Larry Summers: “it makes sense for students to watch video of the clearest calculus teacher or the most lucid analyst of the Revolutionary War rather than having thousands of separate efforts.”

January 24th, 2012

Summers comments on the difficulty of changing higher education:

My predecessor as Harvard president, Derek Bok, famously compared the difficulty of reforming a curriculum with the difficulty of moving a cemetery. With few exceptions, just as in the middle of the 20th century, students take four courses a term, each meeting for about three hours a week, usually with a teacher standing in front of the room. Students are evaluated on the basis of examination essays handwritten in blue books and relatively short research papers. Instructors are organized into departments, most of which bear the same names they did when the grandparents of today’s students were undergraduates. A vast majority of students still major in one or two disciplines centered on a particular department.

It may be that inertia is appropriate. Part of universities’ function is to keep alive man’s greatest creations, passing them from generation to generation. Certainly anyone urging reform does well to remember that in higher education the United States remains an example to the world, and that American universities compete for foreign students more successfully than almost any other American industry competes for foreign customers.

First, education will be about using information, rather than merely learning it.

Education will be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it. This is a consequence of both the proliferation of knowledge — and how much of it any student can truly absorb — and changes in technology. Before the printing press, scholars might have had to memorize “The Canterbury Tales” to have continuing access to them. This seems a bit ludicrous to us today. But in a world where the entire Library of Congress will soon be accessible on a mobile device with search procedures that are vastly better than any card catalog, factual mastery will become less and less important.

Second, collaboration, and crowd-sourcing is the name of the game.

An inevitable consequence of the knowledge explosion is that tasks will be carried out with far more collaboration. As just one example, the fraction of economics papers that are co-authored has more than doubled in the 30 years that I have been an economist. More significant, collaboration is a much greater part of what workers do, what businesses do and what governments do. Yet the great preponderance of work a student does is done alone at every level in the educational system. Indeed, excessive collaboration with others goes by the name of cheating.

Third, technology will be a key driver.

New technologies will profoundly alter the way knowledge is conveyed. Electronic readers allow textbooks to be constantly revised, and to incorporate audio and visual effects. Think of a music text in which you can hear pieces of music as you read, or a history text in which you can see film clips about what you are reading. But there are more profound changes set in train. There was a time when professors had to prepare materials for their students. Then it became clear that it would be a better system if textbooks were written by just a few of the most able: faculty members would be freed up and materials would be improved, as competition drove up textbook quality.

Fourth, relying on Kahneman’s masterpiece, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Not everyone learns most effectively in the same way. And yet in the face of all evidence, we rely almost entirely on passive learning. Students listen to lectures or they read and then are evaluated on the basis of their ability to demonstrate content mastery. They aren’t asked to actively use the knowledge they are acquiring.

“Active learning classrooms” — which cluster students at tables, with furniture that can be rearranged and integrated technology — help professors interact with their students through the use of media and collaborative experiences. Still, with the capacity of modern information technology, there is much more that can be done to promote dynamic learning.

And some stuff on black swans and moneyball:

As the “Moneyball” story aptly displays in the world of baseball, the marshalling of data to test presumptions and locate paths to success is transforming almost every aspect of human life. It is not possible to make judgments about one’s own medical care without some understanding of probability, and certainly the financial crisis speaks to the consequences of the failure to appreciate “black swan events” and their significance. In an earlier era, when many people were involved in surveying land, it made sense to require that almost every student entering a top college know something of trigonometry. Today, a basic grounding in probability statistics and decision analysis makes far more sense.

And Arnold Kling replies to Summers.

I think that education reform is not going to come from the college Presidents of the world. I think it is going to come from the bottom up, driven by the people who want to learn and by people who have innovative ideas for assisting them.

I think that at some point the best educated people will be self-educated. People like Ben Casnocha, who left college because I presume he felt it was slowing down his learning. Ben does not sit around at home, by any means. Every time I check out what he is doing, he seems to be in a different country.

I think that long before policy makers have figured out how to get everyone into college, college will have become obsolete.