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Much has been written lately about how technology is ready to topple the existing bricks and mortar model of higher education. With the rapidly decreasing costs of communications technologies and advances in AI, and continued development of online learning forums, it would seem natural that the way we deliver higher education is bound to change. Professors as they exist today may become the buggy-drivers of the past.  I am very sympathetic to the view. Here is Arnold Kling’s take.

However … I remain skeptical that we’ll see the effect Arnold claims will occur anytime soon. By disintermediation he means that instead of many students learning from their professors in the traditional setting in the future there will be much more independent and perhaps one on one learning. This is only possible because of the cheap technology available to us.

But, I have two counterpoints to make from elsewhere in our educational system. First. we’ve always had a really cheap technology in K12 to provide intimate learning. Home schooling. Sure home schooling is on the rise, but I don’t see anyone arguing that this is going to take over the world. Of course, home schooling has become extremely expensive today in terms of lost economic output from the stay at home parent, but this was not even a very popular option before female labor market opportunities improved.

Second, within higher education there exists a similar opportunity – retired professionals. Indeed, as our population ages and the ratio of young to old continues to fall, and as life expectancy continues to rise and as our wealth continues to rise, it will become increasingly cheaper for older generations to directly education younger generations. Yet we do not see any remote hints of this emerging. After all, the new technologies we are all excited about are simply cheaper and more flexible ways of delivering educational content. Retirees could be cheap and flexible and have the extra advantage of not having to deliver the same exact material as is specified in the video.

Now, of course, celebrating labor intensive methods of production is not my cup of tea, and of course the credentialism of what higher education institutions do matters, and matters a lot. But, my point is that it is not simply new and cheaper technology alone that will be the reason for massive changes in education. We’ve had the chance to do that for decades and we’ve yet to try it. Or, we are not willing to admit to ourselves that universities may offer something that can hardly be replicated by better technology? It’s not just consumption — how do we simulate the positive peer effects from being in the traditional setting? Are these important?

4 Responses to “Education Disintermediation Temperance”

  1. chuck martel says:

    It seems curious that wealthy individuals would not have their children educated as was done in the not so distant past, by tutors. Carl Menger, for instance, the father of the Austrian school of economics, was a tutor and adviser to the Hapsburg Empire heir Crown Prince Rudolph for much of the prince’s abbreviated life. It would be a much sounder investment to pay the salary of an intelligent, well-educated private instructor than to shuffle one’s son or daughter off to the state U or even some over-rated Ivy League diploma mill. Of course, there’d be no diploma but the prestige of learning at the knee of a retired Paul Krugman would more than make up for it.

  2. Harry says:

    Lazy perfessers will we hope be replaced, but not Energizer Bunny perfessers who fill their classes, and have a full sign-up schedule on the door. Technology cannot replace that, nor can it replace the stacks in the library.

    By the way, WC, your map does not fully capture all of the hits to your page. You should have at least five or six pings from Puerto Rico, as opposed to the present four. They did pick up some pings from Pompano Beach, but now I wonder about how many hits you may have gotten from Iran or other friendly inquiring countries. Maybe it is an AT&T peculiarity. Bet they do not pick up the hits from Yellowknife. Is this because Comcast acquired NBC? The black helicopters are circling my house, Chris Matthews dressed in camo….uh! Flash-bangs! Thump-thump!

  3. Harry says:

    Great point, Chuck, as always.

  4. RIT_Rich says:

    I agree with you 100%. I’ve always argued that the “online” model of education, or similar fashions, may be cheaper but cost isn’t the only dimension. It isn’t perhaps even the most important dimension. Quality is. Education after all isn’t simply about the transfer of information. That’s a big part of it, but what differentiates great schools from average schools isn’t that they transfer different information. They probably use the same textbooks.

    Plus, we have tried this model. Exclusively online schools have existed for over a decade, and there are hundreds of them. There certainly is a large body of evidence for us to examine as to how successful they have been (they have not, for the vast majority), and why. The best evidence we can look is how the ultimate customer of this education, the employer, values a degree from different types of traditional education models vs online schools.

    PS: The answer may be at least partially evident to anyone who has taken an online class; they are awful. And it may be that we haven’t yet learned how to squeeze quality out of this model, but as of now we still haven’t.

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