Computers, Education, and Comparative Advantage
At risk of sounding extremely narcissistic, the key question for Tyler and me is whether online education is going to put the two of us out of a job. Our definitional conflict notwithstanding, the two of us both answer this key question with a resounding “no.” For the sake of the world, I hope we’re both wrong.
Here is how I size up the current state of computers in education:
1. Note that in the music industry, the Internet has put record stores out of business. It has not put composers and musicians out of business.
2. Computers have a comparative advantage in repetition, distribution, and data retrieval and storage. Humans have a comparative advantage in interpersonal skills.
3. Lectures are a very weak teaching method. Distributing lectures on line costs little, but by the same token it provides little benefit.
4. Teaching equals feedback. Some forms of feedback are repetitive (grading multiple-choice tests), which argues for computers, but many forms require interpersonal skills (grading essays), which argues for humans. Yes, computers are starting to learn to grade essays, but this is not yet their comparative advantage.
5. Students learn from one another. Yes, entrepreneurs are trying to reproduce “social learning” over the Internet, but this is not its comparative advantage.
6. I think that for (some) individual teachers, a “hybrid model” that combines human feedback with effective use of computers will win.
7. In terms of effective education using a “hybrid model,” I think that existing educational institutions will lose. Institutional adaptation tends to be inferior to individual adaptation. Tyler and Bryan will still have jobs in 15 years, even if GMU is effectively dead.
8. Education has a very large Hansonian component. Politicians show that they care by rhetorically supporting education. Parents show that they care about their children by arranging for them to attend high-status schools. As I have said before, I think this is the element that makes the future of education so difficult to predict. Right now, the status of online education is low relative to the status of in-person education. If that “tips” at some point, so that it becomes higher status to give your children tablets and sign them up for online courses, then the institutions crumble quickly.