Benjamin Lima writes,

With MOOCs, now anyone in the world with an internet connection can download and watch lectures from eminent experts at top universities, for free, and hundreds of thousands have done so. This is indeed a huge leap forward in the area of knowledge transfer. But the equivalent leap in the area of evaluation and feedback has not yet taken place.

Pointer from Tyler Cowen. Remember that I say that teaching equals feedback. In fact, I agreed with so much of Lima’s long essay that it was difficult to excerpt. Read the whole thing.

I went to Udacity and spent about an hour in Sebastian Thrun’s intro statistics course. My impression is that it is way too difficult for the typical student in my high school AP stats course. In eleven years of teaching, I think I have encountered only about 7 or 8 students who could have followed Thrun’s course.*

That said, one way to think about what Thrun is doing is that he is disintermediating the Stanford admissions process. Instead of having the admissions folks filter potential students, Thrun puts his course out there and students sort themselves into ones who can handle it and ones who cannot.

Lima puts a lot of weight on the campus experience, including interacting with other students in extracurricular activities and enjoying campus amenities. But, as he points out, colleges seem to be competing extra hard in these areas, to the point where marginal costs are probably getting to be high relative to marginal benefits. One scenario he offers is one in which the non-top-tier schools stop trying to compete on the basis of campus experience.

I am not convinced that feedback is necessarily tied to geography. Let’s stipulate that a human can provide more useful feedback than a computer on a student essay. I see no reason why the human has to be someone who resides on the same campus as the student.

If we wiped out everyone’s memory of how higher education is organized and started from scratch, would the institution of a campus, which has medieval origins, still emerge? It obviously is not needed for content delivery. I do not think it is needed for feedback. I think there are more cost-effective ways to obtain consumption amenities. My guess is that the value, if any, is in the informal, serendipitous interactions, including student-professor conversations. Just as a city can facilitate informal knowledge transfer, a campus might serve the same function.

Related: Terry M. Moe writes (in a “retrospective” from the year 2030)

technology was also breaking down the geographic basis of schooling because students and (many) teachers–now meeting in cyberspace–no longer needed to be in the same physical location.

Somewhat less related: Kevin Carey on “credit for life experience.” He refers to something called the Open Badges movement. I wonder what Bryan thinks about it. Are all alternative signals inherently inferior, because they signal nonconformity, or is there a point at which alternative signals reach critical mass and no longer have adverse connotations?*As an aside, I think that Thrun’s opening teaser is a swindle. He begins with a “proof” that, in expectation, someone else is more popular than you are. Go through the following logic.

1. There are two types of people. Type A has many friends and type B has just a few friends. Half of people are A and half of people are B.

2. Therefore, you have a 50-50 chance of being an A or a B.

3. If you pick one of your friends at random, the chances are higher that this friend is an A than a B (the intuition may be clearer if you substitute “sex partner” for “friend” And, as Thrun points out, the intuition is even clearer if you assume that B’s have zero friends).

4. Therefore, a random friend is likely to have more friends than you have.

Thrun stops there. I actually think this is a swindle. Suppose that you and I are friends. If we follow the logic from my point of view, you are more likely to be popular than I am. but if we follow the logic from your point of view, I am more likely to be popular than you are!

What is odd here is that Thrun is saying that the fact that you and I are friends tells me something about you but not about me. That is, it now is more likely that you are popular than that you are not. That is fine. But we continue to pretend that we have no information about whether or not I am popular. I think that produces a result that, in my view, makes no sense. In other words, I think that (2) is a swindle in this context. I am what I am–an A or a B. Saying that I have a 50-50 chance of being one or the other is, in this instance, an abuse of the language of probability.

If the observable fact is that you and I are friends, then we can draw just as many inferences about my popularity as we can about yours.