Closing OpenCourseWare

I bought a couple of textbooks last week and it was pretty rough on the wallet, even after rigorous comparison shopping and eventually purchasing used texts off of Textbooks cost a ton. And I really like them. A good intro text book is skimmable in a way that other popular, accessible nonfiction often is not. They have intros, conclusions, practice questions, etc. If you want to grasp a new topic quickly, a 101 textbook is your best friend.

So in theory I should be psyched about Apple’s new move to revolutionize textbooks. But I’m not. The first thing that jumped to my mind as I read the news was Is this the App-ification of education? Will Apple remove the “Open” from OpenCourseWare?

Matthew Ingram has the right take:

as usual, all this great design requires a major tradeoff: namely, that schools and publishers agree to be locked inside Apple’s walled-garden ecosystem. That might be fine for music and movies and games likeAngry Birds, but is that really appropriate for educational material?

The textbook industry deserves to be disrupted. But how? Will Apple’s move lead to more accessibility and openness? Or will it put one company in control of the standards by which we teach our kids and ourselves?

(Nieman has a good round-up of reactions if you want various takes.)

Ping U: Bringing open courseware to your inbox

As someone who recently completed CodeAcademy’s brief Getting Started with Programming lessons, I couldn’t be more excited for CodeYear, CodeAcademy’s latest offering. Says the site:

Make your New Year’s resolution learning to code. Sign up on Code Year to get a new interactive programming lesson sent to you each week and you’ll be building apps and web sites before you know it.

There are tons of free programming lessons out there, so why is this so exciting? Because this one will pester me in my inbox. I’ve experimented with a variety of online learning resources in various disciplines, and one thing I’ve wished for is the ability to sign up for the course as if it were an RSS feed. Send me one lesson per amount of time (ideally at my discretion) so that I can apply the same mania that drives me to keep my RSS reader and my inbox under control to learn new stuff.

As it is, the 1000+ in Google Reader and the [number not to be named here] in my inbox seem to call out and demand my attention, while the next Khan Academy lesson sits silently, never bothering me about when I’ll get around to it. In this very minor way, pinging me about the next lesson gets at one of the core bottlenecks of education, as Matt Yglesias has described:

I even downloaded an MIT lecture course off iTunes for free to refresh my existing base of math knowledge and lay the groundwork to pursue it further. But did I actually watch the lectures, study, and learn the stuff? Of course not!

That’s life, just as I’m sure I’m not the only blogger who finds himself not exercising as much as he probably should. Whoever finds good ways to ameliorate these kind of motivation / time consistency / akrasia problems will have the key to revolutionizing the sector. But for now, I think people focus a bit too much on the policy barriers to successful online education and not enough on the fact that we genuinely haven’t figured out how to make it stick at all.

As technology continues to improve, online education will be as much a motivation problem as anything else. I guess we’ll see in a year to what extent CodeYear’s simple solution of showing up in inboxes actually matters.

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…

Paul Romer and The Great Stagnation

Today I downloaded Tyler Cowen’s new e-book The Great Stagnation for $4, along with Amazon’s Kindle app for Android. It’s got both the publishing and economics blogospheres all aflutter so I’m looking forward to the read. But what kind of blogger would I be if I didn’t comment first, read later?

Cowen had an op-ed a few weeks back in The New York Times that laid out his basic claim. Here’s one bit:

The numbers suggest that for almost 40 years, we’ve had near-universal dissemination of the major innovations stemming from the Industrial Revolution, many of which combined efficient machines with potent fossil fuels. Today, no huge improvement for the automobile or airplane is in sight, and the major struggle is to limit their pollution, not to vastly improve their capabilities.

Although America produces plenty of innovations, most are not geared toward significantly raising the average standard of living…

…Will the Internet usher in a new economic growth explosion? Quite possibly, but it hasn’t delivered very good macroeconomic performance over the last decade.

Cowen is brilliant, and I’m looking forward to the longer version of his argument, but I want to consider a more optimistic take on our economic moment by another brilliant economist, Paul Romer. What follows is from Romer, interviewed by libertarians Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz in their book From Poverty to Prosperity (which I can testify is valuable and interesting even to non-libertarians).


…this may be the most important question in human history: why have we had technological change and why has it been speeding up over time? …

…it may be inherent in the process of discovery that the more we learn the faster we can learn. It’s a notion that was captured by Newton when he said that he could see farther because he stood on the shoulders of giants. That was the first model that I tried for the speeding up phenomenon, that the more we learn the more we can learn…

…So it’s that kind of analysis, thinking of ideas as recipes – really, instructions for combining together small numbers of physical objects – that persuades, I think, anybody who works through the logic that the number of things we could have even tried up to this point in time is so small compared with the number of things that are possible, that we’re just extremely early in this discovery process. For as far as you want to project into the future of humans, we won’t run out of new things to discover. And as I conjectured in the beginning, it may even be that the more we learn about this process – the science of DNA, the science of materials, or our understanding of quantum mechanics – the more we learn about this stuff, the better we get at finding new, ever more valuable mixtures…

…The second-round answer, which I think may actually capture more of the truth, is that it may get easier to discover as you learn more things, or it may not, but what we’ve done is created better institutions over time so that we now exploit the opportunities much more effectively than we used to.

I believe Cowen wants to challenge this both on whether technological change has in fact been speeding up, and whether the technological changes we’ve seen recently are the same kind of economic game-changers we saw in the 20th century. I don’t know what role he would attribute to institutions. Which model is more accurate? I have no answer to that. But the Romer interview at least offers an alternative conceptual lens to Cowen’s. (You can read the full interview with Romer here.)

Cowen also argues that America has eaten up a lot of the “low-hanging fruit”, in education for instance, as described in the clip below:

It’s an interesting point. But once again for a more optimistic take I’ll point to Romer:

We’re going through this shift in the economy where the fraction of human effort that goes into actually physically rearranging things – bending metal, doing manufacturing, and so on – is going down over time and the fraction that’s going into discovering the right formula or recipe is going up over time. And that’s a really good thing, because all of the value really comes from finding the new recipes. If you picture the innovative activity of one hundred years ago and you think of it as U.S. Steel, most of the workers there were involved in literally bending or melting metal – doing the physical rearrangement – and a relatively small number of people were coming up with, say, better ways to extract iron from ore…

…So we’re going through this transformation where a larger and larger fraction of the labor force is engaged in problem-solving, sifting through possible ideas, and a relatively small fraction of people actually stamps out the pills or bends the metal.

(That bit combined with some other comments offers an interesting take on Julian Simon’s work, both approving and disapproving of his work on population and innovation.)

So in education the question may be whether we can innovate fast enough to outpace declining marginal student aptitude. Romer’s model suggests that as more minds spend time thinking about how we educate, rather than spending that time grading tests, passing out papers, etc., that innovation could speed up. Cowen’s suggests that each student we attempt to get through school is likely to be harder than the last. Will more minds working on better educational recipes mean better education, and therefore more minds devoted to finding other useful recipes? Or have we already eaten all the low-hanging fruit?

Perhaps I’ll have more to say after I finish Cowen’s book.