The Big Pitfall of Online Education

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Sorry for the late start this morning. Here in the third-world city-state of Irvine the power went off yet again last night, and this morning my computer was corrupted in some strange way. I have since tossed some garlic at it, shaken some oracle bones in its vicinity, and used my ISP’s web interface to delete a bunch of email. This has produced conditional success. If everything continues working after a restart later today, I’ll declare victory over Windows and Southern California Edison. Wish me luck.

Anyway. Speaking of online education — isn’t that what we were just speaking about? — Matt Yglesias makes a point so obvious today that I’ve long wondered why I so seldom hear anyone acknowledge it:

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. 

Right. Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you’re in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don’t go to class and don’t do the homework, but lots do. But if you’re studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it’s a level that, frankly, most of us just aren’t capable of.

I’m sure that eventually someone will come up with a solution to this. Until then, though, this is really the key issue, not the quality or widespread acceptance of online learning. We have to figure out a way to make even average students willing to sit through hours and hours of instruction alone in their rooms. That’s not something the human brain was really evolved to do.

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