Tuesday 12 June 2012

So we won't all be fired then

Whenever I read stories about the growth of MITx or other equivalents, I get a bit nervous about the long run for academics. I've consoled myself with that academia is really a rather more complicated product than just book-learning: there's all kinds of consumption and complex human capital formation bundled in with it; MITx can't easily replicate that bundle.

Noah Smith helps ease my mind.
Economists (including at least one in my PhD graduating class) have dedicated untold numbers of papers to showing that college doesn't produce useful skills. But I think that this is missing the point; useful skills, which you mostly learn on the job, are not the only valuable form of human capital. There are three extremely important forms of human capital that you can't acquire on the job:
1) Motivation,
2) Perspective, and
3) Human networks.
These, I believe, are the types of capital that college is designed to build, both in Japan and in the United States.
Motivation, in Noah's setup, isn't about showing that you can complete arbitrary tasks on a deadline (like assignments); rather, it's about building a network of people who will smack you around if you slack off.

Perspective is what you get when you're immersed in a rich environment different from the one you came from - you learn from others just what it is that you want to do. I knew going into university what I didn't want to do: farming and working outdoors where temperatures can hit -40. I didn't know that I wanted to be an economics prof until a few years into study.

And the human networks are self-explanatory.

MITx can replicate the book learning. If it's awfully careful in how it sets up local tutorial groups, it might be able to replicate some of the motivation aspect, but not unless you can get a substantial number of high quality students to flip from traditional universities to the MITx model. I have a harder time seeing how it replicates the "figuring out what I want to do with my life" aspect of university; human network formation too requires some push from the university equilibrium to the MITx equilibrium.
College is useless as a mechanism for signaling intelligence. It's probably somewhat useful for signaling the ability to work hard and resist temptation, at least in the U.S. where many colleges require hard work (but not in Japan). It is about consumption, but it's too concentrated in time to be mostly about consumption. College is really about human capital, of the kind not conveyed in classes - motivation, perspective, and networking. Rather than a hideously, inefficiently expensive signaling mechanism, college is an ingenious technology for building the kinds of human capital that are scarce among smart people in rich countries.
The biggest risk isn't from students wanting to switch from universities to online options like MITx, it's from governments deciding that massive subsidies to help high human capital types better network with each other isn't worth the public investment. The best counterargument is that publicly funded tertiary education with a strong bias towards subsidizing lower income students directly rather than having broad-based tuition subsidies or interest-free loans is probably the best way of facilitating upwards mobility among kids born in lower deciles but with higher innate ability. Noah's 'Perspective' argument here seems pretty critical. If you go to trade school to become a mechanic, you learn to be a mechanic, but you don't get exposure to the wider range of potential life options.


  1. By "human networks" do you mean the social aspects of college? Couldn't this be fairly easily replicated by some kind of advanced club?

    1. It would be hard to set up a club that had the right selection mechanism; without the particular types of costly effort mechanisms built into university that induce appropriate selection effects, it would be awfully easy for this to degenerate into standard form professional networking meeting groups that are pretty tacky at best. I'm not convinced that this kind of thing works except where the networking is ancillary to the main purported activity, but I haven't enough information to draw strong conclusions; I may be overly influenced by my repugnance of networking clubs.

  2. Basically, if you can replicate teaching online you should be able to replicate something of networking, perspective and motivation with moderated email groups etc.

    Thing is, the general availability of email and other social media is only a decade or so old and humans are still getting to grips with it. Eventually, as people realise that their words on screen are there forever they will treat online conversation as if it were face to face.

    Its all vaguely reminiscent of Correspondence School where many thousands of Kiwi kids got their education because of isolation.. they occasionally traveled to Wellington to meet their teachers, teachers (very) occasionally visited the farms and Massey University hosted full national meetings of students each year.. now that sort of interaction can be sped up via the internet, fewer isolation issues and fast travel.

    But overall else, internet teaching has to be about cost and convenience and absence of prejudice.. the future may produce BAs and BSCs with autism, bad breath, lousy parents and minimal social skills, but I suspect productivity will go up as a result.


    1. I can't imagine that being an effective substitute. We still do tons of face-to-face business meetings; we still run physical rather than online conferences; more evidence is pointing to that online tech is a complement rather than a substitute for face-to-face.

  3. MITx etc. are for people who can't afford the luxury. There are going to be quite a few such people in developed countries in years to come as Chinese and other developing country students work harder and socialize less. This perspective one gains has no value in this model unless it exposes students to the latter.

    1. That suggests that both markets can operate at the same time.