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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Higher Education From Scratch

Hello Prawfs readers: it's nice to reemerge from the comments again for the first time in a few years. But my first post here will be in the nature of a comment, or at least a thought inspired by Glenn's post below on MOOCs. I'm sympathetic to a lot of what Glenn writes, especially the skepticism of those whose arguments (albeit understandably) seem to be focused more on short-term distribution effects rather than long-term gains for society.

But I'm much more skeptical of a refrain that Glenn employs a couple of times in his post-- the idea that it's helpful for us to imagine that we were "creating the first universities for our day and age," and use those imagined ideal first universities to evaluate whether and how our actual universities ought to change. Maybe it's my inner Hayek, but I'm not sure how good our imaginations really are, and I'm not sure how relevant the product of those imaginations ought to be.

I mean, for starters, once we are in the imagining business, why universities?

If we were creating the first system of higher education for our day and age, is there any reason to believe we would do it via university, rather than some much more unbundled combination of written and oral materials? Would we have general rather than specialized certifications? And if we did decide to invent universities, what ought they be like? Despite having thought about this for a while, I honestly have no idea, and I'm skeptical of most of those who do have a confident idea.

I come at this problem quite differently. One of the defining characteristics of American universities is the way that they've become embedded in our society over time, and the set of social norms in and around them. You don't have to be Tyler Cowen to think that two of the main reasons people learn things by going to universities are the effects of socialization and the higher social status obtained by going. We can tell stories about the superiority of interactive class discussion over the internet and the library, but surely those embedded social effects are a huge part of any such superiority. And many of those social norms are bottom-up, not top-down. Imagining new from-scratch universities pushes us to dissociate the university from some of its most important virtues.

So I'd evaluate the role of MOOCs and online education by asking: To what extent can we introduce the advantages without dramatically changing the social norms on which the univeristy system depends? (And, if the social norms will change dramatically, will it be worth it?)

As for lectures, it may well be that students pay a lot more attention when there is a real human being at the front of the class. Similarly, it may be that the success of classes relies in part on the desire of many students to "impress" the professor because he is a high-status person, and that repeatedly seeing the professor in the flesh is important to inspiring that desire.

As for cross-subsidization, again I'd ask whether unbundling research and teaching is consistent with the current status games on which universities depend. I'm not sure about the answers, but I propose that these are the more relevant speculations than the question of how we'd design universities if we were doing it from scratch.

Posted by Will Baude on June 4, 2013 at 08:18 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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Isn't the ability to interact with researchers and each other on a scholarly level what distinguishes university education from trade school, high school, grade school, etc.? It sounds like it might be debatable whether every single person in every single field needs/wants to receive this type of education, which can be expensive, but less debatable are the intended benefits from this type of education--ability to think, debate, engage with ideas, socialize, etc.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Jun 6, 2013 1:56:40 AM

Hi Glenn,

Yes, it sounds like we basically agree. I suspect that we'll learn more as more universities experiment, wisely and unwisely, with new tactics and some of them turn out well and some don't.


Interesting. And half-seriously, I think what you describe may be close to the current norm at some universities.

Posted by: William Baude | Jun 5, 2013 1:10:37 AM

" Would we have general rather than specialized certifications?"

I'm not sure exactly which way this is meant to cut in the discussion, but it's worth noting that many other countries have much more specialized higher education than in the US, and have a much smaller "general education" requirement.(*) The example most people know is the UK, but, in Russia the typical higher education is also much more specialized, with most universities being themselves more specialized, and then students following 5-year paths that are focused much more on the "major" subject (and closely related areas) than in the US, with only a handful of "general education" requirements. People graduate with a level of expertise that something like having a US MA, or perhaps even a bit more. I don't have a firm opinion on whether this is a better system or not, but it's worth keeping in mind that there are many systems other than the US one out there, and they differ in important ways.

(*)Sometimes people will say this is because the primary education in these other countries is so much better than in the US that college students in these countries don't need general education, but I'll say that this claim is not at all born out in my experience.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 5, 2013 1:09:53 AM

Interesting questions, and I agree we have no idea what the answers are. I wonder if we'll move to more of a model of education in which the university gives and grades exams, and it also offers a wide range of different resources that students are free to rely on if they like -- such as books, lectures, videos, office hours etc -- without in class attendance being seen as critical. Students can draw on whatever resources they think best to learn the material in light of their interests and learning styles.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jun 4, 2013 12:03:56 PM

Thanks Will for the thoughtful comment! I don't think we disagree (that much), and to the extent you read me as saying that only the "from scratch" question matters, that it is not what I was saying (or at least intended to say!) Instead I am just urging people in these debates to be clear about the argumentative space they are moving in. I distinguished arguments about the winners and losers in status quo entitlement holders from the "time zero" types of arguments. Both have a place, but they are different places. You, I think, have added a third argumentative vantage point (and of course I did not mean to suggest there were only two, I think there are quite a few beyond ours) of what I might call the "socially embedded university." It takes as given that universities as such should exist, and that their function is the historical one you've ascribed to them, and asks whether MOOCs can satisfy those functions or not. I think that is another way into the problem, is useful one, though it requires the audience for that argument to agree with you that the functions of the university as currently embedded are the right ones, which is good contested ground.

One more point: Here what is motivating me is no doubt my time spent in evidence-based medicine and the history of research ethics, as well as the realization from that time that many common-sense things we have done over the history of medicine turned out to be ineffective or harmful while costly..
You write "As for lectures, it may well be that students pay a lot more attention when there is a real human being at the front of the class. Similarly, it may be that the success of classes relies in part on the desire of many students to "impress" the professor because he is a high-status person, and that repeatedly seeing the professor in the flesh is important to inspiring that desire."
It may be or it may well not be. I am fairly sure there is significant educational research on the point. The research I am most familiar with and I alluded to in comments on my own thread is about dividing matters into small chunks, immediate feedback, etc, that large lectures don't do. But to quote Levar Burton "Don't take my [or Will's!] word for it." All of these are testable propositions. Is Will right? We can find out. Even if he is right, at what cost? We need to get beyond folk wisdom and find out the answers to those questions, a sentiment I suspect you agree with!

Posted by: I. Glenn Cohen | Jun 4, 2013 10:02:59 AM

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