time to do the work, which the unmotivated have a hard time accomplishing. Some students do well in this situation and others don't. Those that do, often cite the freedom to time-shift school to fit their schedules as their favorite feature. Those that don’t often cite a lack of engagement and the inability to have their questions answered in a timely manner as large problems.

A recent study at UCLA looked at learning and recall using hard copy books versus a computer screen. While both groups were given the same material and tests, those who read the material from a book consistently did better than the screen learners. The study suggests that the portion of the brain that processes video information is not as well adapted for recall as is that part of the brain that processes static print.

The real problem, I think, with distance learning is isolation and interaction. Without immediate feedback from other students and instructors, misperceptions and misunderstandings go unchallenged leaving the student with false assumptions. Without discussion that can provoke a students imaginations and thought processes, the student often become nothing more than a parrot regurgitating what they read or heard without stopping to synthesize the information. The net result is that many students never acquire adequate critical thinking skills because they seldom have had to grapple with their own thoughts, let alone the thoughts of others. Uncritical thinkers are not good in critical times.

Russ Steele


Have you examined the Khan Academy’s flipped class approach, where the students read the lessons online and observe the instruction examples on their own time and then do what would normally be the home work in the class where the teacher is available to answer the students questions. There are tool sets to enable the teacher to follow the students process and quickly ID those having a problem.

Wired has an excellent article HERE:

The article also introduces some critics to the inverted class room process. You may find some comfort in those critiques.

Russ Steele

I am currently reading Samuel Arbesman’s Half-Life of FACTS, How every thing we know has an expiration date on my Kindle Fire. Since we are talking about education technology, I was wondering how many of the people commenting here use a Kindle or Kindle Fire to read books these days.

I still buy paper books, but I am being drawn more to the Kindle as the onboard library grows. I no longer have to search the house for a book, it is on the Kindle and I love the Dictionary feature. High light a word and up pops the definition. If I need more information I can search for the word in the Book, on Wikipedia or the Web with out moving from my chair. One draw back is that I cannot make notes in the margin -- yet, I am sure there will be a app real soon now for that.

Have you used a Kindle Fire? Thoughts?

Joe Koyote

he Khan Academy seems to be one of the better uses of what is called the hybrid classroom. Math is rigid and structured and fits well into that scheme. The CSU system has been experimenting with the hybrid concept after their much ballyhooed televised distance learning foray pretty much failed. They hybrid approach consists of either video clips or audio files available on line combined with a once every week or two discussion section with an instructor. In an effort to cut costs, CSU Northridge changed its lower level introductory math classes to hybrid and saw a significant increase in the failure rate. CSU Sacramento, among other disciplines, has put all but a few sections of its public speaking classes into hybrid format. On-line public speaking seems a bit oxymoronic. I personally interviewed around 100 students who were enrolled in these classes as well as most of the instructors who taught them.

A majority of the students that talked to me disliked the concept and felt they were getting ripped off for their money. The production qualities were bad and the lectures consisted of someone talking from behind a podium or in the case of the audio versions, poorly reading a prepared lecture. Instructors complained there was rampant cheating in the form of downloading speeches from internet sites. Instructors did not like having to test, implement, and explain other people's (those who created the media files) content. Attendance was minimal during the live classroom sessions. Many students would give their speeches and leave and often only the students who were required to give a speech would show up in the first place. Many instructors felt degraded and demoted at being nothing but test givers and speech graders and resented having no control over content while at the same time having to field student complaints about a course over which they had no input.

I also interviewed mentor teachers from the Center for Teaching and Learning at CSUS who expressed doubts about the comparative qualities of hybrid versus traditional classrooms. Without the normal classroom interaction dynamic, they felt the whole process was lacking in the critical thinking arena and produced students who were more adept and cutting and pasting information copied off the internet than thinking. Instructors backed up this claim citing a significant increase in written work by students so lazy that they didn't even bother to change the different fonts to the same one on their cut and paste research papers. The issue was that the students didn't seem to understand that searching the internet and cutting and pasting together what they found was plagiarism.

We could be producing a generation of non-thinkers whose primary concern seems to be how to achieve 15 seconds of fame on you-tube. It is no small wonder why China and India are expanding while we are collapsing. They value teachers and education while we value gadgets, bells and whistles.

George Rebane

JoeK 1106am - Thanks for that good report. You are correct in that blind injection of online/automated teaching into all subjects does not work. The best such courses are developed by a good teacher working together with an interactive communications designer. I believe the education/training market will continue to grow using that partnership. My own experience as a college prof (also at CSUN) convinced me that the average instructor, while possibly a domain expert, is not capable of designing an interactive version of the course(s) he teaches without some professional help.

Douglas Keachie

Estimated time back in the 1980's to develop one hour of good solid tested interactive teaching materiel was about 250 man hours.

Russ Steele


You provides some valuable insight. The advantage that can be gained is to use the best teachers with the best presentation skills aided by professional producers. These master teachers can reach millions using the existing communication technology. We are at the entry point, and the quality of hybrid presentations will improve over time. Change is hard, but it will happen as the current system is broken.


"Change is hard, but it will happen as the current system is broken."

No, it isn't. What's broken is the political desire to have everyone buy a BS/BA of widely varying quality with borrowed money in a transaction facilitated by the government, a debt that cannot be discharged by a bankruptcy court.

George Rebane

Gregory 1213pm - Am surprised that you view our current educational system as not being broken. The "political desire" you reference is just frosting on a turd.

The Gates Foundation just completed a multi-year study that underlines how broken our current public education is.

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