Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why don't books disrupt higher education?

I am quite excited to let you know that in addition to writing here on my personal blog, I will also be doing some blogging over at the new YEP-DC blog, Recess, on a monthly basis. My first post is up now, and it features me playing the role of Old Man CJ and harumphing a bit about how exaggerated I find claims about educational technology (especially MOOCs).

In reading a recent Op-Ed in the Times that shares some of my disillusionment with MOOCs, I was struck by a sentence that made me think that I maybe wasn't harsh enough in my assessment over at Recess. In his piece, A.J. Jacobs notes:  "On the other hand, how can I really complain? I’m getting Ivy League (or Ivy League equivalent) wisdom free. Anyone can, whether you live in South Dakota or Senegal, whether it’s noon or 5 a.m., whether you’re broke or a billionaire."

The implication here is that lectures from prestigious professors are the core of an Ivy League education. No doubt, that's an important part of the whole deal, but I remain unconvinced that it's as valuable as it seems at first glance. It overlooks the importance of peer effects, which experience tells me has always been a crucial force in my own education. Amplify that to the level of peers you encounter in the Ivy League and you're talking about an incredibly influential factor that doesn't come with MOOCs. 

But the more damning piece of evidence running against the notion that MOOCs ought to be disruptive by virtue of the fact that the deliver an Ivy League experience in a more efficient way is that books already do the same thing. Lots of professors whose lectures demand a premium at the best universities around the country and world write books about the subject they teach. Lots of non-professors-but-still-really-smart-and-informed-people also write informative books on a range of subjects. And often those books feature explanations that have been contemplated at great length, edited, and made generally consumable. You can read books in your home, on the metro, in places without Wi-fi. Your access is constrained only by an upfront (relatively small) investment in paying for the book. Indeed, what's amazing about books is that you can even learn directly from amazing professors or thinkers who are dead, something no university, no matter the size of its endowment, can promise you. And yet the self-study allowed by books has never threatened universities because universities offer a delivery method that is of a different kind completely and offers advantages books (or online lectures) cannot. 

Unless, of course, you're Will Hunting:  

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