The Education Industry: Why mass deception should not replace the great university


And mass online education cannot replace the lecture

I am set to debate Marnie Hughes-Warrington about the future of lectures. Marnie presumably will be advocating the view that the days of the lecture are done.* My view is that undoubtedly, the lecture is an institution within great universities that is here to stay. Further, with the emergence of for-profit massive online education, the lecture has to thrive.

I’ll first explain the issues theoretically. But I conclude with views about the emerging for-profit online-education industry which I anticipate will not, in the medium run, make the slightest of dents on education in great universities. That industry has, however, the potential to greatly challenge and perhaps even destroy fine universities in the short run. It is an industry of snake-oil merchants peddling a vision of massive profits from mass deception.

Why lectures are here to stay

I have contemplated Harvard’s guide to graduate studies throughout my career. It draws out the contrast between access to static information such as books and dynamic engagement in a scholarly community. The basic message in Harvard’s guide to prospective PhD students in mathematics is that in theory a student should be able to go through the stages of the program with the help of only good books. But in practice subtle aspects of scholarship are primarily communicated by personal contact with older more experienced scientists and other students of comparable ability.

What is a book?

A book is a static instrument that once published severs its connection with the author, who for all intent and purpose is dead in the reader’s mind. Its contents are entirely immune to any response by its reader. There is no dialogue with a book, it does not respond to questioning or criticism nor boredom or enthusiasm. Its content were thought-out in a distant past, set in a motion that cannot be retracted or modified.

A book is not simply printed words on paper.  For any purpose a prerecorded youtube video or lecture notes designed well before the lecture series and with well defined educational objectives are simply books. The MOOCs and online courses that I have explored are simply books using  technologies that replace words on paper with a combination of  animated  hieroglyphics, cinematics, attractive typesetting, and radio recordings.  I can venture the view that even a live television or radio program share the relevant qualities of a book.

Books in this sense are a relatively cheap way of passive engagement with a student. They are economically attractive because the marginal cost of replicating and distributing a book is low. Books in their modern technological form are non-exclusionary and non-rivelrous goods: thousands of people can watch a youtube video simultaneously at no cost.

But books cannot replace universities regardless of any advancement in technologies nor the substitution of written words with prerecorded films.

What is a university?

A university is not a book. A university is an intellectual community where education is an ongoing  dialogue between all of its members.  It is a community engaged in dynamic scholarly dialogue aimed at changing and formulating the ways we think. There is little distinction a priori in a university between teacher and student. We are all students and all of us are teachers. Through dynamic face-to-face engagement our understanding of the world is continually changing in this community. It is a community that responds to evidence, thoughtful argument, and accepted ideas can change from day to day.  There is good reason why communities of thinkers tend to agglomerate in one physical location, we gain great utility from frequent conversation and exploration of each other’s minds; and personal contact is the quickest and most effective way of doing this.

Within this community there are older more experienced scientists who have reflected on scientific issues for years and decades as well as enthusiastic young adults motivated to learn. So this agglomeration of scholars of varied experiences tends to selforganise in a way where the attention and thoughts and experiences of high valued scientists are sought after by great numbers of young inexperienced scholars.

How does this community organise itself? How does it allocate its scarcities?

The single most important institution for this difficult allocative problem is the lecture. Face-to-face dialogue involving many students and one or two experienced older scientists. The lecture in a great university takes the form of multilateral dialogue that is facilitated by the preparations of the lecturer. In a good lecture, the lecturer remains a student and the students do not suspend their appetite for discovery.

Of course, the larger the class the closer we are to turning a lecture into a static book.  My own experience, however, is even with a large class of several hundred students, one can maintain a dialogue in which both student and lecturer feel that the lecture is a face-to-face bilateral conversation.  That undoubtably involves a big voice and chalk-and-board (or related technologies).

Any university seeking short-run profit, and any university administrator seeking to chalk-up short-run gains for their vita, has an incentive to turn lectures into static books.  It is a method for cost cutting, after all top scientists who would normally attract the crowds of students are expensive. Why not replace the expensive lecturer with a cheap form of a book. such as a pre-recorded video or pre-ordained curriculum and lecture notes, pre-determined educational objectives or handouts written months before the lecture?

The situation for the lecture is far worse when institutions are overtly profit maximisers. Such institutions seek to replace lectures with modern versions of books. In such institution we hear advocacy claiming the days of lectures are done; they will be replaced by a fancy book.

The Education Industry:  Massive profits from mass deception 

Not long ago there was a  popular scam involving paper books and academics. A paper book publisher would cast his net wide ensnaring any academic willing to write a book. The idea of the scam was that the publisher would sell the book to libraries at an exorbitant price but the fine-print of the contract ensures that the academic gets no payment for the first 1500 books sold (the number of potential libraries I guess).  Once all the university libraries bought the book, the publisher stops publishing the book (but usually remains the copyright  holder of the book).

This scam seems to have reemerged with the development of new book technologies. It now involves for-profit online education providers convincing universities to transfer the operation of lecturers to them, employing low cost labour to deliver these lectures in a static format online, and selling the university’s courses (at great profit) to ill informed students seeking prestigious certificates from prestigious institutions. The idea is that in the steady-state the university’s involvement in providing these lectures is minimal and for reasons that I cannot fathom there is some belief that potential students (perhaps “from China”) will continue to demand such certification indefinitely.

Undoubtably, the business model is to turn the dynamic high cost face-to-face lectures into profit making static books; and massive profit. It is a kind of seigniorage scam selling off the reputations of prestigious universities. In the Australian context it is the kind of scam that economists anticipate if the HECS scheme is extended to the for profit sector.

This for-profit online-education industry, like Adorno’s cultural industry, insists on, hopes for, and ultimately needs a pervasive sameness.  You see, in good universities, no two courses are the same; what is taught depend on the lecturer and the students in a way that is difficult to police. To realise its massive profits the online for-profit education-industry is compelled to infect everything with sameness. You study the same material, at the same pace, with the same beat and rhythm regardless of the institution you are enrolled in, or the aptitude and interests of your cohorts. Sameness cuts costs, sameness can be accredited, sameness allows you to use the cheapest and lowest quality of labour.

This insistence on homogeneity must in the medium and long-run spell a catastrophic end for profit-motivated online education industry. Young adults will undoubtably realise that there is no value in a homogenous non-university education (though university certified); one that simply extends school years into adulthood. They will surely realise that their own prospects depend on a real distinct and challenging university education.  One that distinguishes them from the homogenous certified masses.

But in the short run, this industry can potentially devastate fine universities seeking short-run boosts to revenue through ill conceived seignorage scams and insistence on “efficiency dividends” (whatever that means) involving outsourcing lecture delivery.

  • Allan Barton Room CBE, ANU. 5pm-6pm Thursday  10 Sept
  • Debate will be periscoped on my twitter account
  • Rabee Tourky is the Trevor Swan Chair in Economics at the Australian National University
20 Responses to "The Education Industry: Why mass deception should not replace the great university"
  1. The major motivation driving students to get a university degree is to get a job. Employers are very effective at working out which qualifications are desirable. Recruiters do not value online courses. They work with models of educational institutions that have produced good workers in the recent past, too much online content will devalue the modeL. I don’t think there are any jobs that have online courses as a requirement, except maybe social media consultants.

  2. “for-profit online education providers convincing universities to transfer the operation of lecturers to them”

    Do you have an example of this in Australia or the US, Rabee? You seem to have some threat in mind, but without an example it is hard to know what you are talking about.

    You agree with Adorno, a Marxist from the Frankfurt school? I think that from his perspective everything we teach in undergrad economics would count as a deception! He would probably call those bilateral conversations you have with 500 students at a time seeing you chalk up stuff on a board as indoctrination.

    • There was a temporal aspect to his work and he realised that, it had its time and place. I do agree with his post WW views on education in Europe. I think that he would have agreed with me now on this, and on most other things, including the pretty good functioning of markets. Good thing Adorno is dead I guess, so he can’t tell me otherwise. But time is important in Adorns thinking, truth changes over time.

    • ” … those bilateral conversations you have with 500 students at a time seeing you chalk up stuff on a board … ” Lol.

    • Paul — Swinburne Online is a private profit-making enterprise which uses exactly this model (50% owned by Swinburne Uni and 50% by SEEK). There are endless problems with it and with quality control (indeed, the model used where the content creators have no knowledge of the subject content more or less dooms it from the start, and that’s just the start of the problems), but you end up with a degree indistinguishable from a non-online Swinburne one (if you can get through — the dropout rates are high). In case you’re interested in the rest of the gory details, feel free to email, suffice to say that you end with a very poor end product suitably delivered entirely through Blackboard, technology that looked good in 1995.

  3. You seem to be ignoring the communication elements of the Internet entirely, Rabee. There are plenty of MOOCs that feature virtual office hours and incentivise interaction in forums that probably contain more discussion between students than you would see in a regular university class.

    The MOOC environment is pretty diverse in what it offers. Some MOOCs offer the static content for free, and then charge for mentoring from teachers, clearly recognising this as one of the main advantages of the traditional university. Some places aren’t even offering anything like a university course, and are simply platforms for people to sell their knowledge. I think you should probably check out everything on offer and what niche different sites serve before you go to this debate.

    In terms of the value of accreditation from these places, I think that the low value is currently due to people not knowing which institutions are decent and which aren’t. There will be snake oil, but the standard seems to have been set that content is free, and upfront costs for additional services are relatively low compared to traditional universities. Snake oil universities also rely a lot on the exclusivity of better institutions. Unless you believe that there is no possible way to offer any sort of degree in online delivery that is at least as good as the same degree at a traditional university, then the MOOC environment seems pretty hostile to snake oil salesmen once people begin to better understand the players in the market.

    Anyway, good luck in the debate!

      • Not necessarily. Some of them are just books, but many of them include progressive assessment with feedback, some have group work, some have compulsory forum use, etc.

        • Agree. Some are very good, as are some of the amazing resources you can find on the interwebs. The problems with MOOCs has been mostly that no one has come up with a credible model of assessment.

  4. Congratulations to Rabee Tourky for a cogent argument extolling the virtues of an academic institution that is not simply a place for making profits. I agree with him that lectures are significant means of introducing students to the concept that education is not simply reading and memorising a “book”. Discussion and engagement with lecturers is a key part of education. It is a pity that in many universities academics are in rooms that are behind locked corridors so that a student cannot just drop in to see a lecturer to discuss ideas. It is also a pity that many universities use cheap doctoral student labour to do much of the teaching so that students do not have access to the academics in the university.
    Universities are not like, or should not be like, fast food chains!

  5. Online higher education has increased significantly in the last few years, but so too have traditional full-time attendance on campus enrolments.There is little reason to think that online is not still a convenience market for people who cannot easily attend on-campus courses, due to work or family commitments. For the reasons described in the post, younger students especially want to study on-campus, and even though online technologies have improved significantly they are not a substitute for some aspects of on-campus study.

    Most universities talking about putting more lectures online for on-campus students want to use classroom time more effectively, not get rid of it.

    Incidentally, for-profit higher education providers have had HELP loan eligibility since 2005, although not tuition subsidies except when public universities outsource teaching.

      • The funding legislation is neutral on delivery methods. I supports subjects that lead to a degree in approved higher education providers, which is all except for a couple of dozen (typically those which don’t need it because they are aimed at international students or where the employer usually pays). The exception is Open Universities Australia, where students can get FEE-HELP for online subjects without enrolling in a degree.

        Last year there were about 200,000 students enrolled as external students (most of whom would be online) and a further 130,000 in courses with a mix of on and off campus subjects. Together they are about a quarter of all students.

        Online is really only a spectrum – I doubt any student makes no use of online study materials, and many of those who are enrolled as off-campus use campus facilities. Some unis are setting up study centres for them to use.

        • 1. Are there purely online programs that are not simply a form of distance education? Or are purely-online courses a form of School of the Air? I wonder how much interaction there is between student and teacher in School of the Air.

          2. Surely with the education of young adults, online programs are nothing more than libraries. HELP for library subscription I guess.

          • A purely online program would be classified as distance, defined as not involving more than incidental or irregular campus attendance. As noted in my previous comment, however, the distinctions are not necessarily robust. On-campus students often look at lectures online, for example, even though they could turn up for live delivery.

            There is however a big difference between a subject and a library: a set curriculum, obligation on the university to make academic staff available to assist students, assessment, and a contribution towards a legal credential.

  6. Rabee. I think you conflate two things that should not at the outset be conflated: ownership form (for-profit vs not-for-profit) and delivery mode (online in its various forms, campus based in its various forms). For starters, not-for-profits also make profits and have every incentive to do so. They just spend it on things such as cross-subsidization of research and administratium. (Unfortunately way too little is known about this but Paul’s work, for example, has suggested the degree of the problem.) There is to my mind nothing wrong per se with for-profit education and I am always puzzled by the argument that there is something inherently bad about that ownership form. Your computer and your airtravel are provided by for-profits and I am personally happy that is so and definitely prefer it this way. All that rent- and influence-seeking that I see in not-for-profits would make for poorer computers and airtravel if it were provided by not-for-profits.

    As to the delivery mode, the fact is that we have mass education. No turning back for most educational institutions on that one. The times where a relatively small fraction of the population was afforded the kind of education where students could at their whim just stop by for a chat with their lecturer have gone. That may be a bad thing — I am actually not sure, given that I am not a card-carrying member of the leisure-time club — but there are resource constraints and they have to be navigated somehow.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with online courses and lectures although the latter are well-known to be a rather inefficient delivery mode and I do not buy for a second that you can have an reasonable interaction with students when you teach classes in excess of 100 (as I have just done for the last couple of months). Still those lectures have their purpose and so do online courses (no, they are not just books; well designed online courses can do amazing things for learning as can internet resources (check the offerings of the Khan Academy for one example)).

    In the end there is many ways to learn and much initial learning is not so much about subtle rhetorical arguments but pretty rote (as in the equivalent of constructing simple sentences in English). I am talking about all the classes before you can have interesting debates about the relevance of Dickens’s oeuvre for the world we live in. These latter debates also ought to be had at the university and I submit many of us have the equivalent of such conversations in our areas of expertise with more advanced, honours, graduate and post-graduate students. As it should be.

    To me the really important questions are: Who oversees, and drives, the delivery of what ought to be, and has to be, a mix of offerings. How can we make sure that it is not just administrators who have no clue about research and teaching. This brings us to the question of the optimal degree of self-governance and academic oversight of the many facets of university life (and, yes, that includes admissions). It also brings us to the need for accountability and transparency in everything from graduation to placement rates. It is this lack of accountability and transparency that did, for example, the for-profit sector in the USA in which started out well and with laudable intentions (read Sperling’s Rebel with a Cause) but got subsequently perverted in many ways. And, of course, it is this lack of accountability and transparency that allows too many not-for-profits to get away with questionable cross-subsidization of various activities and of constituencies that have the inside-track.

    • Andreas, Your post is not making too much sense.

      The issue is the distinction between book and lecture. Your response is that there are good books. Yes indeed. But they do not replace the lecture.

      Let me give two examples:

      1. If our department turns, say for sake of argument, first year micro into an purely online experience; then effectively they have handed students a book and threw them in the deep end intellectually. One can think: oh we will have more tutes. But tutes done by non-experts (early PhD students) who are directed by a coordinator to do stuff is also a book.

      So even hybrid systems that don’t involve face to face interaction with experts who function under the protection of academic freedom; might as well be purely online.

      2. If let’s say Paul’s department, turns first year micro into a kind of high school curriculum determined by say the ESA; and compels lecturers to teach to this curriculum. Then they have turned the lecture into a book. Might swell shut shop.

      As for the for-profit sector. I’m not sure if there is a for-profit great university anywhere. I’d be keen to see an example

      • Rabee, you must be joking. There is, in effect, no difference between a good book and / or a good on-line resource and a lecture that has more than hundred, and possibly several hundred, students. And that’s when we assume there is a good lecturer and s/he manages to give a good lecture.

        I understood Paul’s sarcastic comment about bilateral interactions with hundreds of students say the same thing. And I agree.

        A couple of my colleagues here have created an online environment for introductory micro — Playconomics — that mixes online explorations with class/tute discussions and that seems — based on a first assessment and adoption by other universities — to be a viable alternative to large lectures even though these colleagues got fave reviews for their lectures in the past. That has nothing to do with turning first-year micro into a kind of high-school curriculum. Just acknowledges that learning about incentives and opportunity costs and comparative advantage and cost configurations and various firms’ decision making is mostly rote learning. Learning that is similar to learning to express yourself in simple sentences in a new language. Which inevitably also requires a considerable amount of rote learning.

        That does not preclude the possibility that even in today’s university you can have interesting debates about the relevance of Dickens’s oeuvre for the world we live in, and the questionable behavioral foundations some of modern economics is based on. And, to repeat, I submit many of us have the equivalent of such conversations in our areas of expertise with more advanced, honours, graduate and post-graduate students. As it should be.

        As to the for-profit great university; not likely to exist (be it only for the breaks that not-for-profits are given). But education has many facets and some of it does not have to happen, and in fact does not happen, in great universities.

        Good luck with your debate later this week.

  7. “in good universities, no two courses are the same; what is taught depend on the lecturer and the students in a way that is difficult to police.”

    I am reminded of a student I heard about, back in the day, who failed 3rd year macro at a good university three years in a row. The problem was each year it was taught by a different lecturer who taught different topics, with a different textbook, different reading lists and different styles of teaching.

    Wouldn’t happen these days (either the failing or changing the subject matter from year to year).

    On the subject of the post: 1st and 2nd year lectures in virtually all disciplines are “books”. Students have figured this out and ‘attend’ the lectures at their convenience, which is online. I know of students who have received maximum grades for all their subjects without having set foot on campus. Lectures for subjects 3rd year and beyond are properly interactive. Yes this is a generalisation but IMO a pretty accurate one.

  8. signalling v human capital. Prestigous universities have a hold on the former (in the short term at least).

    In my opinion the digital experience is already superior for the latter ala duolingo codecademy datacamp etc. Coursera and edx are really just traditional teaching medium slapped onto the digital world but not native experience as per the products have just listed. that isn’t to say the traditional way cease to be useful, i look at them to be complementary to the native experience, but in same way streaming music/tv has superceded the traditional way of distributing media because of its superior experience education will/is going the same way.

    I have nothing to say about the business model except that in every case where ‘software’ has become superior in providing an existing service the business model underlying the industry has changed ala disruption in the christenson sense.

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