General Question

phaedryx's avatar

The $100 degree: is this the future of education?

Asked by phaedryx (6107 points ) June 16th, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about traditional higher education lately, especially the skyrocketing costs and student debt. The internet makes information practically free to distribute, so why is education getting more expensive?

Now consider sites like Udacity or Coursera where they let you take classes for free from some of the best instructors in the world. Why would you pay to take a class from a mediocre professor, when you could get world-class instruction for free?

I just read this interview, this forbes article and recently watched this video of Clayton Christensen and think there is about to be a big disruption in higher education.

What do you think?

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17 Answers

lillycoyote's avatar

Getting an education and know what and how to do something, and having proof that you are qualified to do something are two different things. For better or worse, that is the reality of how things work. If you are a neurosurgeon and plan to open up my skull and cut into my brain I sure as hell want proof: credentials, degrees, documents, all that stuff, if you want to do that. I also want to know that I, and my family and friends are driving over bridges that were designed by qualified, certified, credentialed structural engineers.

If you want to learn how to do something and then do it, fine. But some of us want to know, when it comes to certain things, that you are qualified and have a certain level of expertise before we let you cut open our brains, for example.

Whatever “the future of education” might be, there has to be a way of certifying and judging and determining whether or not people are competent and knowledgeable and qualified in one field or another; at least in the fields where it really matters.

jerv's avatar

Given that diplomas (though not necessarily education) have become a commodity, I say that it is. The ideal free market goes towards the products that provide the best value, and why pay $80–200k for a piece of paper when you can pay $2–10k for actual knowledge?

@lillycoyote That isn’t the point. Do you want somebody with credentials or somebody who knows what they are doing? Your first sentence is entirely correct; they are two separate things. However, I do not take credentials as proof of anything other than somebody either has a lot of money or a huge pile of student loans.

lillycoyote's avatar

@jerv I, of course, want someone who knows what they’re doing but would like that person to have some sort of proof or evidence that they know what they’re doing. The paper is no guarantee, of course, but it is a place to start. I have absolutely no problem with people being educated in non-traditional ways and just having a degree in something does not mean that you are all that good at what you do, but how do you propose that we make sure that people who have been educated in non-traditional ways are qualified to do what they claim they can do?

ragingloli's avatar

Only for things that do not require a practical part. Like philosophy. Or mathematics.
A medical doctor that got his degree online? Not a chance. Has he ever had practical training? Ever seen the insides of a corpse? Such a person would be completely useless.
The same with engineering, physics, biology, psychology. You need to have some practical part in it, like building something, running experiments in a lab, visiting and talking to mental patients in congress, etc. Someone who got his degree by watching videos of courses from his PC, most likely did none of that, ever. Again, completely useless.

josie's avatar

It does not take much reflection to conclude that the internet has already made obsolete sprawling campuses, expensive buildings, maintainance, infrastructure. The only thing delaying the end is social acceptance of online studies as legitimate. The first respected scholar who was educated online will finish it.

laureth's avatar

It used to be that the kid who graduated high school was in demand, because all the other kids on the farm only went to 8th grade (or less), so the high school diploma was a real prize.

Then everyone got a high school diploma, so it became merely the expected paperwork that you needed in order to be considered for a burger-flipper job. That’s when you started needing college to be considered elite.

Then, everyone went to college because that’s what you needed to get a good job. And soon, everyone had a bachelor’s degree because that’s what you needed to even be considered for a night watchman’s job. When entry-level jobs require college, you get a Master’s to prove you’re extra competent at something.

And now, Masters’ and Ph.D. holders (because that’s what you need to be elite and get a good job) are realizing that in a glutted, educated labor pool, they have to leave off the degree so they don’t get picked over as “overqualified” and likely to be too expensive for an employer to pay.

In short, these things go in waves. And education, like the housing market, is a bubble.

We still need skilled people, but we need them at the very top echelons for skilled positions. The middle is hollowing out. There aren’t as many people needed at the top of the pyramid as at the bottom, though, and the bottom is full of fry cooks and janitors that don’t need degrees to do what they’re doing. That is why people with philosophy degrees can’t pay their student loans.

I’m not sure that the $100 degree will provide the high-tech sort of skills that will fill those “good but rare jobs” at the top. And while you might not need the sort of skills that a $100 degree provides in order to work at the bottom of the pyramid, people at the bottom can pay for that more easily, I guess. And since, at that price, it might become the next minimal thing that everyone needs to have in order to get a foot in the door because everyone else has one too, that might be a good thing to have it come so cheaply. At least, if employers give it any credence at all, which seems unlikely.

In short, it seems a cheap way to learn something that amuses you, or that you’ve always wanted to learn, but I wouldn’t bank on them.

jerv's avatar

@lillycoyote In that, you are correct that certified credentials are the only way to go. The problem is that certified credentials have been falsified for so long that even they are of questionable validity, leaving us with absolutely no way of knowing whether someone is qualified or not.

That puts people like me in a tough spot. For instance, officially, I have no more computer knowledge than the average person; I have never gone to school for Computer Science, nor have I ever held an IT job. While I don’t have the skills required to be a Database administrator (I never learned SQL), I can still build a PC, or troubleshoot non-network-related issues better than the average person who actually does those things for a living. Or cars; would you rather have a mechanic who sat through some ASE classes, or somebody who has actually replaced shocks and head gaskets?

We desperately need to overhaul our system of documentation.

wundayatta's avatar

Anyone can read, presumably, if you have a HS education. However, what institutions of higher learning teach you is how to think. There’s a lot that goes into that, and only some of it can be reproduced virtually.

The easiest part to reproduce is transferring written materials and other media. The internet is great at that. It brings the library right into your room. The next part is not as easy to reproduce: meetings with people. Generally, a brick and mortar classroom allows people to meet, interact, discuss, solve problems together, and consume media together.

You can do this a little bit online, but it is much clunkier. You don’t see each other. You don’t get body language. You have to handle the order in which people speak differently. It is harder to get a good conversational interaction going online. In fact, you would most likely be watching people type. Your ears would not be engaged. And if you had some kind of multiple phone call, it would probably be limited to one voice at a time controlled by the professor. You’d lose all the side conversations (unless they were held via chat).

These classes would be less engaging and drier. There would be fewer ideas generated, and of course, you really wouldn’t be meeting your fellow classmates.

That’s a problem. Because one of the most important parts of college is meeting people. It is where people make very important friends, friends who often become important colleagues as well as friends who last through the rest of life.

And what about the atmosphere of the college? The places where students meet? The social activities? The sports teams? The performances? The community? The activism? The outing clubs and every other club? The literary journal? The college newspaper?

When you think about a conservatory, it’s obvious students need to get together because you have to play instruments in person. But what is happening in a college? In the sciences, you have to get hands on. With art and dance and theater, you have to get hands on.

It is only with purely intellectual pursuits where all you do is read or use a computer that we can think of meeting in virtual space. However, we are probably overlooking some 75% of what happens between people when they meet in person—stuff we take for granted at such a deep level, that we aren’t conscious of it. All that is missing in a virtual environment. It’s just like any other virtual relationship.

A hundred dollar degree will pretty much be worth one hundred dollars. A virtual degree will be worth about the same proportion of a brick and mortar degree as a virtual relationship makes up of a real life relationship. Such degrees are not the future. Some people can learn well on their own, and they will do fine in virtual environments. They will be able to learn what they want and convince employers to hire them despite their lack of interaction in the real world.

But for most employers, a real degree from a brick and mortar university will be worth ten times a degree from a virtual university. Time will tell, of course, and I believe in learning, no matter where it comes from. I am very certain, however, that you can’t get one tenth the learning online that you can in a real classroom with real students.

jerv's avatar

@wundayatta I guess I am really odd then. I learned most of what I know from “dry” material, and never really placed much value on socializing. Sure, online, you don’t get body language, but I often don’t get it face-to-face either! I think you are mostly addressing the “big party with a cover charge” aspect of it; the same stuff I could get for cheaper at the corner bar, or from doing other community things. You seem to assume that college is the only place that has clubs, does sports, engages in activism, etcetera, and that simply isn’t true.

I think that you also overlook video conferencing, which allows real-time visuals for those to whom that actually matters. This isn’t 1987; we have technology now. And hey, there are forums as well; places kind of like Fluther where ideas can be shared, help sought, etcetera. Are you saying that Fluther is neither helpful nor a community where people exchange ideas?

Maybe those who are stuck in the previous century cannot learn the way you did, but I don’t see too many Amish people in the IT field either.

Sorry if that sounds snarky, but I couldn’t find “nice” words that fit my thoughts.

wundayatta's avatar

Nope @jerv. I’m not overlooking any of those things. I just have a different opinion of them than you do. I think you have a wildly different experience with social relations than a lot of people. There are, of course, people who can do well on their own, learning from books, teaching themselves how to build computers or wire a building or turn wood on their own. But those are fairly rare. There are people who can cobble together all kinds of social interactions from some kind of ad hoc menu in their community.

But for most people, that’s the formula for failure. Most people need other people in order to do things. We are social creatures. College provides a very special kind of experience that can’t be duplicated online.

But we need not discuss it. We can just watch. We’ll know in a few years who is right. All I can tell you is that my institution is looking into this very carefully and they have some ideas about what they are good at, but they really don’t yet have a clue.

jerv's avatar

@wundayatta We will see. Bear in mind though, society has changed a lot in just the last few years. There are more and more people out there you have hundreds/thousands of “friends” yet rarely spend facetime with anybody at all.

Maybe I would feel differently if the quality of a college education were what it was even a decade ago, but quality has declined as the value of a diploma (as a prerequisite for many jobs) has exceeded the value of the knowledge that said diploma is supposed to represent. Colleges no longer sell education; they sell gate passes to HR.

wundayatta's avatar

@jerv Which colleges, in specific, do you think provide a gyp of an education?

YARNLADY's avatar

My son bought a PhD for $100. I don’t think it is worth that in the world of hiring though.

poisonedantidote's avatar

I came here yesterday and saw this question, I was so impressed with the two sites that it has taken me until now to get round to answering.

As others have pointed out, these courses have no value when it comes to getting a job, and they will never have value unless they offer a diploma at the end, and employers decide to value said diploma.

However, these websites are perfect for someone like me. I’m 29 years old, and in my life I have had several jobs, but I have now decided that I want to work for my self.

I have joined two courses now, one on each of the websites, and plan to extrapolate what I learn, so I can apply my new skills to my own work. To me the courses are very valuable, I almost see them as free money being posted online for me to go an collect.

For people like my self, these sites are certainly the future. If the world becomes more independent and people start to set up their own businesses more and more, then these sites should get a regular flow of traffic as well as actually help make the world better.

I can’t wait to see what other courses they are going to be posting, I am specially interested in the computer programming courses.

Any more sites like this would be great.

phaedryx's avatar

Thank you for all of the responses so far; very interesting.

A few things I’d like to point out:

1. These courses are college level courses from people who teach at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, etc. When I emphasized that they are the best instructors in the world I wasn’t exaggerating.

2. If you watch the Clayton Christensen video, he points out that these online courses are able to collect much more data about their teaching effectiveness and they also spend millions more on improvement (he notes that Harvard doesn’t spend any money to make instructors more effective). I’m not sure the online experience is/will be inferior to the face-to-face experience.

3. Suppose that an AI course is taught by one of the world’s best/most knowledgeable AI instructors. Let’s say that 50,000 people take the free course. If you owned a company that specialized in AI, would you pay for the names of the top 500 students? Even if they didn’t have a formal degree, would you give them an interview? It will be interesting to see if these courses are worthless with regards to getting a job.

4. I think the social aspects are important for people. However, I wonder if the people who want interaction will miss out. I have two co-workers who are taking the same class, and they are talking to each other about it every day. I think if I wanted a lot of social interaction, I’d start a local study group meetup, or contact my facebook network and have them pass the word that I was looking for people. With skype/google chat/etc. I could have a video conference study group with people all over the world.

5. There are trade-offs with money and education. That is, what could you be doing instead? I have a friend who was able to backpack around Asia for almost 5 months for less than the cost of a semester’s tuition. Suppose the average person is spending $30,000 for a college experience, what other experiences could you have instead if there were education alternatives?

wundayatta's avatar

I checked out a Udacity course. I see that in order to ask questions you have to email them in, and then they take the top ten or twenty to answer in a video. If your question doesn’t get answered there, then you have to hope someone on the forum can help. And even if you question does get chosen, if it isn’t answered in a way that makes sense, you have no interaction with the professor to clear that up.

Another thing I noticed is that all these courses are about computer science. No social science or humanities courses. The subject matter of these courses is specific and there are right and wrong answers and I guess discussion probably isn’t that important. That is quite different from the situation in social science and humanities courses, where there are not necessarily correct answers.

The promo for the course I looked at was very much like a promo for a TV show. It was pretty slick and professionally done. It was big on humor. I don’t know how much being an entertainer helps a professor teach a class. I know it helps some, but it seems to me that you can go too far in that direction, too. Of course, one certainly doesn’t want a boring presentation, either. But what I have found is that what one wants most is an organized presentation.

Anyway, I think that online courses are probably more effective for some kinds of subject matter than others. I think that practical things are more amenable to online presentation. Things like computer programming. Things like skills training. I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this method in teaching people to think.

lillycoyote's avatar

@jerv While it certainly is possible to falsify one’s credentials, the idea that we all are left “with absolutely no way of knowing whether someone is qualified or not” is just, kind of crazy. That simply isn’t true. Credentials are one of the most easily verified things in the world. Colleges, universities, certificate programs, licensing agencies and authorities keep track of these things. If you get by on falsified credentials it is the fault of the people, the individuals, who were supposed to check them out, not the fault of the “system.”

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