Virtual Education

Anya Kamenetz has a very good article in the American Prospect based on her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education:

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant’s maximum doesn’t address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding.

What’s to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.

As she lays out, the only viable solution is to find ways to apply technology to the problem. And she details a number of innovative and promising steps along these lines. But this still does leave us with the question of whether online learning can replace the credential offered by a degree from a reputable university. Ezra Klein is skeptical and therefore says he “see[s] the DIY U concept applying more to lifetime learning, where accreditation is less important, than to post-high school learning, where you’re largely trying to separate yourself out from an undifferentiated mass of job applicants.”

I think that’s too defeatist. As indicated in the passage I excerpted, there’s a really critical policy problem here. We need to find ways to apply technology to the formal aspects of higher education and not just to lifetime learning. That means developing real metrics of learning. Right now the main reason a degree from Harvard is valuable is that people know it’s hard to get in to Harvard. But by the same token, the reason Harvard is able to be selective is that people think a Harvard degree is valuable so lots of folks apply. That’s a system that discourages entrepreneurship, makes it impossible to tell who’s teaching effectively, and worse makes it actually counterproductive for schools to find ways of serving more people. We need to start measuring actual learning and performance which means, yes, more reliance on standardized tests.