1. Antiquated Lectures: the college lecture format is antiquated. In my first year of graduate school, Brad Delong mentioned that the lecture format originally stemmed from a scarcity of books. Since only a few books were available, lecturers had to gather people in rooms to read them aloud. It’s very unlikely this method of instruction is still optimal.
2. Baumol’s Cost Disease: Roughly speaking, in 1960, one teacher could teach 20 students per day. In 2012, one teacher can still teach 20 students per day. Compared to other goods, such as a cars, TVs and computers, productivity in education has increased much less rapidly, resulting in profound economic consequences. In particular, Baumol’s cost disease, which is driven by these sectoral productivity differences, can lead to huge cost increases for relatively unproductive sectors. These underlying economic forces and cost increases amplify the need for productivity gains in the education sector. With lower costs of education, more people can obtain more education, which will likely lead to more human capital investment and economic growth.
3. Lack of specialization: does it really make sense to have hundreds of thousands of teachers around the country simultaneously devise hundreds of thousands of their own lectures and homework on the same material? It seems like a lot of wasted effort. In addition, many teachers outside of Lake Wobegon will be below average. It’s highly likely that these resources can be allocated more efficiently (perhaps in the form of personalized tutoring and tailored academic assistance). Almost every other industry specializes in one way or another so that the best producers produce a substantial share of output. Why not in teaching? A world in which more students are learning physics from the best physics teacher at MIT strikes me as positive move in this direction.
For these three reasons, I found Alex Tabarrok’s essay on on-line education quite interesting:
Productivity in education has lagged productivity in other sectors of the economy because teaching is so labor intensive. Where exactly in the typical classroom is there room for investment, let alone productivity improvement? More chalk? Prior to online education, the bottleneck though which productivity improvements had to pass was the teacher, and we know that improving teacher productivity is very difficult, which is why teaching methods haven’t changed in millennia. Online education vastly increases the potential for productivity increases because it greatly increases the size of the potential market. Bigger markets increase the incentive to research and develop new products (coincidentally the very topic of my TED talk.) A tool used to improve online education–an interface, an algorithm, a new teaching method–can be applied very widely, potentially world-wide, thus greatly increasing the incentive to invest in the education sector, perhaps the most important sector of the 21st century economy.