Megan McArdle on the Coming Burst of the College Bubble

Megan McArdle:

…Just as homeowners took out equity loans to buy themselves spa bathrooms and chef’s kitchens and told themselves that they were really building value with every borrowed dollar, today’s college students can buy themselves a four-year vacation in an increasingly well-upholstered resort, and everyone congratulates them for investing in themselves.

…When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, “Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?” The answer, Caplan says, is that they’re mostly there for a credential, not learning. “Why does cheating work?” he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

There has, of course, always been a fair amount of credentialism in education. Ten years ago, when I entered business school at the University of Chicago, the career-services person who came to talk to our class said frankly, “We could put you on a cruise ship for the next two years and it wouldn’t matter.

…If students are gaining real, valuable skills in school, then putting more students into college will increase the productive capacity of firms and the economy—a net gain for everyone. Credentials, meanwhile, are a zero-sum game. They don’t create value; they just reallocate it, in the same way that rising home values serve to ration slots in good public schools. If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get

 

Bill Gates on Graphite: a remarkable teachers’ aid

Happily, we are seeing an explosion of digital education resources, from Khan Academy to Udacity. How does a teacher find the resources most suitable to the requirements of her students? Well, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a new web service that will be a huge help: Graphite. This is exciting. See e.g., how the Graphite rating scheme works.

 

Alex Tabarrock: Industry of Mediocrity

Alex on the new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality – not good news: 

AP: Washington: The nation’s teacher-training programs do not adequately prepare would-be educators for the classroom, even as they produce almost triple the number of graduates needed, according to a survey of more than 1,000 programs released Tuesday.

The National Council on Teacher Quality review is a scathing assessment of colleges’ education programs and their admission standards, training and value.

Not surprisingly the report is being criticized by the teacher’s unions who complain that evaluators “did not visit programs or interview students or schools that hired graduates.” Most of the teacher’s colleges, however, refused to cooperate with the evaluators with some even instructing their students not to cooperate. Do you think the non-cooperators were of better quality than the programs that did cooperate?

According to the report, “some 239,000 teachers are trained each year and 98,000 are hired” suggesting a poor return for the potential teachers. One wonders about the quality of the teachers not hired.

In any case, the report is consistent with a wide body of research that shows teacher quality is not high and has declined over time, see Launching the Innovation Renaissance for details.

Meanwhile, on the every cloud has a silver lining front, Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer for the important non-profit New Schools for New Orleans argues that the great stagnation will increase the supply of high-quality teachers:

Unfortunately, international trade and technology will continue to eliminate middle-class jobs. Personally, I’m worried that our political system will not adequately ease the pain of this transition. However, this economic upheaval will increase the quality of human capital available to schools. The education sector will likely capture some of this talent surplus, so long as schools are well managed. Moreover, if tech progress reduces the amount of educators we need, we may be in a situation where we have both (a) higher quality applicant pools and (b) less education jobs. I do not view the hollowing out of middle-class jobs as a positive economic development, but it will positively affect education labor…

The Minerva project plans for different kind of online education

The Minerva Project is sufficiently visionary that it makes me fearful they might fail. Let’s hope not. Ry Ryvard at InsideHigherEd recently profiled the Ben Nelson-founded for-profit elite university startup. 

(…snip…) Minerva’s doors won’t open to anything resembling a traditional university: the for-profit startup expects top students will fly across the world to sit in front of computers. Professors could be located anywhere in the world. Now, Minerva will need to make good on its promise to attract some of the world’s most qualified students based on an unproven idea that relies on unfinished software.

The company wants to be a “hybrid university.” Its students would gather in dorms in major cities across the world, and after spending time together in one city, move to another, but take online classes from Minerva professors on the other end of the screen.

Minerva’s founder, former Snapfish executive Ben Nelson, believes powerful software can teach students better than traditional classes. But he also believes students still want to go to a residential college. Minerva plans to charge about half as much as an Ivy League university.

To get there, he will need to raise millions before Minerva can begin teaching its first class. The company also needs to produce one-of-a-kind software good enough to compete with a traditional campus experience, use what Nelson calls “various loopholes” in the accreditation system to get accredited and attract talent to an unproven idea.

 (…snip…) 

The Minerva Project

Who: Ben Nelson, a former executive at Snapfish, and his team, along with $25 million in venture capital, but with millions more needed.

What: A for-profit university that will have students in residence hall taking online classes from Minerva professors. The software Minerva is working on will monitor student learning and encourage student involvement in ways Nelson does not believe are possible in traditional in-person lectures. The university plans to have four colleges within it and eventually a business school.

Why: Nelson and his team believe some elite students from across the world are ready for something different and that traditional universities have yet to apply 21st century technology to decades of research on student learning.

When: The company expects to run a small group of students through its program in 2014 but offer its first full year of classes to students starting in September 2015.

Where: San Francisco at first, with other campuses in more than a half dozen of the world’s major commercial capitals. None of the campuses are ready yet and Minerva will not own any of the buildings but instead work with private developers who will put up the money while Minerva guarantees the students.

Minerva v. MOOCs and Lectures

When Nelson started thinking about Minerva in 2010, online education had already taken off, with universities nationwide competing to offer online degree programs. But much of the growth of online education was in professional training and the big players weren’t always the colleges attracting top undergraduates. Now, leading universities from across the world are offering free online courses and seem to be moving rapidly to offer them to undergraduates for credit.

Nelson is not the least bit threatened by these massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

Instead, Nelson called MOOCs ”manna from heaven” for Minerva. He said he never wanted Minerva to offer introductory classes to begin with. He expects Minerva students will be good enough to pick up basic things like Econ 101 on their own.

Indeed, he thinks it’s “not O.K. to charge” for Econ 101. So Nelson plans for Minerva’s professors to only teach classes where students are required to debate one another or where the professors can closely track students’ intellectual development using sophisticated software. Those things, he said, “can’t be MOOCed and therefore can’t be given away for free.”

Nelson’s confidence in this direction is born in part of a disdain for lectures. Lectures, the staple of most undergraduate education, “are not proven to work,” he said.

Nelson said MOOCs are victims to the same flaws as lectures and therefore make “absolutely no sense.”

Where, if not classrooms, will Minerva students learn? Well, first of all, in front of a computer. “We will not allow them to congregate” in typical classroom settings, Nelson said. The students will live together in residence halls, first in San Francisco and then in dorms Minerva plans to have in the world’s major commercial capitals. Minerva students will have hall advisors and faculty guides for education excursions, but no in-person classroom professors.

While MOOCs are basically supersized lectures offered to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of students, Minerva wants to use learning analytics to scale up Oxbridge-style tutorials to seminar-size online classes taught by professors who can work remotely from any location in the world.

“We are trying to deliver the world’s highest-touch education experience,” Nelson said. “And we believe that to deliver a truly high-touch delivery experience — we believe that if you tell 20 students to gather in a room that will not happen.”

Unlike MOOCs, which are based on recorded lectures, Minerva classes will be taught live online.

Minerva believes it can develop software to log students and professors’ every move and not only track but encourage participation and learning. This, Nelson says, will avoid the limitation of the in-person lecture — namely that whatever is said just “vanishes into thin air.”

Students in the back of a real class are not very engaged, said Robin Goldberg, Minerva’s chief marketing officer. But Minerva students, who could be in front of a webcam with their keystrokes being logged, will be on their toes. “You can barely blink without everybody knowing it. You can’t get up to get a glass of water without everybody knowing it,” she said.

The faith in the power of the software versus the lecture is at the heart of the company.

The software? It’s not finished yet.

The Faculty

A university also needs faculty and students. Last month, Minerva lured Stephen Kosslyn away from his job as director of Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences.

Kosslyn, who started full-time at Minerva on April 1, will be the new university’s founding dean. He will oversee the School of Arts & Science and its four colleges of natural science, social science, computational science and arts and humanities.

“I need to find distinguished academics who can head those, so if you can mention that in the article that would be great,” Kosslyn said.

(…snip…)

The Minerva momentum seems to be building with Larry Summers signing on to lead the board of advisors, the announcement of the $500,000 Minerva Prize, and the announcement of the Kosslyn hiring: Minerva Project Names Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn As Founding Dean; Former Harvard Dean Will Lead the Academics and Curriculum of the University.

To be continued…

Minerva Project Announces $500,000 Prize For Innovation In Teaching

All of the big academic prizes go for research. But among the innovations emerging from the Benchmark Capital-funded Minerva Project is a serious prize to reward the educator who has contributed the most to excellence in education. The press release begins with this: 

April 22, 2013 – Minerva Project, which is redefining a top-tier university experience to prepare global leaders and innovators, today announced the launch of the Minerva Academy, a society of educators dedicated to promoting and rewarding innovation and excellence in teaching. Led by Nobel Laureate Roger Kornberg, who will serve as Governor of the new Academy, the group will select and award the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education. This international honor and $500,000 prize, the largest of its kind, will be bestowed on one distinguished educator each year whose innovations have led to extraordinary student learning experiences. Nominations are open through November 30, 2013 at http://www.minervaproject.com/academy and the first Minerva Prize will be awarded in May 2014.

“While academic research has long been internationally recognized, and rightfully so, communication of the passion that lies behind it has gone largely unnoticed. We seek to enhance the intellectual development of students and inspire their interest, while continuing to support the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge within the professoriate,” said Dr. Roger Kornberg, governor of the Minerva Academy. “The new Minerva Academy and Prize are a step toward balancing emphasis and recognition in higher education.”
The Minerva Academy is an honorary institution that will induct the best educational innovators from around the world. Academy members will be identified and invited based on recognized expertise focused on student learning as well as published research. The objective of the Minerva Academy is to promote, recognize and reward extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence by providing a forum for open exchange of new ideas and enhanced practices in higher education instruction.

The Academy will recognize achievement through the Minerva Prize for Advancements in Higher Education, to be awarded annually to one faculty member, from any institution worldwide, who has demonstrated extraordinary, innovative teaching and advancements in learning experiences. The Minerva Prize is the largest teaching award of its kind, focusing on significant advancement in student learning in higher education. One $500,000 cash prize will be awarded to the winner, who will be selected through a rigorous nomination and review process.

(…snip…)

Udacity & Georgia Tech MOOMS (M.S. Computer Science online)

Inside Higher Ed has a long article on this remarkable new venture – “based on interviews and documents, including some that the university provided to Inside Higher Ed following an open records request.” There are 22 pages of internal Georgia Tech docs referenced. Example: 

“It is an experiment that no other institution of our caliber has embarked on (yet!) but everyone is talking about moving in this direction, so if we want to do it, we should do it right away,” the report, produced in late February, said. “There is an opportunity to be a leader rather than a follower if we act quickly and thoughtfully.”

There is a glimpse of the financial projections as well:

The Georgia Tech program will have four enrollment tracks for students. Enrollment starts in January, though the first year will feature a small test run of several hundred paying students drawn mostly from the military and the corporate world, particularly AT&T.

Georgia Tech and Udacity expect the program to cost about $3.1 million in its first year. With a $2 million one-time sponsorship from AT&T and about $1.3 million in tuition and fees, Georgia Tech and Udacity
expect to split $240,060 in gains at the end of the first year.

In the second year, without AT&T’s large subsidy, Georgia Tech and Udacity plan to spend $7.5 million and scrape out gains of just $14,848 for the whole year.

By the third year, when the program is expected to be running at full steam, Georgia Tech and Udacity expect to spend $14.3 million on the program but bring in $19.1 million in revenue — for a total gain of about $4.7 million.

Georgia Tech will receive 60 percent of the revenue and Udacity the rest. The money to Georgia Tech will flow through its research corporation. Professors and the computing college both stand to gain from the effort. A professor will receive $20,000 for creating a course and $10,000 for delivering the content — meaning most professors will receive $30,000 per course. Professors will receive a royalty of $2,500 each time the course is offered again.

The posted Georgia Tech document is a wonderful source of insights into how the new degree program will actually operate.

Udacity and Georgia Tech join to offer a $7,000 M.S. Computer Science online

This very exciting bulletin came up simultaneously on two of our favorite feeds: Tyler Cowen and Sebastian Thrun. Here's Tyler:

The Georgia Institute of Technology plans to offer a $7,000 online master’s degree to 10,000 new students over the next three years without hiring much more than a handful of new instructors.

Georgia Tech will work with AT&T and Udacity, the 15-month-old Silicon Valley-based company, to offer a new online master’s degree in computer science to students across the world at a sixth of the price of its current degree. The deal, announced Tuesday, is portrayed as a revolutionary attempt by a respected university, an education technology startup and a major corporate employer to drive down costs and expand higher education capacity.

Georgia Tech expects to hire only eight or so new instructors even as it takes its master’s program from 300 students to as many as 10,000 within three years, said Zvi Galil, the dean of computing at Georgia Tech.

…The deal started to come together eight months ago in a meeting between Galil and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun.

“Sebastian suggested to do a master’s degree for $1,000 and I immediately told him it’s not possible,” Galil said.

(…)

And here's Sebastian:

Today is my opportunity to give back. Ever since Peter Norvig and I launched AI Class, I have been dreaming of putting an entire computer science degree online, and to make access to the material free of charge, so that everyone can become a proficient computer scientist. With Georgia Tech and AT&T, this is my dream come true. If, as a young student, I had the chance to learn from the best professors in the world, my life might have been different. I have been fortunate. Yet so many potential learners are still denied access. Education has become much more exclusive, and getting into a top-10 computer science department, like Georgia Tech's, is still out of reach for all but a chosen few.

I co-founded Udacity to bring the very best of higher education to everyone worldwide. With Georgia Tech, we have a partner whose computer science program is among the best in the world! And equally importantly, with AT&T, we partner with a Fortune-500 company which is relentlessly innovating in the space of digital access to information. This triumvirate of industry and academia is now teaming up to use 21st Century MOOC technology to level the playing field in computer science education. And while the degree rightfully comes with a tuition fee — after all, to achieve the very best in online education we will provide support services — the bare content will be available free of charge, available for anyone eager to learn. We are also launching non-credit certificates at a much reduced price point, to give a path to those who don't care about Georgia Tech credit or degrees, but still want their learning results certified.

I wish I had been born in the 1990s. Back when I was a college student, the Web did not exist. How many young students are there in the world today as eager to learn as I was? Only time will tell how many young people we'll be able to empower to reach for the stars. If you are a student in our program and come across this blog post, please drop me a line at sebastian@udacity.com. If only a single life can be touched with this program, it will be a success!

I think this is a very big deal – hope I'm right!

Update: here's the Georgia Tech site for OMSCS with FAQ and intro videos. From the FAQ:

How is this degree different from residential Georgia Tech MS CS?

The OMS CS will deliver educational content completely through the massive online format. This means it will differ from the residential MS CS in course structure, for example, but will provide an educational experience no less rigorous than the on-campus format.

How is the OMS CS different from other distance-learning and/or online degree programs that have existed for a long time?

The Georgia Tech OMS CS is the first online degree in computer science from a top-tier university that students can obtain exclusively through the massive-online format.

How much does the degree program cost?

We’re not yet ready to announce a specific program cost, but the plan is to offer the Georgia Tech OMS CS for a total cost of under $7,000—a fraction of the cost of Georgia Tech’s on-campus program and even less than that of comparable private universities.

What evidence do you have of market demand for this program?

At present, around 160,000 master’s degrees are bestowed in the United States every year in computer science and related subject disciplines; the worldwide market is almost certainly much larger, perhaps even an order of magnitude larger. We conjecture that the present structure is vastly underserving the market and will conduct market research in the first year to check these estimates and help target our course offerings.

How long does it take to complete and receive a degree?

We anticipate the typical time for students to complete the OMS CS will be about three years, though we will allow for longer enrollments— up to six years—for those students who need greater flexibility.

How does the student workload compare to a residential degree? How many hours a week will students spend on it?

The total workload is the same as the residential program; the weekly or hourly workload depends on how quickly students wish to complete the program.

Who can take courses?

All OMS CS courses will be available free of charge for anyone, anywhere in the world. Degree-seeking students will be virtually separated from “open” students to ensure degree program rigor.

 

What Can Be Done to Improve Struggling High Schools?

Abstract at AEA:

In spite of decades of well-intentioned efforts targeted at struggling high schools, outcomes today are little improved. A handful of innovative programs have achieved great success on a small scale, but more generally, the economic futures of the students at the bottom of the human capital distribution remain dismal. In our view, expanding access to educational options that focus on life skills and work experience, as opposed to a focus on traditional definitions of academic success, represents the most cost-effective, broadly implementable source of improvements for this group.

This US-centric paper is very readable, by credible authors. The paper is more forthcoming than the cautiously-worded abstract. In particular, one of the most useful findings is that many students would be far better off on a vocational rather than college track. Apprenticeships are not mentioned specifically, but are proven to be a very effective way to realize the goals for “life skills and work experience”.