The Motivation Problem In Education

It’s paradoxical that at a time when the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever to learn about just about anything, it’s never been harder or more expensive to get a degree. Part of the story here has to do with credentialing, signaling, accrediting, and so on, but I think Kay Steiger nails the real issue with online learning — motivation:

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 College 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.

There’s just a basic problem with the general incentives-focused view of the world. Investing some time during the years 15-22 to equip yourself with a quantitative analysis toolkit is something that’s definitely rewarded in the marketplace. And you can find all the relevant textbooks, lectures, information, etc. online already. And yet the number of people who’ve self-taught calculus is tiny. I personally left off my math learning after taking the AP Calculus test in high school and sometimes toy with the idea that I ought to learn more math. After all, I pretty frequently find myself writing about studies that use quantitative techniques I don’t really understand. 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.