Stamatakis: Online education a promising alternative

By Nick Stamatakis

In today’s world, the basic idea behind college is rather silly.

We spend a substantial sum… In today’s world, the basic idea behind college is rather silly.

We spend a substantial sum of money for the privilege of attending classes and earning credits. For an in-state Pitt student, the cost to receive this service is $7,636 per semester.

Such a price tag seems unnecessary — technology should have driven down the cost of receiving five to six classes worth of information. In agriculture, for instance, the production of 100 bushels of wheat once required nearly 300 labor hours. Today, we only need three hours to accomplish the same amount of work. In steel manufacturing, the production of steel requires 1,000 times less labor than it required in 1900.

Yet for universities, the cost of producing one educated student keeps increasing. If anything, technology seems to have made education more expensive. As a result, we’re forced to pay higher tuition, either through taxes or loans.

For many years, this was somewhat understandable. In education, there was no equivalent to the plow or improved furnace technology. There was never a breakthrough that made education more efficient. The thousand-year-old tradition of a teacher speaking to students in the same room was still the most effective method.

But with the development of new online learning methods, we’re now close to achieving efficiency. For the first time the paradigm may shift: The model of one teacher in a room might soon become obsolete.

This transition is in beta mode, to be sure, but early indications suggest online learning has almost limitless possibilities. This fall, for instance, Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun developed an online course on artificial intelligence, in which more than 160,000 students participated.

Thrun wasn’t just pleased with the results of the experiment — he was ecstatic. It turned out that when students interacted individually with their computers, they achieved a more personal level of education because of the immediate feedback loop from their responses. In fact, in the concurrent lecture-based version of the class he was simultaneously teaching, enrollment dropped by 85 percent as students found out how much easier it was to learn online.

Thrun’s achievement isn’t a fluke. The Khan Academy, an online teaching site that Salman Khan developed after giving an online lecture to a cousin struggling with a math concept, has already given more than 100,000,000 lessons. Not only do these lessons cost a fraction of what institutions would require, but the instantaneous feedback they provide makes them more personal than a lecture.

Given these two developments, it’s clear that the centuries-old structure of a college education will need to change if administrators want to lower tuition to a reasonable rate. With online courses and online universities, we won’t need thousands of professors and educators all teaching the same material simultaneously. Instead, the very best will be able to reach millions.

There are two big reasons why this transition will be rough. First, college is a lot more than just classes — it’s a cultural and self-development experience that can’t yet be replaced by an online module. Furthermore, many of the classes juniors and seniors take aren’t as lecture-oriented, and are taught using more Socratic systems. It’s probably very difficult to simulate this give-and-take method through a computer screen.

But the second reason for resistance is that universities stand to lose much from real online learning, as it threatens their monopoly on certification. Currently, students are forced to fork out increasingly exorbitant amounts of money for an employment-worthy education — a few online classes don’t make the cut, yet. But if online schools gain legitimacy, and it’s shown that they can impart the same education as massively expensive brick-and-mortar universities, many students will make the economic choice.

Already, there are signs of universities’ reluctance. After the artificial intelligence class, Stanford wasn’t interested in further developing the idea. And in a 2010 Campus Computing survey, 75 percent of respondents said faculty resistance impeded online education.

As is almost always the case, the most efficient option will likely win — just as, despite the protests of many farmers and steel workers, American industry advanced, and everybody’s quality of life improved. For the sake of student and government pocketbooks, we can only hope education moves forward as well.

Contact Nick at [email protected]