The Opposition to DIY Education

by Reihan Salam

Mike Konczal describes Wendy Brown as one of his favorite thinkers, and I find myself surprised and confused after reading her remarks. Because Mike is one of the writers and thinkers I enjoy reading most, I chalk this up to a deep and unbridgeable divide in how our respective brains work.


Some facts are in order here. To date, for-profit high quality on-line liberal arts education has been a financial disaster for most institutions engaged with it.

This “fact” is selectively presented. Brown excludes institutions like StraighterLine from her analysis. Part of the problem is that regulators and incumbents have been working to prevent StraighterLine from offering high-quality instruction at low cost. Brown’s definition of “high quality” strikes me as conveniently narrow. Moreover, one wonders if there is a systematic difference for those institutions that have “succeeded” and those that have “failed.” That would be a more constructive line of inquiry, but Brown seems to be writing with a polemical intent. 

Consider that a “financial disaster” may well have proved a success if it yielded a decent educational outcome, and if it offered lessons for future efforts in this space. I’d argue that the failure of the UC system to consolidate basic administrative functions has been a “financial disaster.” But this doesn’t mean that I’d shut down the system’s administrative facilities. Using the crude metrics of Texas A&M, it is possible that the teaching of certain obscure languages has been a “financial disaster” for some institutions. Brown’s point, as I understand it, is that online initiatives of elite universities haven’t generated revenue to support brick-and-mortar efforts, which is hardly surprising given that these efforts are still in their infancy. 

A second group of facts is also important for understanding the economics of a proposed UC cyber campus. The drop-out rate for students taking on-line courses is persistently and consistently high, paralleling the drop-out rate of for-profit colleges.

The drop-out rate for public institutions serving the same students is also extraordinarily high, yet there are more opportunities for brick-and-mortar providers to extract rents, whether we’re talking about the firms maintaining facilities or overcompensated administrators.

It is routinely 20% higher than drop-out rates from on campus courses and runs as high as 70% for some courses and programs.

The term “routinely” doesn’t strike me as very useful. Again, are we making apples-to-apples comparisons? 

Moreover, the high rate, much studied, seems impossible to fix.

Do you get the impression that Brown is thinking hard about how to fix the dropout rate for these institutions she holds in contempt? 

Why do drop out rates matter? Because students pay for courses and programs they don’t complete.

This is an interesting view. Would dropout rates note matter if students did not pay for the courses they don’t complete? The high school dropout rate remains catastrophically high, and I certainly think it’s a problem. 

Millions of former students are now “under water” with debt from on-line courses of study they never completed and/or whose benefit they never reaped.

If “millions of former students” is a fair order of magnitude, I’d want to see a more precise estimate of the number and the amount of money involved. I’d also want to compare the number to the amount of money spent on other heavily subsidized purchases. Consider that at least some of the funds disbursed through TANF are spent on consumables that are not nutritious. This doesn’t strike me as a case against redistribution, though I imagine the “wasted” funds are quite high. Direct transfers are often spent on goods and services whose benefit the recipients never reaped. Much depends on the time preferences of different individuals.

Paternalism has a place in public policy, but I’m struck by the domains in which we consider it acceptable and those in which we consider it unacceptable. I doubt that Brown endorses a regime in which all transfers disbursed to the poor and near-poor are tightly regulated so that all purchases have to be pre-approved by a board of overseers that will determine, after research and careful consultation, that the consumption in question meets with community standards of what is and what is not “wasteful.” (I understand that Brown’s work is informed by the work of Foucault and the Frankfurt School.)

Fair enough, we apply “commonsense” standards to how educational funds are spent. But fixating on the online vs. brick-and-mortar distinction is nonsensical. I’d be perfectly satisfied with applying the same scrutiny and accountability across these institutions. Dropout rates ought to matter in both contexts, which is why I place heavy emphasis on making risk-adjusted, apples-to-apples comparisons, keeping cost-effectiveness in mind. That is, what does a student get in exchange for X amount of tuition?  

Indebted alumni of on-line education are thus joining the ranks of homeowners paying off mortgages on properties whose value is lower than the loan or which they no longer even own. …

Indebted alumni of public brick-and-mortar institutions have existed for many years. Someone very close to me attended Berkeley, and she’s been struggling with debt in the 15 years since she graduated. I don’t consider her representative. For example, she also attended another brick-and-mortar institution that further exacerbated her debt problem. But yes, she’s never taken part in online education.  

As is well known, no matter how “high touch” it is, on-line education inherently isolates and insulates students, deprives instruction of personality, mood and spontaneity, sustained contact, and leaves undeveloped students’ oral skills and literacy.

“As is well know” doesn’t inspire much confidence, as one of the main goals of allowing diverse forms of instruction is to find new and better ways of educating students. To suggest that online education “inherently isolates and insulates students” certainly doesn’t comport with my experience, and one assumes that a new instructional mode will evolve over time as the technology evolves. 

Countless studies reveal that on-line courses necessarily dumb down and slow down curriculums.

Again, when were these “countless studies” conducted? This question is salient given that online education is a fast-evolving space. 

They reduce as well the critical, reflective and reflexive moments of learning, moments of developing thoughtfulness, navigating strangeness and newness, and of being transformed by what one learns. On-line education necessarily emphasizes what Edley refers to as “content retention,” rather than what liberal arts education has long promised: the cultivation of thoughtful, worldly, discerning, perspicacious, and articulate civic-minded human beings.

One gets the impression that Wendy Brown believes that her idealized characterization of liberal arts education applies to all brick-and-mortar education, which is a curious notion. Many of our public institutions are and have long been devoted primarily to providing young people with marketable skills. Physical co-location might be essential to the kind of experience that Brown privileges above all others, but not all of us share her idiosyncratic preferences and priorities. 

Thus to substitute on-line for on-campus education, especially in those first two years of college when students are initiated into university level inquiry, is to spurn the enduring Socratic notion of learning as a “turning of the soul.” It is also to privilege those courses that conform best to large-scale cyber teaching, those with the most information-based content. It would thus further orient students and the future of the university toward education conceived simply as job training and credentialing.

The fundamental fallacy in Wendy Brown’s reverie, in my view, is that education is limited to educational institutions. This strikes me as a profoundly limited view. One can turn to formal educational institutions for job training and credentialing and fulfill humane aspirations in many other ways, including many that Brown would perhaps frown upon. Brown presents herself as an egalitarian, yet her vision is deeply hierarchical. 

Let me add a few other highlights from Brown’s piece:

While on-line law schools exist, none are accredited by the American Bar Association, and 49 states refuse to permit students graduating from the on-line schools to sit for the bar (California, god bless her ever-cheapening soul, is the one exception).  Deduce what you will from this fact, but it is especially noteworthy given how much of legal education is technical and rote.  Yet presumably learning to “think like a lawyer” is something that keepers of the profession believe requires the in-class experience of challenging dialogue between faculty and students and perhaps of students studying together outside the classroom as well.  There is probably no need to underline the irony that our Law School Dean is driving the train to put UC undergraduate education on-line when his own curriculum cannot and will not be – and precisely for reasons of academic excellence.

It could also be that the legal guild is quite strong, and it has long foiled the efforts of students to, for example, take the bar exam without attending an accredited law school. That Brown did not even consider this possibility is impressive, in a sense. I fully endorse not only allowing for accredited online law schools, but also allowing any student to take the bar exam and to prepare for it in any way. (Interestingly, much of the preparation for the bar exam happens in online BarBri courses. One assumes that this model could be expanded well beyond exam prep.) 

Then we get a glimpse into Brown’s field research methods:


A second instance of an institution spurning cyber-education hails from the other end of the education spectrum.  Last winter, alas, I collected a speeding ticket in the Sierra foothills.  Although eligible for traffic school to clear the ticket, I was surprised to discover that Calavaras County did not allow use of the ubiquitous on-line traffic schools.   Curious, I phoned the traffic court clerk to ask why: “is it just because I could pay my teenage son to take it for me?”   No, she replied, “it’s because studies show that people don’t change their driving after taking the on-line courses but do with the in-person ones.”  And indeed, after spending a miserable Saturday in a Vallejo Ramada Inn meeting room reeking of Windex and stale coffee, suffering instruction from a barely competent and deeply unpleasant teacher… my driving changed!  This was something that had not followed upon the on-line traffic school course I took a decade earlier…and which I suspect is also not the case for those on-line ethics and sex harassment courses periodically required of UC faculty and staff.

Again, we lack time to analyze all the reasons for this disparity between the effect of on-line and in person remediation, but it returns us to the fundamental point about students being potentially transformed by education, not merely depositories for it.  

Given what Brown managed to tell us with the time she was given, I can’t imagine more time would have helped. Let’s just say that online traffic education continues to evolve, and Calavaras County doesn’t represent the last word in public policy innovation. 

I decided to write Anya Kamenetz, the author of the excellent DIY U for her thoughts. I don’t want to associate Anya with my views — she is a committed social democrat, and I’m confident that she disagrees with me on most questions relating to the public sector — but I greatly admire her as a clear-eyed thinker:

The only way to restore the concept of higher education as a public good is to reinvent it as a truly public good: not subject to antiquated notions of scarcity and hierarchical expertise, but adapted to the current reality of free, open, and immediate sharing of knowledge.

That sounds right to me. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.