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What Would a Better Education System Look Like?

I wrote a post a while ago wondering whether the university system as we know it is the best way of meeting students’ needs. In that post, I argued that much of what a university does (research, sports, teaching students useless information) is irrelevant to many students’ ultimate goals (getting a good job) More recently, I have been thinking a lot about what a better education system would look like.

For a long time, I thought that online education would solve many of the problems of traditional college. In a physical university, the best professor can reach at most a few hundred students at a time. The classroom only fits so many students. But in an online class, one instructor can reach tens of thousands of students. It’s of course true that learning online is worse in many ways than physical instruction, but it’s so much cheaper. One would think that paying a couple hundred dollars to take a class from the best instructor in the world would be more valuable to at least some students than paying $50,000 a year to sit in the back of a lecture hall and fall asleep.

And yet it doesn’t seem like the massive online open course (MOOC) model has really taken off. Online education like Coursera, Udemy, Khan Academy serve a somewhat valuable purpose as complements to traditional education, but so far have not taken on a larger role as a substitute. Why not? And if we can answer that question, can we use that answer to find something that could substitute. After listening to a couple old EconTalk episodes, I think I have some ideas.

Is Education Really About Education?

One of the episodes that started to convince me that online education on its own will never be enough was a conversation with John Cochrane about his experience in teaching MOOCs. Although he argues that there are many benefits, especially when used together with live instruction, he emphasizes that there are certain things that an online education can’t do:

what does the bricks-and-mortar business school do that [online education] doesn’t do? A bricks and mortar business school is selective about who they let in. In fact we are often accused at simply being really good at selecting smart people and then giving them a 2-year party. We have connections to employers. We have a fantastic office that gets them jobs. And we have an alumni network.

Although he focuses on MBA programs, these insights also carry over to 4-year undergraduate programs. Anyone can learn pretty much whatever they want online for hundreds of dollars a year rather than the tens of thousands they would spend on a university. But who would hire someone with a degree from Coursera over someone with a degree from a prestigious university? How will a student with an online education even get their foot in the door without the reputation of a well-respected institution behind them?

Once again, this discussion drives home the point that education isn’t really about education. In large part it’s about selection (people who graduate from a good school must have been smart enough to get in), signaling (someone who can get through 4 years of college with a high GPA will probably make a good worker as well, regardless of what they learned), and connections (with peers, employers, an alumni network). Very little of the value of an education is about learning.

Making Learning Useful

What I have written so far explains what our education system is, but the question I really want to answer is what our education should be. To put it another way, in the current system, learning may not be the primary goal of students, but does that imply that they don’t want to learn? Maybe students don’t learn because we aren’t very good at teaching them how.

In a different EconTalk episode, as part of a longer discussion on manufacturing and inequality, Ed Leamer does an incredible job summarizing the difference between what education is and what education should be. I recommend listening to the entire conversation, but the part that most interested me was towards the end of the conversation where Leamer asserts (I think correctly) that “a lecture room is where the lecturer pretends to teach and the students pretend to learn,” and that “internet-based [education] is good for the Xerox style of teaching where you have the students memorize exams.”

But if not traditional teaching and not online teaching, what are we left with? How can education actually be useful at providing students with real learning? Leamer answers with a story about a student who he taught as part of an independent study on the effect of Chinese trade on US manufacturing. He describes the process:

I said ‘Go to this book and it tells you some theory about this stuff and come back in a week; we’ll talk about it.’ Next week, ‘Go to this website; it has a lot of data. Find out what you can find out about China.’ So, it was a sequence of hours, 10 hours it had at the end, and it was incredible how much she learned. And that, to me, is the way we have to move, which is an experience-based education in which the faculty member is not the teacher, but the coach, and facilitates and points and suggests. And it’s a student who is actually doing the work.

And that’s really the key. Nobody learns math just by copying down equations from the board. You can’t learn programming by watching someone else code. For almost every subject I can think of, you learn by doing. The real job of a teacher is guidance and feedback, not necessarily teaching (at least in the sense we usually think of it), but helping students learn on their own.

A transition from traditional lecture style education to “experience-based” education is certainly not something that will happen quickly, but I see a couple different ways we can get there. The first way would involve keeping the university system, but changing the way professors teach. The second, more dramatic change would involve dismantling the system and starting over. I’ll have future posts discussing my ideas on each of these coming soon!

3 thoughts on “What Would a Better Education System Look Like?”

  1. I am glad you are back!

    I believe you’re looking for the following phrase:


    Child Labor.


    I’m serious.

    Not sweatshops. Child labor at google. Child labor in music. Child labor in sports, Child labor in movies (oh wait.. is that already happening?) Huh

  2. YAY! Very happy you are back!

    Hmm, here on Brazil, that really sums up how education is done on most, if not all, undergraduate programs, as I’ve seen this a lot (I’m finishing a bachelor degree on Computer Science). I’ve done a lot of disciplines with engineering programs students and it’s always like that. It appears that the “old generation of professors” really don’t care on this. On some disciplines, like Calculus, those alternative materials, the MOOC, are usually the way to go to study because the classes are terribly bad.

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