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Bo Shi

I'll speak to MIT's OpenCourseware (OCW) as I've gone through a couple courses since graduating undergrad. I think subjectively, as far as quality of education goes, online courses are much closer to the "real deal" than even the author believes.

First, in aggregate, we probably overestimate the value-add of matriculation. By my observation, a significant percentage - perhaps majority - of students go through not fully utilizing the vast (college is wasted on the youth :P) one-on-one instructional resources available to them. I've no doubt that a motivated student would get just as much out of an OpenCourseware class as a significant number of students who go through their four years skipping a fair number of tutorials (small group lecture and Q/A).

Nearly all students collaborated with peers doing homework or project. While OCW cannot currently replace the opportunity to work with some really world class students on a problem set or group project, customers are perfectly capable of working in groups through an online course. The quality of collaboration might even be higher since the motivations of OCW students are "purer". In college, you might have collaborators who are only interested in the answers and not necessarily learning the material. I can't overstate the value of group learning; this is one area where OCW might even have an advantage. one envisions an simple match making service for each week's course materials where students can find small groups of other students working on the same material in order to collaborate.

What OCW can't provide is the external signaling and reputation boost that an institutional degree can. Luckily, most good employers know not to put too much stock in a degree.

Another consideration is that teaching a technical subject is probably more straightforward than a humanities topic. I'm not sure reading is a sufficient substitute for socratic debate for which the instructor-student ratio is much more difficult to scale.


The traditional economic analysis of higher education recognises two components – the human-capital component and the signalling component. Degrees in subjects like veterinary medicine or computer science help you earn a living directly while classics or art history simply signal to employers that you're clever and diligent. Elite universities have a particular advantage in signalling because of their restrictive admissions.

Making a Stanford AI course available worldwide clearly adds value, in that tens of thousands of engineers acquire theoretical insights and useful skills. It may even provide some signalling benefits, in that engineers educated at unknown institutions in less developed countries have an opportunity to show that they can hack it along with engineers educated in North America and Europe.

However I'm slightly sceptical about the value added if a humanities degree is scaled up in this way, as the signal will be diluted. I'm also sceptical about the effects of scaling up degrees that prepare for professions that restrict entry, as medics and lawyers do in many countries. In Britain, a generation ago, pretty well anyone who completed a law degree could get a training place which led to professional registration. Now there are many more law graduates than training places, giving an advantage to students whose parents have connections with law firms. Thus even though the increase in university provision in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s was designed to promote social mobility, it did the opposite in case of the law.

So MOOCs are great for industries like computing where the demand for skilled labour is large and growing. For more traditional pursuits, their benefits may be more nuanced.


Why don't you try it yourself - I have taken two courses, and it has changed my perspective dramatically. Its free and not scheduled to certain times of the day, which allowed me to participate beside working full time and having a family.

I use these for fun, intellectual challenge and to keep my skills up to date, and for this these courses are great as well.

Having participated in one course from a very respected and one from a less well known college I have to say the marketing aspect for the well known could be quite negative. The course from the lesser known college (not in the US) was much better prepared, more interactive, much better adapted to online, had good discussion forums, help areas. After this, I'd NEVER recommend going to the top league college.

Having all the additional features plus responsive, active professors made it seem very feasible to not just participate in 'lecture' style courses, but also to Master grade level courses with few participants.

And why not? I work global every day, and results are excellent. Why should learning via phone, internet not work as well? Why do you have the image that college education needs presence more than working in large companies?


And Dr. Becker has a series of lectures hosted by University of Chicago, free to all. (Or at least this was the case a few months ago courtesy of a youtube search.) As an alum, I am always intrigued to capture some of the stuff I missed in my youth. It's different 35+ years later, not bothered with the distractions of the draft, job search or impending marriage. A big thanks.

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