The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Econ $1.01

I always wonder what my outmoded taboos and curmudgeon-triggers will be. As I grow older, what paranoias or prejudices will make young folks roll their eyes the way I tend to roll mine at Nicholas Carr and Maggie Gallagher?

I might just have come across one. I was reading the latest Washington Monthly story roiling the blogosphere – College for $99 a Month. The story notes the arrival of super-cheap online intro courses students can take for college credit (the title’s not a hypothetical), positing that this heralds the beginning of the newspaper crisis era for academia.

I caught myself going into full-on curmudgeon mode – No online learning program can match a good, old-fashioned stint at a real college! Then I reflected on the fact that my undergrad experience – four years living on campus at a private college far from home – was already pretty specialized. Even more specialized than, for example, sitting down each morning to read your (shudder) printed newspaper.

I can imagine all sorts of ways in which cheap college can be a wonderful thing. But my curmudgeon reflex keeps tugging me back to the unintended consequences, the questions of what we’ll lose. So this is what it feels like.


As one of the people actively working towards crashing the price of higher education, I feel like I should jump in and say something.

The interesting thing here is that the courses they are offering is 101 type stuff, not higher-higher learning. And frankly, it’s very hard to argue against giving people greater access to the kind of skills that you get from these basic courses. With so many people living on dollars a day, and education being such a critical part of digging your way out of poverty, $99 a month is still too high. Will we lose the on campus goodness? Maybe, but frankly, with even the top schools running 1500 person first year courses I’m not convinced that that much is getting lost for these people.

The schools who get screwed hardest by this are the places you’ve never heard of because they are degree mills that no one really cares about the campus of. The Ivy leagues and the small liberals arts colleges will get by fine, I think. They can sell the campus life and so on.

I envision people in Thailand and India or wherever, taking $5/mo automated courses, forming study groups with other people from their communities, getting volunteers in to offer tutorials remotely. We’re talking about getting education to people who otherwise would not have access. Along the way, some institutions are going to collapse. Hopefully not too many of the net good ones will go.

The good that you want to increase in the world is education.
The price of current institutions is rising explosively.
We are hearing constant complaints of increasing irrelevancy.

On the other hand, insulation from the market is a very valuable thing. Tenure allows academics to take long bets. Newspapers allowed journalists to take long bets.

These long bets are where great value comes from historically.

Can we either find a way to get that value without the long bets or find other ways to allow those long bets?

Tenure allows aca­d­e­mics to take long bets. News­pa­pers allowed jour­nal­ists to take long bets.

Can we either find a way to get that value with­out the long bets or find other ways to allow those long bets?

What a great way of framing the question. I’m going to use this.

I like the framing that Newspapers allowed Journalists to take long bets. The interesting thing about this is that it was a kind of accidental side effect. I mean, when I went through school, the metanarrative about papers was about how badly they distorted the world. Noam Chomsky etc.

Watching talks like this:

Or reading articles like this:

Hard not to conclude that it’s almost a coincidence.

So there is a similar question to be asked of Universities. How many long bets are they really taking?

I think then the question is what other

Matt: Get used to the feeling you’ve described.

Best advice of one who’s been there for a while? Make some smart younger friends and pay attention 🙂

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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