Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Higher Education Part II

Some years ago I was staying with my mother for a visit and happened across an AARP newsletter that actually interested me. The article was called “How to Learn Just about Anything Online for Free.” I’m all for learning, and even more so for free or very low cost.

It was a pretty good list. Some of it included major universities that have put lectures online—MIT (MIT OpenCourseware), Harvard (Harvard@home), and Berkeley (webcastBerkeley) among them. It listed a couple of sources for downloading textbooks and other books for as low as a dollar: AbeBooks.com and Alibris.com. This was before practically everything became available for e-readers through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but I think these sources are supposed to be even less expensive.
OpenCulture.com was another recommended site being updated with new content. And for the even more tech savvy senior, ITunes U with over 100,000 educational video and audio files. Add to that AcademicEarth.org and of course YouTube EDU, which offers lectures from some of the top universities. Then there’s VideoLectures.Net and TedTalks (one of my favorites). There’s also WebMD and BBC video language learning courses. The list isn’t quite endless (although it might be nearly endless, now several years hence), but let’s just say there are a great many low-cost ways to get yourself educated from your computer. It’s not unheard of to imagine homeschooling through college on a shoestring budget.
For a little more cost, there’s GreatCourses.com, at about $100 per college level course.
Getting the information you want to learn—for little or no cost—is not the problem with higher education. So maybe it’s about getting a degree.
Options for that are growing online as well. BYU-Idaho, for example, has a growing program called Pathways, to help people get their college degrees through distance learning combined with local class groups. This can be ideal for homemakers who dropped out to support a spouse, or people who made it partway through college, took a job, and eventually had a career stall. The program is real college, accredited, with more support than traditional distant learning classes. (Mrs. Political Sphere and her sister are both in their first month of this program, and feeling great about getting back into progress toward a degree.)
Meanwhile, a typical college education is currently costing in the range of a starter home—often without the promise of salary commensurate with paying back student loans. 
Andy Kessler and Peter Thiel on Uncommon Knowledge
While I was thinking about higher education and gathering this list, I happened to spend an evening listening to the latest Uncommon Knowledge discussion, this one from September 20th, with PayPal founder/venture capitalist Peter Thiel and author Andy Kessler talking with host Peter Robinson about the progress of technology, including the disappointment that it hasn’t gone further. Twenty-one minutes in, they switch gears and started discussing higher education.

I got down part of the conversation (from notes, so not necessarily direct or full quotes):
Peter Thiel: The top universities serve as a sort of tournament credential….  These colleges never want to expand the number of people they let in.
Peter Robinson: So they are in the business of exclusivity?
Peter Thiel: In that sense education is not a positive sum game about learning and education, but a zero sum game.
Andy Kessler: Universities are a sorting mechanism…. If corporations were allowed to give aptitude tests, universities would wither.
Peter Thiel: Yeah, 15-minutes aptitude tests would not cost you a quarter million dollars a semester…
Andy Kessler: And four years of your life….
Peter Robinson: So, top universities are in the best shape, not because they do a better job of educating, but because they’re in a better position to do the sorting.
Peter Theil: They [graduates] want to have the credentials of a top university, because it is an IQ test in disguise, yes.”
Andy Kessler [about online education affecting K-12 education]: We have the same problem we have with energy and pharmaceuticals. It’s a regulatory issue.
Peter Theil: Large sectors of our economy are government run—quasi-government run. And so, if you define technology as doing more with less—more computing power with less cost—education is the opposite. We’re doing less with more. We’re spending more and more money. The quality of the public school teachers has steadily gone down. So you’re getting less for more. So it’s actually moved in the opposite of a technological—it’s an anti-technological direction.
To summarize, what we have is a burst of availability of information and education sources for lower costs—just like you’d expect from a free market technology economy. But simultaneously we have ever more expensive and limited sources for the credentials necessary for upper-middle-class-and-higher success.
And it is at this point that the president steps in to “solve the problem of the cost of higher education.” Recall what Reagan once said: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'”
Part III to come.

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