Saturday, October 03, 2009

Scaling Higher Education asserted yesterday in "The Education Solution" that because of the stigma of online ed:
Elite institutions do not want to dilute their brands by expanding the reach of their methodology using online channels.
I don't know how to judge how much this is true, but let's take it at face value for the sake of argument. Stepping into this void are the private for-profit universities. But a start-up is a long process for a new school. It's not just the nuts and bolts of getting an organization going, but also the major hurdle of the accreditation process that throws a spanner in the works. In order to qualify for state and federal aid (read: massive subsidies), a host of hurdles have to be topped. One clever solution is to buy a school that's already accredited. The article explains:
Brent Richardson, who was the CEO of the now-public Grand Canyon University, decided to buy a nonprofit with regional accreditation in 2004 to avoid the bottleneck. "If you were starting from scratch, I would think that it would take five to seven years if everything went right," recalls Richardson.
Again, if we take this at face value, we have an interesting dynamic. To wit and viz.: the high-profile schools stay out of the biggest market potential, and the newcomers have significant barriers to entry. I've made the point before that this is an opportunity for existing private liberal arts schools to find an online market niche. I don't mean slapping something together on the cheap, but rather developing a top-quality online offering with dedicated faculty and clean organization, top-notch customer service. Parts of this can be outsourced and branded, at least in the short term. A less attractive strategy is to shop around for a private buyer to cash in on the "accreditation bonus." From the article:
Michael Clifford is one such entrepreneur. He has made a career out of buying and selling accredited schools and turning them around by positioning them to focus on specific niches.
Here's a list of publicly traded education companies on google/finance. The index is outperforming the S&P500 by 20%.

How did it turn out? According to Forbes, Grand Canyon got a cash infusion of $18M, revamped programs, went heavily online, and increased enrollment by 1000% in three years.

One of the most interesting questions raised by the article is that of scalability, or the ability to grow gracefully with demand. Think mass production, where the per unit cost of instruction drops with volume. Online ed is the only scalable way to retrain millions of people, says the subtitle of the article. I'm not yet sure how scalable online ed is. If it requires about 1/20 prof per student, it's not scalable. Quoting again from the article:
Hunt Lambert, the mastermind of the program [at Colorado State University], says that for 1,000 students he needs 54 faculty. "The average is slightly under 20 [students per faculty member]. If you went to 100,000 students, you would have 5,000 faculty," he says.
This labor dependency is perhaps one of the reasons that higher education has not met the challenge of increasing demand since WW II (see yesterday's post about that topic). Instead, the cost per student has risen as the volume increased. This despite "mass-production" tactics like 300-student sections of introductory courses as large state schools. Why haven't we seen economies of scale? That we haven't has damaged the opportunities of the lower socio-economic classes: costs are too high, they underperform on standardized tests, and get the double-whammy of losing out on merit-based aid. Postsecondary Education Opportunity has documented this trend over the years with voluminous statistics.

Certainly the potential of scalability is inherent in online delivery for many subjects of study. But how do we get there? Clearly we have to overcome the 20:1 ratio between instructors and students. Given that there isn't much difference between sitting in a giant lecture hall watching a "sage on the stage" and seeing the same thing on a video podcast, let's start there.

When I've thought about this before, I separated out the low frequency and high frequency learning interactions. Low frequency means easily conveyed in a static or low-complexity medium, like a book or video or interactive program. Lectures, notes, commentary, problems and solutions, video, audio, and all manner of webbish cleverness can be delivered 24/7 to a learner without any need for formal interactions with an institution. This body of work is rapidly growing (if chaotically).

The high frequency stuff is where the custom information is--how the learner interacts with the material--which varies from person to person. Calculus may be the same everywhere, but how I learn it will be different from how you do. This is where real live teachers excel, and textbooks fall short.

So this is the real bottleneck--creating the right social dynamics to support user-created learning communities without a PhD for every 20 students in a traditional classroom-like setting (real or virtual). I do think this problem will dissolve, and afterwards we'll wonder why it took so long. I think the answer is dynamic learning communities.

Learning communities are a natural social phenomenon, and they arise spontaneously. Here's one at Reddit for learning to program C, where "CarlH" volunteers his time, has constructed tutorials and quizzes, and the lot. The various open education projects are attempting to engineer this sort of thing in closed garden systems. Figuring out the noncognitives like motivation and self-assessment is the main challenge, I think. Motivated self-starters won't have a problem finding lectures online and reaching out to communities for help in understanding details. But what about the unmotivated ones?

I've tried to diagram below how a scalable education "system" might work and service even unmotivated learners. The question marks show parts that currently need construction or reinforcement in order to fulfill their potential. This resembles a personal learning environment, but is intended as an overall structure to deliver education en mass.

From the learner's perspective, in this Utopian vision, she has access to a learning community that is at least loosely organized by a professional organization in the field of study. There's nothing like general education here--any prerequisite skills like writing or math have to be accomplished in situ or through a secondary means, which might mean tapping into several learning communities for different subjects.

A learning community is just that--a group of learners and accomplished individuals who meet irregularly online to help one another with tutoring, explanation, and so forth. It's similar to an idea in a Vernor Vinge novel: belief circles. These sorts of things already exist for some subjects. I particularly know about ones related to programming and operating systems, but I'm sure there are others. What's new here is a link to a professional organization, which would also specify an ideal curriculum and learning outcomes. This by no means puts a rigid bureaucratic structure on the community--that would be the kiss of death. But it does provide useful services like indexing the best, most current, resources available. You don't want to waste your time learning stuff that's already obsolete.

There may already be links between professional organizations and learning communities, but I'm not aware of it. The professional organizations already have strong links to the academy and professionals, and these worthy men and women already crank out a lot of useful books and other resources for learning. I put question marks because it needs to be indexed by the profession to be of maximum use, and also because the production is hit-and-miss rather than systematically for the purpose of allowing this sort of education. Nevertheless, there's a lot of low-frequency content available.

So in this fairy tale, the learner plugs into a learning community, which not only helps with instruction, but also with motivation. For many students, this won't be enough, I surmise, and that's why I included the "coaching" service. For students accustomed to a high level of customer service and having everything shrink-wrapped for them, these services could provide a low cost entry point, acting like an academic advisor and in some ways like a personal trainer. It would well be that this is the most expensive part of the model.

The product at the end of the learning experience is a portfolio and enhanced resume, perhaps with certificates or other demonstrations of achievement that are approved by the professional organization. For the portfolio, the harvesting gradebook idea from the TLT group is a great model. Students would expect it to be free and theirs to keep forever, of course, like Google docs.

Employers play a key role in two ways. First they have to get away from the "bachelor's degree = education" concept and focus on demonstrations of accomplishment. There would be service companies that spring up to evaluate portfolios, probably, but I haven't included them on the diagram. The other thing is that employers would take an active role in facilitating professional growth of employees, perhaps by paying for the coaching service or hosting some aspects in-house as an extended mentorship concept. This is a very good thing for employers, since they can start to take control of their supply of talent, for example, by becoming more involved with professional organizations, learning communities, and coaching. There are no vast bureaucratic walls that keep them out of the learning space, as there are now.

In summary, the only apparent costs to the students are coaching and paying for formal evaluation. They probably will want to join the professional organization too, which will have a fee. This is conceivably a lot less than a traditional education now, either on campus or online. Think of all the infrastructure that's NOT needed.

Of course there are hidden costs that get pushed out to society as a whole. The academy still exists, and it ain't cheap. Professional organizations will take their percentage from service costs to customers indirectly through membership fees. The academy is the hard part, because it's hard to see how traditional universities could maintain their structure if students stayed away in droves. At least the subsidies required to maintain them as researchers and teacher-scholars is far less than it needs to be to actually operate a vast teaching enterprise. On the whole, it's a big win for scalability. It would completely disrupt the market for PhDs, of course. Most college teachers would have to get into the advisor market or retrain for something else. But ANY realization of economies of scale means this kind of transformation is inevitable.

Accreditation would simply go away. There's no need for subsidies for the actual education in Stanislavian Utopia--it's dirt cheap. And the professional organizations don't need anyone looking over their shoulder to tell them what a computer scientist should be able to do, for example. The only thing that presently justifies the need for accreditation is the complexity of the current system, with all of its moving parts. This grand simplification removes all that tedious stuff we take for granted: all the committees, administrative units, dorms, finances, athletics, etc... No need for any of it. The NCAA can go into business for itself, and everyone will be happier anyway.

A college could perhaps step up and take on the coaching function for a particular subject of study now, linking it to its own online courses and those offered elsewhere, as well as beginning to create portfolio-building with less formal learning arrangements. In this way, it might be possible to evolve into a mighty education presence in Stanislavian Utopia by putting the pieces together before anyone else does. A better bet is that some twenty-year old with 100K venture capital money will do it from his bedroom, though.

Update: Here's a piece about physically scaling up at large universities, and learning communities in rl. Quote:
The freshman experience at large state universities can still resemble a failed social experiment more than the start of a four-year journey to enlightenment.

Overwhelmed freshmen in many places still sit anonymously in large lecture halls, surrounded by hundreds of peers whose names the professor couldn't possibly remember. Dorm life isn't much better, with total-stranger roommates sharing little other than a desire to survive those first rocky semesters.

There's also a coaching service for being happy:, of course. If anonymous online services can make you happy, surely they can help you learn, no?

Update 2: It occurred to me that there's a market opportunity to grab the attention of the burgeouning online student population with an electronic magazine/news site targeted at their needs. I brainstormed a bit and looked for,,,,, and are parked and spammy or otherwise have little to do with online ed., on the other hand is 180 degrees away--it provides learning system portals for colleges so they can deliver online ed. My attempts at finding something on the Google didn't turn out any better. If there's such a site out there, it's well-hidden.

There IS something called inDegree, for graduate students, advertised a helping with job searches. It touches on some of the threads on my diagram above.

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