Dancing with the Stars (of Pure Math)

Even casual iTunes™ users know about iTunesU™, the increasingly rich video-taped course offerings from universities as great as Stanford and Oxford and as humble as the dozens of community colleges and adult education programs that make their curricula available for free downloading. I should have seen it coming in the spring of 2001 when Charles Vest – then president of MIT – paid me a visit at HP to tell me of his plans to make MIT’s entire course catalog available for download on the internet, but I was not thinking much about Higher Education as a market in those days.

Things changed in late 2002 when I started to draw a paycheck from a university and began to think hard about the fate of American colleges and universities in the 21st century.  What Chuck Vest predicted one afternoon in my Palo Alto office is now being played out in what I believe is the next economic bubble.  This is quite literally the collision of that half of the earth’s population that has in the last decade joined the free market economy with the inwardly focused world of  Americah higher education, which – unless there are some dramatic changes – is destined to be a marginalized bystander to events that it is ill-equipped to understand.  Here is the stark reality: enhanced technology means that the market for higher education now has many suppliers, and the  hundreds of millions of people who all of a sudden want a university education also find that they have abundant choices, often with lower cost and high quality.    In any market with abundant choices, the winners are inevitably those with compelling brands, price, or value.  There are about 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the US, and, except for the handful (less than a hundred) who have global brands, most of them have not figured out how to deliver their value at an acceptable price.  In fact, an alarming large number of them cannot even articulate their value to the world that is rushing toward them.  That spells trouble. I will have much more to say about WWC and higher education in later posts.

I am working on a book on this topic so these problems are much on my mind these days, but an email message from a colleague prompted me write that there may be a series of smaller collisions rather than a single cataclysm.

There is a lot of criticism about the quality of iTunesU lectures and online courses.  Some criticism can be dismissed as an “innovator’s dilemma” confusion of the current state  — much of it admittedly primitive – of the technology with its disruptive power.  I find this criticism easy to dismiss because you can see quality of online instruction improving month by month.  Never underestimate the power of technology curves.  The more difficult question is how exactly the technology can replace a skilled human mentor who has ability to interact directly with her students.

Then two e-mails from my friend Dick Lipton showed up.  “Hit 7,000 page views today!” said the first one.  A few hours later: “We were number 20 on WordPress!”  That’s 20 out of roughly 3 million WordPress posts.  Dick is a world-class computational theorist, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and one of the best teachers I have ever known.  He is a star.  He has been blogging pure math for the last year at a website called “G̈ödel’s Lost Letter¨.  Not exactly the stuff you would expect to be in the top  .0007% of all of those posts about Michael Jackson, Death Panels, and the 2016 Olympics.  His latest series “Reasons for Believing P = NP” has been exceptionally popular, drawing hundreds of comments from experts, novices, interested amateurs, and a few cranks.  We have been collaborators for many years. Our offices used to share a common wall.  I know Dick’s voice when he is engaged with his students.  It has a distinctive rhythm and is louder when he is trying to extract a missing argument from a reluctant pupil.  It was the voice I heard when I read his blog, and as I thought about his 7,000 viewers it occurred to me that Dick’s seminar was no longer 10 or 15 graduate students crowded around a white board.  This is not an on-line lecture or an iTunes™ videos. I thought, “This is what the teacher-mentor relationship is like when the technology enables a classroom of 7,000 students.”  When there are abundant choices, students will choose this.

  1. Jason said:

    Maybe it’s my experience with GaTech, but I’d argue 95% of the lectures I received there deserved significant criticism as well… There was the prof who’s lectures consisted of reading the book (in file system design), the calculus profs who assumed you had already mastered the material in the class before taking it, and the Smalltalk class where I learned nothing about the subject matter, and still managed an A.

    Universities may be outdated within 20 years… for certain kinds of people, they’re outdated now.


    • richde said:

      Thanks for the comment. It’s a great point that “live” instruction is not necessarily superior. I will blog a case study one of these days of an online student who abandoned her bricks-and-mortar classroom because the online quality was simply better.


      • Jason said:

        The only challenge with online becomes certifying that they actually did something. GT is hard to get through, partially because it forces you to teach yourself stuff. A degree from GT doesn’t MEAN that you know how to learn quickly, but it’s a good indication that you do, and can short circuit a lot of crap in the interview process if you have a degree from GT.

        How do you certify that the person in front of you actually did something online for the advanced degree they’re claiming?

        Also, mentoring is very hard online. It’s hard in a lecture hall with 400 students and 1 mediocre lecturer… it’s not easier if you have 40,000 students, and 1 gifted lecturer… and it’s harder still if the lecture was recorded 2 years ago.


      • richde said:

        Jason makes good points. I talk about this in my book but to cut to the chase:
        1. The fastest growing segment of the online education market is for areas like special ed teacher or healthcare certification where “certification” is the whole point.
        2. “Online” doesn’t have to mean “recorded two years ago” The best online experiences are near real-time and the reported mentoring experience compares favorably with face-to-face


  2. rjlipton said:

    Thanks for your kind comment. I have long wondered if we should really change the way we teach. I think your blog is raising some great issues and I look forward to more posts.


  3. > The more difficult question is how exactly the technology can replace a skilled human mentor who has ability to interact directly with her students.

    I went to Washington University (one you’d probably consider a Global Brand) and while the professors and TA’s were certainly availalbe, I’ll bet you that very few ever took advantage of it. There was little person-to-person learning in the vast majority of classes.

    Certainly such interaction is highly valuable, but it’s really only needed in a small subset of cases. I’d argue that you’d get a better education by having professors *not* give lectures with their 3-4 hours of classtime a week but rather have smaller discussion groups to do a Q&A of the material that the students should have watched ahead of time. The idea is to use technology to scale the things that can be while using the time freed up by the technology to vastly improve the value and productivity of the person-to-person sessions.

    I think the bigger hold-up of solid lectures online is not about technology, but rather a re-organization of delivering materials. Professors will start to “hone” a single lecture given feedback from students, and after many iterations you will have a very efficient and repeatable way to teach people. I also predict the rise of “superstar” teachers that can deliver the knowledge in an entertaining way. Imagine what Richard Feynman might do if he were alive today.


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