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Online Learning

August 20, 2010

I was never interested in history, but I was forced to take some history as an undergraduate. When I attended college, there were "core courses" that every student, no matter his major, was required to take. Fortunately, I had taken a college-level American history course in high school, so that scratched one history course off my list. I enjoyed philosophy (much to the later consternation of my wife and children), so those swept away a few more humanities electives. I needed another history course, so I decided to take one during the summer, so it wouldn't interfere with my "real" coursework. If online instruction were available in those days, I would have taken the course online, just to get it out of the way. Do I still remember some history? A little. From what I've read, if I had used an online option, I might remember just a little less. Not surprisingly, online instruction has a staunch supporter in former Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, who is predicting the demise of the traditional university education and the rise of online education to take its place.

Learning is a highly personalized activity. There may be someone who's responsible for teaching you, but it's up to you to actually learn the stuff. As Mark Twain supposedly said, "Never let your schooling interfere with your education."[1] That applies famously to Bill Gates, who taught himself computer programming as a high school student in the days before desktop computers. He left Harvard in his junior year to devote all his time to Microsoft, a company he had co-founded with Paul Allen. Microsoft now employs about 75,000 people and has about $50 billion in annual revenues.[2] Gates didn't let his schooling interfere with his education, and he thinks that everyone can do the same with a little help from online learning.

Speaking at this month's Techonomy Conference (Lake Tahoe, CA), Gates predicted the death of the traditional university, saying that "Five years from now on the web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world... It will be better than any single university."[3-4] The major problem with higher education, as any parent will agree, is the high cost of a traditional university education. Matriculation at many private universities costs about $50,000 a year. Gates thinks that online education of the same, or better, caliber should cost just $2,000 a year. He concedes, however, that classroom instruction is important for the K-12 grades. Not surprisingly, Gates is a strong advocate of charter schools. Your child, too, can be "Microsoft Certified" upon leaving high school.

Bill Gates at CES 2006

Bill Gates
Photo by Herkko Hietanen

In his talk at Techonomy, Gates highlighted another problem in education. That problem is the textbooks, and not just because they're so expensive. They're too big, and they intimidate the students. Why should a grade school math book be 300 pages long? He claims that Asian textbooks are just a third the size of US textbooks, and Asian students have outperformed US students in standardized subject tests.

MIT started releasing its course materials online in 2002 when it launched its Open-CourseWare project at http://ocw.mit.edu [5] While other universities were attempting to monetize internet instruction, MIT decided to share its lecture materials, assignments and exams online at no charge. Open-CourseWare materials are published under a Creative Commons license. Today, Open-CourseWare presents essentially all teaching materials, both undergraduate and graduate level, in MIT's thirty-three academic departments, and MIT has even shipped hard drives containing the web site to locations with limited internet access. A surprising statistic is that nearly half the visitors to the Open-CourseWare web site are not students enrolled at other universities or their professors. They're independent learners.[5]

All this paints a rosy picture of online education, but there's a recent study from Northwestern University, "Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimates of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning," that examined the effectiveness of online vs traditional instruction.[6] Says David Figlio, primary author of the paper,
"Online instruction may be more economical to deliver than live instruction, but there is no free lunch... Simply putting traditional courses online could have negative consequences, especially for lower-performing and language minority students."
The study looked at the performance of 327 students randomly assigned to hear lectures in a microeconomics course either "live," or online. There was evidence that the live instruction had a somewhat better learning outcome, with the greatest affect for low achieving students, male students and Hispanic students.

There are some challenges with the online learning approach. Some people learn better when they're with other people where they can ask questions and get a rephrasing of what's being taught. Most professors are experts in their fields, and they are excellent resources. A major problem, at least from the university perspective, is that most of their brick-and-mortar operations will be going out of business, and they would still like to make money through individual accreditation. I think that such personal accreditation should be handled in a uniform manner, somewhat like an SAT for each subject area. However, it's my experience that private organizations charge way too much money for such services. I hate to say it, but there might be a role for the government here. After all, the government does support the National Academies, who may be able to assume this responsibility.

One problem we may never solve is having too many people trained in the wrong field. That's why we have highly educated people working at fast-food restaurants ("You want some Wittgenstein with that?").


  1. Mark Twain quotations page on Wikiquote. This quotation, which is repeated often, is possibly apocryphal.
  2. Short biography of Bill Gates on Crunchbase.
  3. Matthew Humphries, "Bill Gates: Forget university, the web is the future for education," Geek.com, August 7, 2010.
  4. M.G. Siegler, "Bill Gates: In Five Years The Best Education Will Come From The Web," Techcrunch, August 6, 2010.
  5. Cecilia d'Oliveira, Stephen Carson, Kate James and Jeff Lazarus, "MIT OpenCourseWare: Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds," Science, vol. 329. no. 5991 (July 30, 2010), pp. 525-526.
  6. Wendy Leopold, "Rushing Too Fast to Online Learning?" Northwestern University Press Release, June 25, 2010.

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Linked Keywords: Microsoft; Bill Gates; Mark Twain; Harvard; Paul Allen; Techonomy Conference; Lake Tahoe, CA; charter schools; Microsoft Certified; Principia Mathematica; MIT; Creative Commons; Northwestern University; David Figlio; microeconomics; accreditation; Scholastic Aptitude Test; SAT; National Academies; Wittgenstein.

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