Willpower and education

Via Yglesias, Kay Steiger has good thoughts:

Furthermore, some of the studies that have been done on distance learning haven’t been so rosy. Students who rely heavily on online courses are more likely to drop out. And, as one attendee from University of Maryland University College pointed out during the Q&A period session of the event, many students struggle with basic computer and internet literacy. It seems those that are best positioned to take advantage of the “edupunk” perspective, might just be those who are likely to attend a four-year residential college or university anyway.

That’s not to take away from students who have used the system—or lack thereof—that Kamenetz presents to find success. After all, learning on your own takes a huge amount of discipline and passion for the subject area you are pursuing. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the solution to education may not lie in the idea of traditional lectures by professors and exams. But how we get to that decentralized kind of learning will be a very interesting journey.

I find this compelling. Motivation is a major barrier to education. But we may be able to make considerable progress in that area simultaneously, as I briefly mentioned here. Yglesias describes his desire to learn more math, but his inability to motivate himself to do it. That motivation is a barrier even to such a clearly highly motivated person speaks to the seriousness of the issue. The fact is, we’re learning more and more about how motivation works (at least if my current reading list is any indication). So I’m optimistic that we can crack this. And if we can, and can also deal with the accreditation issue, we’ll be able to launch a revolution in education.

(FWIW, I’ve dabbled in various learning opportunities through Carnegie Mellon’s OLI, other open courseware offerings, and Khan Academy.)

UPDATE: Kevin Drum adds:

Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you’re in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don’t go to class and don’t do the homework, but lots do. But if you’re studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it’s a level that, frankly, most of us just aren’t capable of.

What struck me about this is the fact that college isn’t really all that great of a commitment advice. I, for one, did not always feel obligated to go to class. And though it basically works the way Drum describes it, from a motivational standpoint I think it’s a pretty low bar to clear. Plenty of college students are not well motivated. Plenty of students drop out. Merely beginning to focus on motivation as a major piece of the education puzzle could potentially produce sizable gains.

UPDATE 2: Speaking of…