January 2012

Volume 27 Number 01

Don't Get Me Started - Lowering Higher Education

By David Platt | January 2012

David PlattI have a front-row seat to the coming revolution. One of the main services I provide to Microsoft and the developer community is bridging the divide between them and academia. As with newspapers, I expect the existing order in academia will be redefined over the next decade, posing enormous challenges and huge new market opportunities for the institutions and people who can grab them.

At the source of the coming revolution is this simple fact: The inflation-adjusted price of college has quadrupled since 1982 (source: cnnmon.ie/bApHLC). Has the value of that education quadrupled, or even doubled? Not that I can see. That artificial price increase has created an academic bubble like the stock and real estate bubbles we’ve encountered recently. Now combine disruptive technology (ubiquitous fast Internet) with the worst economy in living memory and you spark off cataclysmic structural change. The bubble is about to burst.

Some academic institutions are already adapting to this new reality, such as the Harvard University Extension School (extension.harvard.edu), where I have the honor of teaching. We admit everyone, and an undergraduate course costs about $1,000. Many of our courses, including mine on .NET, are available over the Web. You won’t play as much Frisbee or drink as much beer (probably) as in a classic residential college, but how many parents and students today wouldn’t find those economics compelling? And I’ll stake our teaching quality against any challenger, anywhere, any time.

But this model still relies on human instructors delivering live lectures, increasing cost. That’s about to change.

Think back to your freshman calculus class. Was your instructor any good? Every person that I interviewed for this column swore that he’d gotten the world’s worst. I know I did. (Yes, Sue Esch and Robert Nelson, I mean you.)

Imagine taking the world’s 10 best teachers of freshman calculus and paying them each a million dollars for a video. Put them all online at $100 a pop, including exams and problem sets. Capture just 3 percent of the roughly 4 million college freshmen in the United States, and you’ve recouped your investment in the first year.

Wouldn’t students prefer that to paying $12,500 (one-fourth of their yearly bill at a private university) to suffer through an apathetic graduate student boring everyone in a 500-seat lecture hall? Wouldn’t they rather enjoy a far better instructor, watch on their own schedules, re-run confusing sections until they understood them, progress at their own paces, for less than 1 percent of the price? Not just yes, but hell, yes!

Now expand this idea to any large lecture class where the material seldom changes: freshman economics, organic chemistry, English literature, even introductory computer science. It won’t cover everything, but looking back at my own college transcript (painful), it could have replaced about three-quarters of my classes. Quality way, way up; price way, way down.

This leveraged approach can work even for hot current topics. Stanford University announced that its class on artificial intelligence will be available for free online, and 58,000 students registered to take it. I might sign up myself.

This model has some hurdles, but with such huge cost advantages, they’ll get solved. For example, the Stanford online attendees won’t get grades or credit. How long until an enterprising community college offers an exam on the content and credit for successful completion, priced at perhaps $500? Students connecting to other students? Some entrepreneur will open an academic bar, like a sports bar, serving beer with your calculus videos. Asking the instructor questions? We’ll think of something.

The biggest loss would be those few extraordinary teachers who show you the world in a new light. I was lucky to study under Vic Mansfield, who influences my teaching and even my basic thinking to this day. I pay him the supreme compliment, not of imitation, which he would consider a lower form, but of adaptation, taking what he taught me and making it mine before passing it on. (And so do my classmates. See Vic’s obituary at bit.ly/k3qK4A, particularly the comments.) Perhaps we’ll develop some form of mentor classes to fill this gap.

As with all technological advances since fire and the wheel, those who cling blindly to the old ways get trampled. The faculty and institutions that prosper will be those that recognize the coming changes and adapt to them early (see my May and June columns from last year), instead of struggling, futilely, to hold back the tide. I expect to find the landscape radically different when my daughters start college, nine years from now.

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.