Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Marc Andreeson on Online Education

New York Magazine interviews Marc Andreeson, co-founder of Netscape turned venture capitalist. Here's what he says about online education, with some skeptical remarks of my own at the end:
You could probably bring in the whole online-education movement. But for me, the question is, who does the best with online schooling? And it’s mostly ­autodidacts, people who are self-starters. They’ve found that people from low-income communities actually get the least out of it.

It’s way too early to judge, because we’re at the very beginning of the development of the technology. It’s like critiquing dos 1.0 and saying that this will never turn into the Windows PC. We’re still in the prototype experimental phase. We can’t use the old approach to teach the world. We can’t build that many campuses. We don’t have the space. We don’t have money. We don’t have the professors. If you can go to Harvard, go to Harvard. But that’s not the question. The question is for the 14-year-old in Indonesia staring at a life of either, like, subsistence farming or being able to get a Stanford-quality education and being able to go into a profession.

The one other thing that people are really underestimating is the impact of entertainment-industry economics applied to education. Right now, with MOOCS, the production values are pretty low: You’ll film the professor in the classroom. But let’s just project forward. In ten years, what if we had Math 101 online, and what if it was well regarded and you got fully accredited and certified? What if we knew that we were going to have a million students per semester? And what if we knew that they were going to be paying $100 per student, right? What if we knew that we’d have $100 million of revenue from that course per semester? What production budget would we be willing to field in order to have that course?

You could hire James Cameron to do it.

You could literally hire James Cameron to make Math 101. Or how about, let’s study the wars of the Roman Empire by actually having a VR [virtual reality] experience walking around the battlefield, and then like flying above the battlefield. And actually the whole course is looking and saying, “Here’s all the maneuvering that took place.” Or how about re-creating original Shakespeare plays in the Globe Theatre?
Sure, high quality production would be jim-dandy. Disney did it back in the fifties in various programs on science, and Bell Telephone did some nice science specials as well. But nifty production values won't in themselves made an active learner, and that's what we need in order to really internalize 21st century skills in all disciplines.

The issue is economic. Teacher hours are scarce. If we need to increase the number of students taught by a factor of ten, where do we get the teacher hours from? The teachers we've got are already spread too thin, so multiplying them ten-fold isn't sufficient.

Does co-learning have a role to play? Perhaps. But, that's a tricky one. Howard Rheingold says that teaching through co-learning makes more demands on teacher time than conventional teaching, not less. But, can students who have become skilled at co-learning catalyze co-learning for others without the full-time attention of faculty? If so, then co-learning may well help amplify the teaching effort. If not, it's just a way of providing high-quality learning for a small number of students. That's certainly a good thing, but it's not going to get wide-spread teaching done.

H/t Alex Tabarrock.

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