Thursday, December 13, 2012

Coursera is a mess

And I mean that less negatively than the statement might convey. The main problem is when I sign up for a course I don’t really know what to expect. In many ways this is because everyone involved - students and professors are all experimenting and testing but in some ways this is also becoming frustrating.

This post focuses on video quality. This ranges from mediocre to great. In this category is the streaming experience as well as the lecture quality.

Using Chrome, the quality is sometimes degraded - requiring a full download in order to watch without blurring lines. It also requires the use of VLC player rather than WMP (although other players could also work). This is a technology problem and can and should be fixed. The degraded streaming experience is annoying and frustrating. Just as some text is being highlighted all I see are a bunch blurry lines. this problem varies across institutions within Coursera so the ball is definitely in Coursera’s court.

Lectures range from a video of a professor standing in front of a whiteboard a la ‘chalk and talk’ (and doing derivations on the board) to the (slick) use of Powerpoint/slides with videos within slides and or use of pen and highlights to draw attention to particular areas of the slides. The effectiveness of this approach varies with its extent and in general there is no real agreement for me which is the best approach. Having taken 5 courses I would think that it depends on the subject matter.

Again, the experience has ranged from mediocre to great. Unfortunately, some mediocre courses are need to somehow be flagged for attention. Coursera seems to have taken a franchise approach to MOOC in the sense that they provide the technology and platform and the professors/colleges provide the content. This approach has allowed them to expand course offerings at a rapid clip but quality may have been affected.

Perhaps Coursera feels that with the institution/professor’s reputation at stake, quality is self-enforcing in that no professor would be caught dead with mediocre lectures. Unfortunately, this can and has happened (my opinion only). Which leads to another problem - if a course undergoes some changes in the next round it is difficult to know what if any improvements have been made.

I would tend to generally file these under growing pains but the pace in which course offerings have expanded makes me think that the boys at Sand Hill Road are in the drivers seat - and driving recklessly. This pace could end up driving Coursera into mediocrity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What should be the goal of MOOCs

Without a doubt - one of the goals should be to reduce the total cost of a college education by at least a third if not more - and to do this by the end of this decade if not earlier.

Some have implicitly argued that the problem is not the total cost but the productivity of the education sector. By this argument, as long as average productivity rises (perhaps even as tuition continues to rise) the education sector is not doing too badly. The strategy therefore is just to have as many people watch their videos as possible.

Average Productivity = Number of people watching videos / time needed to make videos. With a fixed denominator, average productivity will naturally rise.

This argument is detached from the usual widget argument which also claims that as total output expands costs per unit drops. In a perfect competition, prices also fall. Certainly the education sector is as far from perfect competition as I can imagine but any claim that MOOCs increase productivity must also be accompanied by a fall in tuition.

The clearest way to decrease college attendance costs is to substitute expensive college courses on campus with free MOOC courses. Next comes the details - how to transfer the credits. The MOOCs have honed in on two: accreditation and certification. They are different sides of the same coin to me but essentially the idea would be to make the student pay in order to receive a piece of paper (electronic or otherwise) that allows credits to be transferred. This would be accompanied by (most likely) a proctored exam that the student has to take in order to prove competency.

Of course this assumes that college education as we know it now continues to have the same relevance not just in the workplace but in our lives. By this I mean we go to school, graduate, get a job, and forget almost all about what was taught in the classroom. Somehow, the ideas that MOOCs have spawned should require them to reach higher than that.

Unfortunately, it seems that they may have been captured by the vultures of Sand Hill Road and need to monetize their experiment as quickly as possible. If this is what is to be then the goal of reducing total cost of attendance could even be considered redeeming.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is College Worth it (again)

The BBC and NYT ran two similar stories within a day of each other. This is the ‘Is College Worth It?’ debate slightly recast-ed:

The BBC:
Today's young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.

One commenter - Adam, Knoxville, US - noted:

I am a secondary school Math teacher. I have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. in Education. I would go on to earn a Ph.D., but it is too expensive. One reason my students don't want to go to college is they don't see any value in it. They read and watch stories of people making millions without ever going to college: athletes, musicians, stars, models, innovators, self-trained programmers. And then there are skilled technicians who don't need college (plumbers, security specialists, hair stylists, etc.). We also hear in the news about companies leaving US soil because they cannot find people to work in their factories - high paying jobs that don't require a college degree. Apparently our young people don't want to go to college, but at the same time they don't want to work in a factory environment either. Another issue with value is that students are well aware of the fact that teachers and other college educated people don't make that much money. A starting teacher in our district (with a family of four) makes approximately $28,000 a year (poverty level). Students look at us and ask 'Why should I go to school to earn a degree to be poor? We are already poor, so what benefit is all that extra work?" I am at the point where I agree with them. Salaries of the middle class have not changed much in 20 years, while the rich are now measured by billions, not millions. There is staggering inequality and students are not blind.

In fact, he has nailed the reason down: The perceived relative returns to college have come down. But in fact, the earnings gap between college and high school graduates has actually increased. While median college earnings have not moved much in the past 30 years, college tuition has been rising - both of which may have contributed to the perceived fall in the returns to college.

Another possible reason is from the NYT:
… compile a list of occupations that have shown the most “up-credentialing” in the last five years — that is, occupations whose job ads were significantly more likely to name college diplomas as a prerequisite in 2012 than they were in 2007.

Here is a look at the 10 occupations with the biggest percentage increases in requiring a college degree.
Occupation title2007-12* Growth in % of Posted Jobs Advertising for a Bachelor’s Degree2007 % of Ads Requiring Bachelor’s Degree2012* % of Ads Requiring Bachelor’s Degree
Dental Laboratory Technicians175%12%33%
Chemical Equipment Operators and Tenders83%6%11%
Medical Equipment Preparers55%11%17%
Buyers and Purchasing Agents, Farm Products43%54%77%
Electronics Engineering Technicians38%21%29%
Dental Hygienists38%40%55%
Architectural Drafters37%41%56%
Cargo and Freight Agents36%33%45%
Claims Adjusters, Examiners and Investigators35%48%65%

*2012 data is from Nov. 1, 2011, to Oct 31, 2012

Some of these occupations may actually require more advanced skill sets than they used to. Others may require the same old duties and skills, but employers assume that people who don’t go to college in this day and age must be inferior candidates. There’s also still an oversupply of workers, so employers know they can afford to be picky.

Many administrative jobs — human resources manager, property manager, school administrator, desktop publisher, security manager — also appear on the full list.

These tend to be jobs that require fewer technical skills, so it’s not clear why a college-level education would suddenly become more important — except maybe as a sorting device for narrowing down the deluge of résumés to the most qualified (or overqualified) applicants.

In most of these administrative occupations, hiring has fallen over the last few years, as you can see in the columns further to the right showing the total number of jobs posted. That could also mean that the openings that are left — the ones that have been harder to fill even when workers are abundant — are disproportionately the ones actually do require more advanced skill sets.
For other categories of jobs, it’s harder to tell whether the “up-credentialing” reflects changing job duties or mere degree inflation.

A lot of the jobs listed are medical technician positions, for example, which typically require some kind of technical skills that can be achieved with postsecondary schooling like an associate’s degree or a certification of some kind. It’s unclear whether these jobs have gotten more technically sophisticated in the last five years, or whether employers just want to narrow down the pool of potential applicants to those perceived to be more ambitious.

Not noted in the article is that many of these jobs also appear to be lower wage jobs, thereby contributing to the lower returns from college. However, as the article noted early on:

The wage gap between the typical college graduate and those who have completed no more than high school has been growing for the last few decades. In the late 1970s, the median wage was 40 percent higher for college graduates than for people with more than a high school degree; now the wage premium is about 80 percent.

Given these trends, the question is then - can you afford not to go to college - even for a lousy job? The ball seems to be back on the cost of college side of the equation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Venetian curiousity

This picture of flooding in Venice last month reminded me about a previous story about how the population of Venice was falling because of constant flooding. If I Google “Venice population” I find this news story from 2009 in the Telegraph:

Official census figures show the city's permanent population was 59,984 as of last week.
The population has been sliding for years, from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city's days as a sustainable community are numbered.

But many locals say that with the city besieged by an average of 55,000 tourists a day, residents are almost outnumbered by the day-tripping hordes.

One group of Venetians is to hold a "funeral" for the city once known as the Queen of the Adriatic.

A coffin symbolising the death of the city will be borne down the Grand Canal in a procession of three boats during a ceremony to be held on Nov 14.

It will be carried ashore and deposited outside the town hall, close to the famous Rialto Bridge.
Many Venetians are concerned that high property prices and rental costs are forcing ordinary people out of the city and draining it of normal life.

But the same search terms also return data from Google’s Public Data which shows the population of Venice has been rising. Since this data is in millions, I assume that the geographic area covered is larger than the city proper. A smaller geographic area is documented by Wikipedia which puts the population at 270,000 in 2009. (It also cites the 60,000 number in Venice as I think of it but it cites a news article rather than a statistical agency. A more recent NPR story is here (circa 2012) where the 60,000 number is also repeated.)

There is also a nice graphic here which sort of put my curiosity to rest although it lacks documentation on sources except for citing the city council of Venice. I find it a little perplexing that the raw data is so hard to come by not only because this is the age of the Internet but because Italy is supposedly an advanced economy.

Finding the population of Venice, Florida, however, was not as difficult.

Monday, December 3, 2012

In which economists delude themselves about their productivity

’ve been sitting on this post for awhile waiting for the negative energies that it assailed me with to abate but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve decided to try ranting.

Productivity in education has lagged productivity in other sectors of the economy because teaching is so labor intensive. Where exactly in the typical classroom is there room for investment, let alone productivity improvement? More chalk? Prior to online education, the bottleneck through which productivity improvements had to pass was the teacher, and we know that improving teacher productivity is very difficult, which is why teaching methods haven’t changed in millennia. Online education vastly increases the potential for productivity increases because it greatly increases the size of the potential market.

I assume that average productivity is number of students taught divided by number of students taking the course. This concept, if it is indeed the concept of productivity seems absurd. It harks back to the time of the dot-com bubble when metrics such as ‘eyeballs’, pageviews and unique users were used to justify stock prices of companies.

Here a similar argument is being used to justify the superiority of MOOCs. (Another bad argument is here.) I’ll believe the productivity argument when average college tuition starts falling. Right now, it sounds a lot like an argument for continuing to pay these guys their six figure salaries (or even an argument for increasing their salaries).