Monday, September 13, 2010

Online Learning vs. Face-to-Face, Who Wins? The Outsourcer.

Expert opinion and cost pressures are shifting education online, according to a thought provoking post in today’s NY Times. Apparently, online learning now beats face-to-face teaching by a modest but statistically meaningful margin.

Pondering this change, by sheer coincidence I received an even more thought provoking post from my classmate Patrick Winston via the MIT Alumni Assn. blog, Slice of MIT. It was written in the first person, is brief, and the post struck me so strongly that I am reproducing it intact, something I have never done before.

Gerry Sussman burst into my office. “You were right!” he said.

“About what?”

“Twenty-five years ago, you said we should get rid of 10% of the faculty and use the money to hire unemployed, English-speaking, Indian PhDs to tutor our students individually over the web.”

“Yes,” I remembered, a little surprised that he remembered.

“Well, it’s happened.”

He had just heard a BBC report on TutorVista, of Banglore, which offers tutoring to kids at $2.50 per hour.

Now for the rest of the story. This year, my subject, 6.034, will join 40 others available from OpenCourseWare with video recording of the lectures. Many more are coming.

When I was a kid, I went to MIT because that was the only way I could have Arthur Mattuck tell me about mathematics; Tony French, about physics; Amar Bose, about circuits; and Gerry Lettvin about what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain.

But sitting in a lecture hall is no longer a good reason to be at MIT. You can watch today’s analogs of those great lecturers without spending $50,000 a year. In fact, if you can’t afford a computer, you can watch them for nothing at your local library. If you can spare $2.50, you can probably find someone in India to help you through the rough spots.

Of course, there still are plenty of reasons to be physically at MIT; here are a few that come to mind: working problem sets together late at night, the smaller classes, UROP, TEAL, IAP, BattleCode, and the 100K Contest.

Still, I don’t think we at MIT are thinking enough about the future, because, well, here is another prediction: twenty-five years from now there will only be 500 or so English-language lecturers. They will paid like sports stars to develop new material offered up by OpenGooggleWare, along with advertisements. Who knows what the rest of us will be doing. Maybe tutoring Indian students over the web.

I tip my scally cap to classmate Patrick Winston, now Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70,  and I recommend his Pensées to all.

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