Good Enough

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Kevin Carey on UC Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley’s drive to use information technology to educate many more students:

Unsurprisingly, Edley’s bold plan to reach students “from Kentucky to Kuala Lumpur” has garnered opposition. The thoughtful critique is that the Internet can’t replicate the intellectual and personal experience of going to college in person. That’s true (if overstated, and becoming more so as technology improves). But it’s also the wrong way to think about the issue.

The challenge isn’t to perfectly replicate the current UC experience, not all of which is ideal. The challenge is to create an educational experience that’s of high enough quality to be associated with the globally recognized academic tradition of the University of California. It can be different, as long as it’s good.

I would go stronger. It’s not just okay if it’s different, it’s okay if it’s actually worse. Historically, a lot of important improvements involve downgrades in technology. Ready to wear shirts are not as good as tailored or handmade ones. Nonetheless, developing the technology of mass produced ready to wear shirts was a huge advance in improving the world’s stock of apparel. Frozen vegetables aren’t as good as fresh ones, but again the advantages in convenience still make them an important advance. One very important reason we’ve seen such disappointing productivity in the health and education sectors over the past few decades is precisely that we’ve tended to lack these kind of quality-degrading innovations. But if you could find a means of educating students that’s 80% as good as what Berkeley currently does at 10% of the per capita cost, then you’d be opening up vast new frontiers of potential learning.