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.