Automating Higher Education ‘Factory’

Kevin Carey has a very thorough review on the state of Higher Education cost structures in the Washington Monthly this month. He showcases innovative uses of technology in lowering costs of lectures – leading to increase in productivity, better grades and lower costs.

The key is letting computers do what they do best—grading multiple-choice tests, providing 24/7 access to text, audio, and video, connecting people to one another at a distance—while retaining the human element when only real people will suffice. The Virginia Tech Math Emporium is staffed twelve hours a day with a combination of upper-division math majors, graduate students, and faculty, each of whom is prepared to help students with any of the Emporium-based courses.

And even when the notoriously nocturnal undergraduate lifestyle puts teachers of any kind out of reach, the Emporium never closes and the computers never sleep. Virginia Tech students always have access to the mind of Michael Williams, the ghost in the Emporium machines.

Kevin goes on to explain why universities are not passing the cost-savings back to students. In fact, tuition costs are rising – with all of the money being spent on ‘status-building’ investments in athletics, building, etc in order to boost college ranks on various lists like the one maintained by US News.

Leaving the economics of higher education aside, the technology application is the interesting part. Applying technology in agriculture and manufacturing resulted in phenomenal productivity increases in the past decades. Technology has increased productivity in the so-called Third Wave of Services industry already with communications, collaboration and analytical tools. Even in education, we have plenty of online courses and other technology-enabled initiatives. Moving the boundary well into the hallowed lecture halls on campus is new. Professors are being replaced by intelligent machines! Sounds like a sci-fi movie plot…

You can learn to speak any language you wish on a tape/CD/Computer; Pilots can learn to fly planes using computer simulators; and you can google for any piece of information that you care about on the Internet. So, why do we need Professors for delivery of classes? Let them design new computer courses. They can even design feedback mechanisms into the delivery so that students can provide input for the course to self-correct. Professors can then be free to do original research and expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Machines have taken over the campus. Are you sure your Professor is human?