Friday, April 03, 2009

DeLong v Carey

by Andrew Gillen

Kevin Carey wonders whether universities might be a dying industry. After all, they have a
vulnerable cash cow: lower-division undergraduate education. The math is pretty simple: Multiply an institution's average net tuition (plus any state subsidies) by the number of students (say, 200) in a freshman lecture course. Subtract whatever the beleaguered adjunct lecturer teaching the course is being paid. I don't care what kind of confiscatory indirect-cost multiplier you care to add to that equation, the institution is making a lot of money — which is then used to pay for faculty scholarship, graduate education, administrative salaries, the football coach, and other expensive things that cost more than they bring in.

Elite institutions like Stanford University and Yale University (which are, luckily for them, in the eternally lucrative sorting and prestige business) are giving away extremely good lectures on the Internet, free.
Brad DeLong comments:
I am not sure.

Put it this way: The printed book should have killed the university. Once you have Gutenberg, the original rationale for the lecture course is gone--yet universities survived and flourished. We need to have a much stronger sense of why universities survived the coming of the printed book before we can convince ourselves that they will not survive the coming of the internet.

The shifting of lower-division undergraduate education to cheaper venues does, however, seem likely...
I think Carey is more right here. To understand why, note that a while back, DeLong addressed why the printed book didn’t kill the university by offering up these 4 reasons.
1) Budget stringency: lectures are cheap for the university relative to seminars, and even if they are markedly less effective they do soak up students' time
2) Alternative information channel: The ears are wired to the brain differently than the eyes, and there is value in not only reading something but also hearing something in producing the synaptic changes that we want to see happen in college.
3) A self-discipline device: if people have to show up at a certain place at a certain time to accomplish a task or be disciplined, they are more likely to do so. Lecture as a way of solving our self-command and self-control problems...
4) A sociological event: East African Plains Apes like to do things in groups that involve language--that is just who we are--and the lecture is just another example of this.
[I numbered them]
The thing is, these 4 reasons don’t stand up nearly as well to online courses as they did to Gutenberg. Number 2 is completely irrelevant now, with major advantages (convenience, replayability) favoring online.

I would also argue that the internet significantly undermines two other reasons listed. For 1, by saving on labor costs, online courses are much cheaper, and for 4, young peoples’ social interactions are increasingly taking place online.

Thus, I think that the internet has the potential to reshape universities in a way that the printing press did not.


capeman said...

Is this the same Andrew Gillen who showed up at the National Association of Scholars conference recently to fill in for the Doc? Where the speakers and audience attended the live performance at great cost in terms of travel, lodging in New York, time? Couldn't all of this have been put into a few pdf files plus online videos? (The online videos in fact were posted on the web, I believe.)

capeman said...

Without going into everything of substance that Kevin Carey gets wrong, I'll just ask this. Here where I teach, "flagship" state university, natural sciences -- why are enrollments in the intro courses in my department booming? Why the record freshman enrollment at the university?