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

Further Thoughts on DIY U



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Mike has written his follow-up post, and he opens with a couple of fulminating links. One is from an adjunct professor who seems to believe that the world owes him a living. I suggest he come with me on an exciting journey into the heart of the developing world. 

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. 

This is a pretty incredible statement. And I also like the nature of the comparison: if you’re paying dramatically less for the courses and learning only as much as you would in a traditional course, is it fair to say that you’ve come out ahead? Somehow I sense that I’d get more out of beating my head with a rock than I would from taking a course from the angry adjunct. “Few could honestly claim” — so you see, almost anyone who disagrees is a liar right off the bat. Love this guy.

His failure to understand or acknowledge how barriers to entry imposed by the higher education industry have stalled the development of low-cost educational alternatives, a central part of Anya’s book, which, come to think of it, I’m not sure he’s actually read, is stark. Which leads me to a conclusion: this is pure entertainment. Now that “outlaw comic” Bill Hicks is no longer raging at audiences with “daring” jibes at organized religion in front of packed audiences in London and Austin, Texas, perhaps our adjunct can find new life as a professional clown.   

But I digress!

The rest of Mike’s post is totally smart. He does link to zunguzungu, and I’m not sure zunguzungu understands the cost structure of public universities — the charts are great, but do you know what is driving the cost increases? and does the “disinvestment” happen in a context of wage pressure on middle-class taxpayers? and is the UC system representative of broader trends in higher education? and do students paying higher fees capture the benefits of their education? and do you really think students who learn online don’t care about education? — but otherwise, he makes some solid points.

– A lot is predicated on whether or not online classes and collaborative learning can replace a college experience. Or will it turn college into a form of community college? Ed: “Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training.” I could see a revolution in terms of this, but would it substitute in for the experience of college as we know it?

I think we’d all profit from more exposure to Clayton Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation. Tim Lee ably summarizes his work here. Basically, we have a large “non-consuming” population, people who are shut out of the existing higher education sector. MP3s were inferior to CDs, but they were also cheaper. And so they served the needs of the non-consuming population. Some of us, including Mike, I think, care about the non-consuming population. Products designed for non-consumers sometimes get better and cheaper faster than the dominant existing product.

Mike says he can see a revolution in terms of adults who need work-related training, as though this is some kind of afterthought. But this is the heart of the education problem in a country going through an enormous economic transition, and in which rates of functional illiteracy and innumeracy remain troublingly high. I know we all love adjunct professors. But you’ll forgive me for worrying more about the prospects of the long-term unemployed, and wondering if a full-time stint at Dean Dad’s community college is exactly what they need. 

– That the DIY U revolution should remove a prestige bubble from private competitive institutions, that the value of a Harvard or a Yale should be reduced if one can attend it virtually online, isn’t approached in the book. I find that interesting.

Well, I’m pretty sure that Anya would love to see that happen. She’s spent several years criss-crossing community colleges, talking to students about debt and their anxieties about the future. So it could be that she was more exercised by the challenges they face than launching a Kulturkampf against an Ivy League she sees as less and less relevant with each passing year. I’m saddened by the thought that Anya’s book would have won more favorable attention from this crowd if only she had included more Princeton-bashing. 



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