Gas station without pumps

2013 July 28

MOOC roundup

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:02
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I’ve been collecting Massively Online Open Cours (MOOC) blog posts for a while now, with the intent of doing a careful response to each.  There have gotten to be so many that I can’t do a careful response to each. At best, I’ll do a short summary or critique of each one.  If the number of links here is overwhelming (as it was for me in writing this post), read the summaries to pick out a few that seem likely to be worth your time.  But do try to read the ones I’ve marked with a green check.  I think that those were unusually valuable.

From the Becker-Posner Blog:

  1. This is basically a factual description of MOOCs saying who they think the students will be and the difficulty of making MOOCs pay, but without much thought on the consequences of MOOCs for education.
  2. Predictions that MOOCs, because they are cheaper than building classrooms, will become a major part of the higher education landscape worldwide.  This is the standard wishful thinking of people who want to defund education.

From the Academe blog, which is published by the American Association of University Professors, but which does not reflect official AAUP positions (in fact, it has published some posts from harsh critics of the AAUP). Most of the posts here are not the MOOC boosterism we see from administrators and non-matriculated students, but the faculty skepticism about the value of MOOCs both pedagogically and for the future of the universities.

  1. A somewhat optimistic post about using MOOCs to do freshman composition courses—one of the courses for which many faculty feel MOOCs are completely unsuitable. The post seems to think that peer grading might actually work, something I’m very dubious about—the value of a composition class depends mainly on the quality and quantity of feedback from instructors whom you trust enough to accept uncomfortable advice from.
  2. A rather long post that focuses mainly on how MOOCs are going to be monetized and the negative effects of MOOCs on public education.
  3. MOOCs seen as an outgrowth of the “culture of celebrity”:

    The MOOCs are centered around supposed “superteachers” from the most elite universities. It’s no accident that Harvard, MIT and Stanford are among those schools most often mentioned in discussions of MOOCs. These provide, supposedly, the “best” education in the world. Why not take advantage of technology to spread that wealth around?

    First of all, it is the student who makes the education; no teacher or school “gives” it. It’s not that Harvard professors are elite educators, but that Harvard students are elite students. This is what makes the school so successful. Put a Harvard professor in front of most community-college classrooms and that professor will, most likely, fail. The name “Harvard” dresses up the professors, but it does not make them master teachers.

  4. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education points out that online courses are not really cheaper than traditional courses, at least not when they are taught in an effective way.
  5. response to an interview with Daphne Koller, pointing out that MOOCs don’t address how courses really get created and improved.

    Separating content development, course preparation, grading, and content delivery does, indeed, change teaching, but for the worse. Koller herself recognizes that universities have “played a critical role in the shaping” of “amazingly gifted scholars, researchers, and teachers.” Those scholars, researchers, and teachers are gifted precisely because of their integrated approach to teaching.

    Any good teacher will tell you that the primary work of education happens away from the classroom. MOOCs might be useful for self-enrichment courses, but as long as they deliver education in a piecemeal fashion, they will not be models of good teaching.

U to the rescue: Micheal Meranze and Christopher Newfield  are UC professors (UCLA and UCSB, respectively) who closely follow the politics and (de)funding of the University of California.  They have a lot to say  about MOOCs and administrative tricks to try to divert instructional resources into administrative salaries and private contractors.

  1. This post is not primarily about MOOCs, but about the failure of the UC administration to make a strong case for public funding of the University, pointing out that their appeasement policy has resulted in trumpeting as a victory funding levels that are 25% lower per student than in 1990 (counting both state funding and tuition—the per-student funding from the state has dropped much more than that).  Their key point about MOOCs:

    Explain clearly that technological improvements will not close the budgetary gap.  Unfortunately UCOP is a negative example here: it promised $500 M in savings through technology efficiencies that have yielded about a tenth of that (see links halfway down this post on the Regents’ retreat). And it is gearing up a new round of technology promises for this week’s Regents meeting, now in the form of online education.  I defy anyone to find meaningful cost savings in the gradual introduction of quality (blended) online instruction to any of higher ed’s segments. I invite you to scour the full rush transcript of the MOOC meeting at UCLA last week; or to read full scale investigations of online impacts like Taylor Walsh’s pro-tech Unlocking the Gates, which shows for example that simply posting course materials in the case of MIT’s Open Courseware program nets the university negative $4M annually (page 84); or to go to the source of the original analysis of academia’s “cost disease,” William J. Baumol and his new book The Cost Disease; or to contemplate the extent to which online providers expect not to make money by offering newly cheap university curricula but by selling referrals and other ancillary products by competing with universities.  Or picture yourself as a venture capitalist, and ask if a one-time $10M investment has ever in history closed a $2.9B gap. Technology has become a source of budgetary delusion and fake solutions and this has to stop.

  2. This post discusses in detail the privatization goals of many of the MOOC proponents, and the abysmal success rate of privatization of public functions in other fields. A quote from the post:

    If we aren’t careful, privatization history will repeat itself, and UC in its desperation will invite on board a host of outside service providers who will have a seat at the curriculum table and a claim on a piece of UC’s shrinking revenues.  (A figure I have heard is that the provider takes 50% of the first seven years’ revenues on each course it develops.)

  3. In January 2103, UCLA had a large presentation about MOOCs from various providers.  U to the rescue had a number of questions about how the MOOCs were going to produce enough money to survey past the initial capital burn.

    4. If (3) is true, what share of the development costs and course revenues will you take? One number we have heard is 50% of course tuition for 7 years. The NYT article has an even higher number.  Since you use salaried university faculty to create course content, so far, it appears, without pay, are you going to wind up in the business of selling universities their own courses back to them at a big production markup?
    5. Given substantial costs for quality on-line development and operation, how exactly will you save money for students enrolled in degree courses (who are already paying tuition)? Given enrollment problems with MOOCs that aren’t free, on what basis can you say that you will save universities money? What is your estimate of how much?

  4. The announcement of the results of an all-UC faculty discussion about the future of the University:

    The report of this all UC-faculty discussion entitled The Uses of the Public University in 2050 can be accessed at The report details underlying principles that address the issues of teaching and learning in the twenty-first century, the role of research in a public university, the stewardship of the university and the university’s role in creating an informed, proactive and responsible citizenry.

  5. This post points out that MOOCs have not yet come up with a sustainable business model. One danger for public universities is in neglecting to invest in sustainable education, and being left with nothing when the MOOCs crash and burn. A quote:

    In the ramp-up period, terribly high per-MOOC costs could be justified by mass enrollments, but unfortunately from the VC [venture capital] point of view the masses take these courses for free. These production costs also collide with increasing awareness of large faculty time inputs: Duke’s Dan Ariely and Cathy Davidson report 150 hours of their time per hour of “actual MOOC.”  Prof. Davidson’s phrase in a subsequent post is “insanely labor intensive” —in exchange for a $10,000 stipend that she spent entirely on assistants. Many MOOC watchers are now concluding, as she does, that MOOCs do not have a way of making up for massive public funding cuts.

Computing Ed: Mark Guzdial is a computer-science education researcher who has been following some of the MOOC and online-degree fervor at Georgia Tech:

  1. Here Mark points out that the University of Wisconsin plan to offer a degree almost entirely by testing is doomed to be a second-class degree, because the basic educational premises are flawed.  Here is a quote from the beginning of the post:

    The announcement from U. Wisconsin (that they’ll test students to get a degree, rather than requiring any coursework at all) is showing enormous and unsupported (almost religious) faith in our ability to construct tests, especially online tests.  Building reliable and valid assessments is part of my research, and it’s really hard.

  2. This post is just a pointer to White Paper- Making Sense of MOOCs, an analysis of MOOCs by Sir John Daniel, who was vice-chancellor of the UK Open University (one of the most successful online education efforts in the world) and who has written extensively on the economics of making distance education work.
  3. A brief reaction to Georgia Tech’s announcement of their Udacity-fueled online Masters degree:

    In case anyone didn’t see the various articles, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing will be offering a Udacity-based MS degree starting.  The faculty did vote on the proposal. I argued against it (based mostly on learning and diversity arguments), but lost (which led to my long winter post). Faculty in the College of Computing have been asked not to talk about the online MS degree (which seems weird to me—asking faculty not to talk about their own degree programs).  Please understand if I don’t answer questions in response to this announcement.

Inside Higher Ed

  1. Another post on financial problems with MOOCs—this one reporting on why Carnegie-Mellon in not jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, and what they are doing in online education instead.
  2. This article offers another view on the Georgia Tech Udacity-fueled online Masters, looking into some of the details of the contract obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  3. Chris Newfield does a very close reading of the contract and provides a detailed critique of it.  It does not appear that Georgia Tech faculty had an opportunity to read the contract in detail, nor that the Georgia Tech administrators bothered to, since it appears to have some internal contradictions.  I suspect that in a year or two, only the lawyers will be making any money off of this deal.  This is the most detailed look at MOOC finances I’ve seen in public—and it does not look like they have yet figured out how to make MOOCs sustainable. Note: Sebastian Thrun has responded to this critique—I’ve checkmarked his post near the end of this list of links.


  1. Some of Moody’s financial prediction of creditworthiness of higher-ed institutions in the face of MOOCs.  It seems to start from the assumption that MOOCs will be financially successful while continuing to offer free courses (an assertion that not all followers of the MOOC phenomenon believe):

    In the end, elite institutions are positioned to capitalise most effectively on the MOOC platform, by increasing their global presence and deriving greater credit benefits from new markets. Those institutions with limited brand identities, however, will have to compete more intensively to retain—or develop—a competitive edge.

  2. This piece also assumes that MOOCs will be wildly successful and essentially kill off all but the elite institutions (again, ignoring the fact that MOOCs so far have only been shown to work for autodidacts):

    The open-source educational marketplace will give everyone access to the best universities in the world. This will inevitably spell disaster for colleges and universities that are perceived as second rate. Likewise, the most popular professors will enjoy massive influence as they teach vast global courses with registrants numbering in the hundreds of thousands (even though “most popular” may well equate to most entertaining rather than to most rigorous). Meanwhile, professors who are less popular, even if they are better but more demanding instructors, will be squeezed out. Fair or not, a reduction in the number of faculty needed to teach the world’s students will result. For this reason, pursuing a Ph.D. in the liberal arts is one of the riskiest career moves one could make today. Because much of the teaching work can be scaled, automated or even duplicated by recording and replaying the same lecture over and over again on video, demand for instructors will decline.

    Of course, I question the assumption that delivering “the same lecture over and over again” constitutes “much of the teaching work”. Certainly lecturing plays a very small part of the time I dedicate to teaching—feedback on writing, guiding students in the lab, developing and testing design labs, meeting with students one-on-one, … all take far more time than the “lectures”, most of which involve student interaction rather than one-way info dumps in any case.

  3. Although the University of California is plunging headlong into MOOC mania (driven by the Regents, the Legislature, and a few administrators), this is not the first time UC has tried to jump on an online bandwagon.  A lot of money was sunk into UC Online, a pitiful attempt to make money at online education in the previous online fad, with UC rolling out their system a couple years after the fad had ended and many other universities had quietly dropped their attempts to make money at it (except CMU, see the Inside Higher Education link above):

    The University of California is spending millions to market an ambitious array of online classes created to “knock people’s socks off” and attract tuition from students around the world. But since classes began a year ago, enrollment outside of UC is not what you’d call robust.

    One person took a class.

  4. This post contains observations by Bob Samuels after the UCLA panel promoting MOOCs (see the U to the Rescue blog posts mentioned above). He starts with a pointed observation:

    First a few ironies: the faculty presenters had to listen to four hours of non-interactive presentations before they could speak and ask questions. In other words, as the “providers” were lecturing us about how online technology allows for true interactive education to occur, they did not leave space for any interaction. Moreover, the high-tech promoters kept on having a hard time getting their PowerPoint slides to work as they criticized traditional institutions for not turning to new technologies to make education “Faster, Cheaper, and Better.” A final irony was that throughout the lectures, I noticed most of the audience, including myself, constantly checking their iPhones. Once again, as the providers were celebrating the role of new technologies in making us more focused and efficient, most of the audience was half-listening and multi-tasking.

    And he ends with another pointed remark:

    Now UC has spent $5 million on virtually one student, but we shouldn’t laugh because someone is going to have to pay for this failed experiment, and the bigger question is will UC be able to walk away from the table after it has gambled millions away on its high-tech wager?

  5. A demographic analysis of the students who took “Computational Investing, Part I” as a Coursera MOOC.  It turns out that 93% of those who completed the course already had a bachelor’s degree or more education.  It looks like the MOOCs are fairly effective as continuing education for people who have already completed college—not a bad thing, but not a replacement for college as they are so often touted.  The course completers were also 89% male, which may be normal for that subject matter, but does not suggest that the MOOCs are any good at increasing diversity.
  6. A summary of data collected from MOOCs about completion rates.  The post is an explanation and a pointer to Katy Jordan’s interactive data site: It looks like completion rates in the 2%–12% range are standard for MOOCs.
  7. Amy Bruckman wrote a few things that resonated with me:

    Amy’s Conjecture: The future of universities is in excelling at everything a MOOC is not.

    The trend over the last dozen or so years is for people who make money creating intellectual property to be compensated more and more poorly.  Fewer people are making a living as musicians.  Professional journalism is in crisis.  Small newspapers are closing, and major ones are struggling. This hasn’t happened all at once, but like a frog in a pot, raising the temperature/economic pressure a fraction of a degree per year over the long haul has dramatic consequences.  MOOCs turn education into a form of IP.  The same economic pressures are going to apply.

    If you buy that, then what’s next for universities?  There will no doubt be MOOC winners—but I suspect that just as seems to be dominating the e-commerce business, there will be advantages to size that will be hard to fight.  Margins will be tight, with a small number of big winners.

    The future of universities, then, is in everything a MOOC can not do. What is that?

    Amy’s Lemma: There are some things that will never be learned as well online.

    Her arguments, and ones like them, have convinced me that the best thing I can be doing for UC is not creating a huge MOOC course that reaches 1000s of students (I’d probably be terrible at it, anyway), but to create hands-on lab courses (like my new Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course) and high-contact, high-feedback courses (like my Bioinformatics: Tools and Algorithms course or the senior thesis seminar).  These high-contact courses are what the top universities can provide that does not have any online substitute.  If this is the future of the university, I embrace it.

  8. A surprisingly balanced view of MOOCs from Armando Fox, Academic Director, Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education:

    The experience of Berkeley faculty who have taught them is  that MOOCs work well as a supplement to traditional courses, not a replacement for them.  Courses at Berkeley and other world-class universities have shown that a blend of online and classroom instruction can increase professor and TA leverage and expand course enrollments while maintaining or increasing student satisfaction and learning outcomes.

    But in the absence of systematic research, BRCOE believes it would be a disservice to Berkeley students to consider using a two-year-old technology as a replacement for traditional instruction, which seems to be the thrust of recent media coverage and some current legislative activity. Berkeley will become a leader in online education not by charging prematurely into overzealous use of a new technology, but by doing the research to uncover its potential and position us to do the right thing by our students in the coming years—not just internally but in non-UC settings such as community colleges, high schools, and K-8 that ultimately “feed our pipeline.”We recognize the disconnect between BRCOE’s point of view on this matter and the sentiment of some legislators and spokespersons for the private sector. To that end, both we at Berkeley and our colleagues on other UC campuses are working hard to proactively inform the media, the private sector, and the public servants in Sacramento and elsewhere about both the opportunities and the pitfalls of online education. Our intention is to persuade them that “proceed optimistically but with care” is the right thing to do by our students, who are entrusting us with four or more years of education and career development when they arrive on campus.

  9. This post points out that the company Pearson is shifting resources from acquiring more textbook publishers (perhaps having gobbled up all the textbook publishers they could) to getting state contracts for delivering tests.  There is an implicit assumption that this near monopoly of both textbooks and testing by one company is too large a concentration of power—particularly given that the company is more interested in profit than in the quality of education.

    Yet, it is hardly coincidental that the major corporate “educational providers” are already seizing on the enormous profit potential in MOOCs. Specifically, having bought up a slew of major textbook publishers, Pearson is now shifting to buying up very specialized technology companies.

    As MOOCs are migrated into general-education or core college-level courses, Pearson and its imitators (such as Academic Partnerships) will make a push to provide the “competency measures” for those courses: that is, they will seek to adapt what has been so profitable on the K-12 level to the post-secondary level.

    A discussion about the social cost of allowing higher education to be pushed down the dreary path K-12 education has already tread is long overdue.

  10. This post was triggered by San Jose States partnering with Udacity to deliver a few remedial courses through MOOCS. The author praised them for their desire to reach more students, but pointed out that the freshman composition course was not a good target for MOOCS:

    Still, I think something vital is missing from its description of ideal online learning, something I find hard to imagine happening in large online courses. That something involves what occurs when a good teacher responds carefully and closely to the work of a student.

    But I worry that digitized feedback systems can only be a pale version of the focused response that a trained and attentive reader, a teacher, can offer a young writer.The teaching of writing has long been a textbook-driven field precisely because such readers are in short supply. The hope is that a good textbook can give an inexperienced or indifferent teacher something to lean on. But it doesn’t really work. What students need is not someone to walk them through a textbook but someone who can respond to their own work and ideas.

    This post really resonated with me, particularly given the amount of time I spend on providing feedback on student writing. I had a more direct response to the post in my blog post Teaching by hand.

  11. This is not a blog post, but the website for an organization that has put together a “college” without faculty—just a residential campus with all “teaching” handled by MOOCs.  It is an administrator’s dream—no faculty at all! It’s very easy to create a “college” this way—rent a large building for housing the “students” (like an old hotel in a no-longer-popular location), hire a couple of cooks and janitors, and put up a website!  No need to bother with expensive things like labs, classrooms, teachers, accreditation, or anything else having to do with education.  Anyone can now start their very own college!
  12. Suki Wessling writes about MOOCs from a different perspective—that of a home schooling parent who values online courses as a resource for teaching her children.

    As a homeschooler, however, I do think that MOOCs are a welcome new addition to the options for learning outside of structured environments, and I love the idea that the breadth of human knowledge is being made available to everyone, everywhere.

    But will MOOCs make the whole idea of the university education obsolete?

    She discusses what she sees MOOCs as doing well and what traditional colleges do well and summarizes her points well:

    But I believe that MOOCs will never be able to provide the benefits that an in-person degree at a good university can provide:

    • Working directly with the best thinkers in your field
    • Developing mentoring relationships with professors or more experienced students
    • Learning from, helping, and arguing with your fellow students
    • Creating the sorts of connections that in some fields are absolutely necessary for success
    • Having guidance in honing your analytical skills in ways that can’t be done alone

    What bothers me is not that people are excited about online learning (so am I) or that people think it has some benefits over traditional college (it does), but that everyone is so happily throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional college is still going to be the best choice for people who should have been there to begin with.

  13. A balanced reflection on MOOCs and their possible effects on higher education by Noel Jackson, who is ambivalent about them, rather than strongly pro- or anti-MOOC.  This is a thoughtful piece, but not one that leads to any clear conclusions.  Here is a representative quote:

    While both accounts of MOOCs envision significant future consequences from their implementation, moreover, neither says very much about actually existing MOOCs. The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed. As a result, this or that fact about MOOCs is often considered (or not) insofar as it confirms the prevailing theory about them.

  14. For those who believe in “following the money”, this post points to a financial analysis of the future of higher education done by Moody’s.  The bottom line seems to be that MOOCs are primarily a public relations gesture by elite universities, blunting criticism of their non-profit status while gaining positive branding.
  15. This is an answer to Chris Newfield’s analysis of the deal between Georgia Teach and Udacity, provided by Sebastian Thrun (founder of Udacity).  Personally, I don’t find Sebastian Thrun very believable here, but this may reflect my prior beliefs about the motives of Newfield and Thrun. If you read Newfield’s analysis (checkmarked above), then you should probably read Thrun’s reply.
  16. futurist confidently predicts that half of US colleges will fail by 2030, giving the following reasoning:
    1. Overhead costs too high – Even if the buildings are paid for and all money-losing athletic programs are dropped, the costs associated with maintaining a college campus are very high. Everything from utilities, to insurance, to phone systems, to security, to maintenance and repair are all expenses that online courses do not have. Some of the less visible expenses involve the bonds and financing instruments used to cover new construction, campus projects, and revenue inconsistencies. The cost of money itself will be a huge factor.
    2. Substandard classes and teachers – Many of the exact same classes are taught in thousands of classroom simultaneously every semester. The law of averages tells us that 49.9% of these will be below average. Yet any college that is able to electronically pipe in a top 1% teacher will suddenly have a better class than 99% of all other colleges.
    3. Increasingly visible rating systems – Online rating systems will begin to torpedo tens of thousands of classes and teachers over the coming years. Bad ratings of one teacher and one class will directly affect the overall rating of the institution.
    4. Inconvenience of time and place – Yes, classrooms help focus our attention and the world runs on deadlines. But our willingness to flex schedules to meet someone else’s time and place requirements is shrinking. Especially when we have a more convenient option.
    5. Pricing competition – Students today have many options for taking free courses without credits vs. expensive classes with credits and very little in between. That, however, is about to change. Colleges focused primarily on course delivery will be facing an increasingly price sensitive consumer base.
    6. Credentialing system competition – Much like a doctor’s ability to write prescriptions, a college’s ability to grant credits has given them an unusual competitive advantage, something every startup entrepreneur is searching for. However, traditional systems for granting credits only work as long as people still have faith in the system. This “faith in the system” is about to be eroded with competing systems. Companies like Coursera, Udacity, and iTunesU are well positioned to start offering an entirely new credentialing system.
    7. Relationships formed in colleges will be replaced with other relationship-building systems – Social structures are changing and the value of relationships built in college, while often quite valuable, are equally often overrated. Just as a dating relationship today is far more likely to begin online, business and social relationships in the future will also happen in far different ways.
    8. Sudden realization that “the emperor has no clothes!” – Education, much like our money supply, is a system built on trust. We are trusting colleges to instill valuable knowledge in our students, and in doing so, create a more valuable workforce and society. But when those who find no tangible value begin to openly proclaim, “the emperor has no clothes!” colleges will find themselves in a hard-to-defend downward spiral.

    Futurists have a terrible track record for these sorts of grandiose predictions, but it is certainly the case that decisions made now about how to fund college education will have an enormous effect over the next 20 years. If states continue to defund public universities, but society still pushes college-for-all, then either colleges will have to reduce costs enormously or go out of business, because the debt load on students is getting close to or has already passed the sustainable limit. (Personally, I don’t see reducing costs without reducing quality as very likely. Although the sticker price of public universities has soared, the underlying costs have been remarkably constant—the price has gone up because students are paying a much larger portion of the cost.)

  17. A detailed reaction by Jon Beasley-Murray to two talks, one by Eric Mazur (proponent of peer instruction) and one by Daphne Koller (founder of Coursera).  Basically, Beasley-Murray sees little knowledge of pedagogy and a lot of self-serving hype in both talks.
  18. San Jose State Suspends Udacity Experiment. The attempt to teach remedial courses with Udacity at San Jose State turned out to fail miserably, with pass rates lower even than the usual remedial courses. This was a widely predicted result, particularly by people who have taught remedial courses. Fortunately, San Jose State had enough sense to stop the experiment after one round, though I understand that their president still plans to try again.

That’s it for the MOOC roundup.  I’ll try not to collect posts for so long again before summarizing them—the problem was that the list kept growing, and I kept putting off the summary, as it got more daunting with each new link added to the list.


2013 February 2

We need low-cost colleges

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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In an opinion piece for the NY Times, My Valuable, Cheap College Degree, Arthur C. Brooks relates an anecdote of his own education: failing out of college his first year, taking a gap decade, going back to school through low-cost correspondence courses from various state universities,  eventually getting a PhD, and becoming a professor and president of a “Washington research organization”.  (I’d be more impressed if I thought he meant a biotech or computer research job in Seattle, but I fear he means a political hack job in DC.)

His anecdote sounds like a classic “self-made man” story, but is actually about the substantial state subsidies for college education that were available 40 years ago, and that are fast disappearing under the current political belief that government should pay for nothing but guns and people to use them (the state budget in California is heavily weighted toward prison guards and police).

I’m in basic agreement that college has gotten ridiculously expensive—I would welcome a low-cost college education for my son like the one I got back in the 1970s.  Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see state governments coming to their senses in time, and I may have to send my son to a private college to get an adequate education.  (Currently his short list of about 20 schools is almost equally divided between public and private colleges and universities, but most of the public universities are out of state, raising their costs to the same level as the private ones.)

I expect that my son’s education is likely to cost me 2 or 3 years of my salary as a full professor (and that’s pre-tax salary). I’ve been saving 10% of my salary each year for the past 16 years in order to be able to pay for that education for my son, so we should be able to do it without his going into debt, which is good, since I’ll probably be retiring while he’s still in grad school.

The fact that the ratio of college tuition and fees to professorial salary is so high tells me that the cost is not due to high salaries for faculty (and I’m one of the lucky tenured faculty—most colleges are dominantly hiring “contingent” faculty now, who have no job security, low pay, and no voice in the running of the institution).  Other studies have show that the cost of public universities has not changed much—it’s just been shifted from the state to the student. In particular, the socially desirable subsidy of tuition for low-income students is almost entirely born by “return to aid” funding from other students, not from endowments or state subsidies.

Private colleges have had enormous increases in costs: largely related to the debt acquired in the amenities wars and the obscene salaries they pay their administrators and football coaches (though not their professors, who are only slightly better paid than public-university professors like me).

I don’t see online education as being a major cost saver in providing decent quality education.  Massive lecture classes are the least effective courses at the university (though relatively cheap to offer) and MOOCs just amplify the problem.  Those completing MOOCs are mostly the older, highly motivated students who have always been fairly easy to teach—there’s not much evidence that MOOCs are at all effective at educating the run-of-the-mill students who are the current main target of college education efforts.

2013 January 1

Is coding for everyone?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 07:41
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One of the memes in computer education last year was “coding for everyone”.  For example, the year started with Mayor Bloomberg vowing to learn to code using Code Academy (how did that go for you, Mayor?), and there was Rip Empson’s post STEM Ed: CodeHS Wants To Teach Every American High Schooler How To Code, in which he reviewed the CodeHS online program to teach high schoolers how to program, and a host of other posts that I did not bother to bookmark all claiming the wonders of universal literacy in programming languages.

In May, there was a backlash: Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror: Please don’t learn to code made the claim

The “everyone should learn to code” movement isn’t just wrong because it falsely equates coding with essential life skills like reading, writing, and math. I wish. It is wrong in so many other ways.

Atwood’s main points are that coding is not the goal, but just a tool in solving some types of problems, and that thinking about problems is more important than concentrating on this particular tool.  He’d rather have people like Bloomberg concentrate on doing the things they are good at rather than becoming half-assed programmers, and leave the programming to people who have the time and the inclination to do the job right.

I think that Atwood position, like Andrew Hacker’s claim that high algebra is pointless, is a deliberately extreme position taken to raise passionate responses and sell newspapers.  Hacker claims to want to lower the already low value of a high-school diploma by reducing the math required for it below the 8th-grade level currently required.  Atwood wants only professional programmers to learn to program.  Both appear to be protecting elite privileges by claiming that education is too much for the masses, and that they don’t really need it anyway.

Atwood makes an analogy to everyone learning to do plumbing, as if that were a ridiculous idea.  Personally, I think that everyone should learn a little plumbing: enough to clear a toilet or sink trap, or replace a faucet washer, and to know when to call in a professional plumber. So his analogy is an excellent one and completely undermines his conclusion.

Steve Myers, in Software developer revives debate about whether journalists should learn to code, makes the analogy to the “reporters vs. bloggers” war.  Unfortunately, that fight appears to have been settled by laying off most professional journalists and killing off a lot of newspapers, with the resultant degradation in the quality (though not the quantity) of news that people get.  As a blogger, I don’t think that discouraging blogging is the right way to support journalists, but if the analogy is a good one, then I can see why people like Atwood are attacking amateur programmers in fear for their jobs.

Myers quotes Andy in Don’t not learn to code

Even if someone who learned how to “code” never ends up as a “coder” professionally, they will be much better for having learned to think algorithmically and in the abstract. However, I bet that knowing how to write a quick script here and there will make them much more valuable in whatever profession they choose.

Andy makes the standard case for learning to program:

Do I always use software to solve problems? Definitely not. But do I often use the same problem solving techniques that learning to code taught me in order to solve other problems in my life and work situations? Definitely yes.

Can folks be taught to solve problems without using computer code? Definitely yes. But is learning how to “teach” a computer how to solve problems via code one of the best ways? I think yes as well.

In Definitions of “Code” and “Programmer”: Response to “Please Don’t Learn to Code”, Mark Guzdial points out

Most people who write code are not trying to create code solutions.  Most people who write code are trying to find solutions or create non-code solutions.  By “most people,” I do mean quantitatively and I do mean all people, not just professional programmers.  We know that there are many more people who write code to accomplish some task, as compared to professional programmers.

The point of the coding-for-all movement is that there are lots of times when a small amount of coding or scripting on a computer can solve an immediate problem without calling in a professional programmer.  Little snippets of throwaway code can be enormously useful for getting data into a form suitable for thinking about a problem, and the ability to create those snippets quickly is a very valuable skill.  I know I would feel very constrained if I had to wait for someone else to understand what I was trying to do and implement it for me every time I wanted to plot some data or model something.  I try to get the biologists and bioengineers that I teach to have some coding ability—enough to fit models to data, reformat data so that it is usable by other programs, and do simple analyses.  I don’t expect most of them to become professional coders (not even all the bioinformaticians need to be expert programmers, though most should be), but they all need enough skills to do the little tasks (the equivalent of clearing sink traps in plumbing) and to know when they need to call in the professionals.

Mark Guzdial takes particular exception to Atwood’s claim “You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.”

And people who want to do interesting, novel things with computers should just wait until a software developer gets around to understanding what they want and coding it for them?  I could not disagree more.  That’s like saying that the problem with translating the Bible is that it made all that knowledge accessible to lay people, when they should have just waited for the Church to explain it to them.  Please don’t learn to code” can be interpreted as “Please leave the power of computing to us, and we’ll let you know when we’ll make some available to you.”

As may be clear by now, I tend to side with those who would teach programming skills (and math) to everyone, even though not everyone will end up particularly good at programming or math.  I believe that I have enough skills and intelligence that I’m not threatened by an increase in the skills of others, so I don;t see any benefit in choking off education for others.

On the other hand, I don’t think that the coding-for-all movement will be any more successful than the math-for-all movement has been for the past century.  Math is taught to everyone and people are required to get through algebra and some geometry to get a high school diploma, but huge portions of the American adult population are still functionally innumerate. Even after ten years of learning math, many adults can’t add fractions or figure out that lottery tickets are a sucker bet.

The coding-for-all movement is starting from a much lower base—almost no elementary schools and very few high schools teach programming, and those that do generally have only one course in Java syntax, which will not get people very far in learning to solve problems.  So even if the coding-for-all movement is wildly successful and creates tens of thousands of teachers (coming from where, exactly?) teaching high-schoolers how to program, the fraction of people who are even marginally competent programmers will remain pretty small.  The online courses like CodeAcademy and CodeHS try to get around the shortage of teachers by having a computer do the work of teaching, but they are pretty miserable failures at teaching to even the low level of high school programming courses.  It’s nice that there are resources that will allow dedicated students to get around the curricular limitations of their high schools (current or past), but they are not going to lead to a world of universal coding competence.

2012 November 29

Online education for continuing education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 15:20
Tags: , , ,

Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, provided a very upbeat view of online courses (particularly MOOCS) in a blog post Who says online courses will cause the death of universities?.  He makes some assertions without evidence that I find a bit dubious:

The bottom line, though, is that while online education poses a challenge for universities, they will ultimately improve them.

And by moving lecturing online, MOOCs allow in-person time to be more interactive, dynamic, and valuable.

Despite the challenges to universities posed by MOOCs, there are great advantages to them as well. And the best universities will be able to capitalize on those advantages to provide the best value for their students – whether that value is online or in person. Despite what some see as a threat to higher education, MOOCs will only help it get better.

This is essential the administrative view of online courses: that they are new and cheap and must therefore be for the good of higher education.

I think that Dr. Katsouleas is right in asserting that the continuing education market for engineers is one of the places where universities will first see the effect of MOOCS, both because there are more MOOCs and more advanced MOOCs available in engineering than in other fields, and because many engineers seek continuing education even without certification.  I don’t think that the MOOCs will reduce MS degree seekers much, because there is still a very large premium for the MS certification in engineering, and the engineering MOOCs available still only go up to junior-level courses.  There are already many MS-level courses offered online, and I’m sure we’ll see an increase in them, but the market for them is too small for a MOOC, so there isn’t the advertising-for-the-provider benefit which drives most of the MOOCs currently, and we’re more likely to see the standard pay-per-course fee structure for them.

I think that we will see some colleges and universities starting to accept credits from MOOCs for undergrad courses, once the problems with cheating and low-quality assessment are fixed.

Cost of online education

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:00
Tags: , , , , ,

In Changing Universities: Online Instruction, Budget Transparency, and the Cost of Education, Bob Samuels makes a crude estimate of the cost of online courses versus mega-lecture courses (the two approaches to education popular with university administrators, because of their relatively low cost).

I believe his numbers serious underestimate the costs of both, as he only counts the costs of lecturers, and not that of TAs.  It is true that lecturers are only paid about $7500 a course, but a course of 200 students is likely to have 4 TAs, at a cost of $11000 each (more fairly, $5800 each, since the rest goes back to the University as tuition).  So the direct instructional cost is more like $31k, or $155 per student, not counting benefits for the lecturer.  He also neglects a lot of the overhead costs, like amortizing the cost of classrooms and the costs of cleaning and maintaining buildings, roads, libraries, and other essential infrastructure.    He underestimates the cost of course development for traditional courses, though he includes it for online courses (which are, admittedly, far more expensive to develop).

I think he’s right that the University is not going to save significant amounts of money by offering big courses online, and that going online may actually raise costs, but his analysis is not careful enough to establish that.  The UC Online pilot project has spent a lot of money developing very few courses. The edX consortium has also dedicated huge amounts of money to deliver a very small number of classes—confirming my view that edX is primarily and advertising vehicle for MIT and Harvard, rather than an education-delivery vehicle.

The cost of developing traditional courses can be fairly high. I’ve spent about 400–500 hours developing a new lab course, even before preparing any of the lab handouts or ordering the parts for the students, which will take another 100 hours (more than full time over winter break). At my current salary and benefits, that is a development cost of about $30k. Delivering the course to 20 students will cost another $30k–40k (counting my time, ⅓ of a course for a lecturer, and an undergraduate group tutor), for a cost of around $3500/student. Of course, in future years, the class size will double, the development costs will have been amortized, and we may even alternate years between Senate faculty and a lecturer, reducing the cost to about $1000/student, as he estimated for somewhat smaller classes.

Incidentally, if you are interested in what goes into designing an engineering lab course, I’ve been making notes on the course design on this blog.   I’m up to 86 blog posts (about 200–300 pages) of notes for the course design—and I still haven’t started writing up the web pages or course handouts.

I’m still strongly of the belief that it is in courses like this lab course that the University is strongest, and that attempts to reduce the cost of education with mega-lectures and online courses reduce the quality much faster than they reduce the cost.

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