I am beginning to get the sense that online education is about to turn the corner. I base this observation on a simple heuristic, which I won’t try to justify, but I suspect that it works here: when an established product is challenged by a newcomer, the “knee” of the adoption curve occurs when someone comes up with a version of the challenging product that clearly surpasses the established product in quality. Note that the relevant comparison isn’t with the whole challenging product space, it’s only the best of the challenging offerings that matter. That the online education endeavor as a whole still seems (to put it tactfully) “not ready for prime time” is irrelevant, because as soon as one challenger figures out the right formula, others will adopt it and improve it. Before the iPad, there were many not-quite-right attempts at tablets and touch screens; once the iPad existed, none of them mattered.

There are signs that this transition is at long last happening with online courses. As Exhibit A I will cite (later, below) an online class that I’m currently taking on Coursera. No moment too soon, given that the main traditional purveyor of education — the university system — is already far along in its evolution into a kind of expensive Club Med for adolescents (and rich sinecure for administrators).

Not all that long ago, I used to claim that university courses were the best sheer value for money in the entire economy, and over several decades  there were very few years in which I didn’t enroll in at least one. But that was before the Great Corporatization. No one would take university classes for recreation at current tuition rates. At my alma mater, Arizona State University — a public university in a state where the constitution requires university education to be “as nearly free as possible“, a single 3 credit class will currently set you back  $2,222.

It has long been obvious that sooner or later higher education must follow the same trajectory as every other profession involving in-person presentations to small audiences. Opera and classical music underwent the transformation a hundred years ago, theater and popular music not long after: given a choice between in-person performances by merely  competent local talent, or media delivery by world-class performers, most people will gravitate toward the latter. Especially so when the local performance costs $2,222 and the world-class performance is free.

Online education has been surprisingly slow to seize the advantage. This is an evolution that I have been observing at close range for nearly two decades. The community college where I taught computer science full time for six years was situated next door to a high-tech military base with soldiers deploying all over the world. Ours was one of the very first colleges in the U.S. to develop an online program, and I and several of my C.S. colleagues were involved in that development from the beginning.

One of the reasons for the slow evolution is obvious to me from that experience: the potential creators of online courses are all (or nearly all) employees of colleges and universities, so any innovation requires buy-in from their overlords in the administration. I recall a committee meeting in which I proposed that we let students register for online classes via an Amazon-like “shopping cart” system; the dean of instruction nixed that idea on the spot, decreeing that the online registration must exactly track the paperwork registration system (multiple steps, signed permissions, etc.), because “we know that works”.

And the performers with potential “star power” have a lot to lose. It’s hard enough to build an academic career at a top university without blowing large chunks of time on side projects like online classes that administrators tend to regard as at best incidental to the main mission. And online classes delivered as part of a university’s normal course offerings have very little advantage over traditional classes, in terms of leveraging the online market. Personally, I would be even less likely to spring for a $2,222 online class than for a traditional one, and many institutions, for reasons that still seem basically insane to me, actually charge more for online classes (the college where I worked charged double tuition).

Then there is the existential hurdle that, back when I was developing and teaching online classes, no one could figure out how to overcome: the problem of accreditation. Accreditation is in the iron grip of traditional educational administrators, who, perhaps not unreasonably, tend to the view that online courses qualifying for degree credit should have to meet the same standards as traditional classes. Getting University A to grant degree credit for an online course taken from University B is  bureaucratically daunting to the point that no student in his or her right mind would dream of attempting it. As long as that remains the case, each university’s market for online classes is limited to its own students. So instead of marketing to the world, you’re competing for your own customers against your own existing products. Not really a formula for success.

But now, the landscape seems to be changing, and the thing that seems to be changing it is the MOOC (massive open online course)  phenomenon, led mainly by EdX and Coursera.  By opening their offerings to the whole world, these are effectively breaking down the individual institutions’ walled gardens, so that a gifted teacher can potentially reach a very large audience and build an international reputation. And, it creates a kind of ratcheting effect, where anyone planning a new course will be aware of the best offerings of others, and have a strong incentive to equal or surpass them in quality.

And the thing that solves the accreditation problem? For one thing, apparently there actually are quite a lot of crazy people like me who like to take classes for fun and don’t really care about degree credit. Doubtless another factor is that the education-consuming world is rapidly waking up to the fact that, to put it charitably, university degrees aren’t what they used to be, either as guarantees of employment or as guarantees of being qualified for employment.

The non-academic marketplace seems to be gradually evolving away from blind reliance on degrees, in favor of employers taking it on themselves to figure out what skills prospective employees have. That evolution still has some way to go, but the eventual destination isn’t much in doubt. We are probably already at a point where, for at least some tech employers, a portfolio of completed MOOC courses, open source project participation, some code up on github, and an ability to demonstrate relevant skills in a test project — may even be seen as preferable to a degree.

The two remaining corners of the economy where “degreeism” retains its death grip on the institutional psyche are (1) the licensed professions like law, medicine, and accounting, where (in most states) admission to the licensing process requires a degree, and (2) academics. The licensed professions are, I think, careening toward irrelevance in their own way, which I’ll rant about some other time. For a career in academics, certainly an advanced degree is still necessary. But even graduate students are starting to wake up to the difference between “necessary” and “necessary and sufficient”, and in today’s market the odds of obtaining a tenure track academic position range from “slim” (for those with a degree from a top-20 school) to “none” ( for everyone else).

Anyway, for someone who lives as far off the beaten path, tech-wise, as I do, EdX and Coursera have been a very great blessing.  I have been sampling their offerings for several years now. They are clearly getting better and better. There has been quite a lot of experimentation, particularly with how to work assignments and student participation into the process. In some of the earlier offerings, professors were clearly not very comfortable with recorded video as a medium, and some of the results seemed amateurish. But the rate of improvement is impressive. And we’re only beginning to see the depth of possibility here, I think. If you’re engineering a class for an audience numbering in the hundreds of thousands, which can be repeated every year or so using the same recorded materials and the same software infrastructure, you can potentially afford to devote a level of design effort (and money) vast in comparison to what would go into a typical traditional class.

I’ll close with an example of a course that I’m currently struggling through, which may be the most impressive example I’ve yet seen of how well it’s possible to do this. The course is Statistical Mechanics: Algorithms and Computations, offered through Coursera by Prof. Werner Krauth of Ecole Normale Superieure. The recorded lectures and tutorials are flawless — the scripts honed to perfection, the visuals exactly as needed to complement the oral presentations (no overly ‘busy’ powerpoints here). The problem sets are obviously very carefully crafted, and there is a very well-run forum, with lots of participation by Dr. Krauth and his assistants, so plenty of help is available if one gets stuck.

So what happens to the traditional institution of higher education if this kind of quality becomes widely available over a full range of disciplines and levels of study? Consider the question from the consumer’s standpoint. Choice A, $2,222 for a classroom course probably taught mostly by graduate assistants and presided over by an overworked prof whose continued employment depends on getting research grants funded. A class that I would have to physically transport myself to, at fixed times however inconvenient, two or three times a week. Choice B, a meticulously executed lecture series presented by a world class expert, on video, with subtitles in a choice of languages, which I can watch at my convenience, and rewind and replay at will whenever something doesn’t quite sink in, with carefully crafted and well thought out problem sets, and a forum where I can get questions answered pretty much 24 x 7. For free.

If I were an administrator in a second or third tier university, I think I’d be getting worried.

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