I do not often snoop about the blog pages of the Cato Institute owing to time constraints and a general sense that I won't find much enlightenment there. Hence, my acquaintance with Professor Alex Tabarrok's really interesting essay "Why Online Education Works"--which he wrote back in November 2012--came via a glance at Brad DeLong's blog today. But it's a provocative read, and at least in DeLong's blog, the commentary afterward was fascinating (and, I note with a certain delight, mostly free of the smack talk that so pervades online discussions that touch upon politics...mostly, anyway).
Tabarrok mainly argues that the reason why online education will largely displace university brick & mortar education as currently constituted is because it is wildly more efficient. In essence, he believes that one very, very, very large virtual lecture "taught" by one professor is a much less expensive model than lots and lots of smaller lectures taught by many professors. Since traditional universities, with their relatively-smaller-but-still-impersonal lecture-style format, are vastly more expensive than the online model, they will eventually be forced to adapt or face extinction since students will eventually realize that they don't have to bear the crushing debt associated with modern higher education. He uses his own TED talk as an example, as he writes, "the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching
career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000
student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline
What follows on DeLong's broadsheet is a discussion about how much Tabarrok's observations can be generalized--and thus how valid his basic point may be. For my part, I sit somewhere in the middle of the continuum: I think big universities had better listen up really quick or else find themselves losing students in the coming years to University of Phoenix in large numbers. Sooner or later there are going to be some enterprising "traditional" students who will decide to roll the dice at much cheaper online schools, and they will eventually find "traditional" employers in the workforce who are willing to roll the dice on students with online degrees. And if they discover that these students are just as prepared as ones from State U, the exodus from the traditional schools will accelerate.
That said, I also side with those in the discussion who point out that undergraduate education is much more commonly smaller classes with more individualized attention, and that Tabarrok is sounding the death-knell of a type of University that almost certainly doesn't exist at the smaller, lib-arts school. Moreover, he sidesteps the fact that the majority of an education of an intellectually curious undergraduate happens outside the classroom walls: a university's appeal--and value--lies in "the close,
dense concentration of fellow students, and the close, dense
concentration of adults interested in said students, and the dense array
of programs tailored to students" in the words of one commenter.
Mostly, though, I viewed Tabarrok's points as well as the replies through the lens of my work at a medical school. I am, at present, basically a 60 percent doctor and 40 percent teacher. You can dress it up in fancy titles but I'm a teacher, no different than a senior grad student lecturing to Chem 101 freshmen. That is, with one critical difference: my students are apprentices. The lecture hall is an inpatient hospital room, or an outpatient exam room. There is simply no legitimate way, thus far, to train a physician by anything other than working with them in a nearly one-on-one manner, right in front of the patient (or away from the patient's eyes listening to presentations and discussing medicine). It is an education where doing and theorizing cannot be separated. You can't solely watch TED talks to become a physician. You must learn at the feet of a master (typically, several masters) to develop your craft.
Which is why one terse little quip from a gentleman named Colin, whose twitter handle is mcgilcoli, caught my eye, and serves as a nice title for this post: conflation of "education" with "lecture" is, at best, questionable pedagogy. Whether Tabarrok would agree with that sentiment or not I do not know. However, I am certain that it highlights what we do at a medical school with our 3rd year students all the way through our interns, residents, and fellows. Education is an intensely personal experience in medicine.
I hadn't understood that at all when I got into this business, and it is certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of my career at this point. I don't think they're going to find an online me anytime soon that can replace the flesh-and-bones me in the medical school. Whether they can find a different flesh-and-bones person to replace the flesh-and-bones me is a separate matter. We promise to provide updates on that front to our intrepid readers.