A Note on Coursera CEO Rick Levin’s Clark Kerr Lecture…

People are telling me that my headnote to Coursera CEO and ex-Yale President Rick Levin’s Clark Kerr lecture the other night was too cryptic.

So here is a—greatly expanded—version of the question that I asked Rick:

The “government” part of your lecture: right and depressing. The “budgeting” part: 100% right and very impressive.

But the “faculty productivity” part…

With Gutenberg books went from stunningly expensive to cheap enough that every student could have one—indeed, many more than one. And when books became supercheap, the original rationale for the lecture vanished.

The original rationale of the university, after all, was predicated on the overwhelming expense of books. It made sense to get everybody interested together to hear the lecturer read aloud the only copy of the Nicomachean Ethics in western Scotland, and take notes on it. Having monks—or students—copy out books en masse was simply too expensive. Hence the western university. Hence the institution and even the name of the lecture.

And with Gutenberg the lecture became obsolete. Books became cheap. You no longer had to travel to listen to the lecturer read the book aloud. You could, after Gutenberg, after all just as well learn via sustained virtual interaction with the Turing-class instantiation you could construct and run on your wetware—in other words, you could learn by reading your copy of the book, and thinking about it.

Niccolò Machiavelli, living in one of the first post-Gutenberg generations, and thus among the first people to have a personal library, put it this way in his letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them. And because Dante says it does not produce knowledge when we hear but do not remember, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms

On the coming of evening Niccolo Machiavelli enters his personal library. There he talks to his friends–his books, or rather those who wrote the books in his library, or rather those components of their minds that are instantiated in the hardware-and-software combinations of linen, ink, and symbols of Gutenberg Information Technology that is his personal library. They are “ancient men” who receive him “with affection,” and for four hours he “ask[s] them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and… I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death…”

Remember that Machiavelli lives only two generations after Gutenberg. He is thus one of the very first people in the world to have had a personal library. Before printing, libraries were the exclusive possession of kings, sovereign princes, abbots, masters of the Roman Empire (like Caesar and Cicero). The idea that a mere mortal–a disgraced ex-Assistant for Confidential Affairs to the Republic of Florence–might have a personal library would have been absurd even half a century before Machiavelli. To him, therefore, his personal library is not something he takes for granted, but something new, something he has that his predecessors did not. And so he can see clearly what his personal library does for him.

What does his personal library do for him? It does this: it enlarges his circle of friends. Especially in disgraced semi-exile–when many he would talk to are afraid to be seen in his company, and where he is afraid to be seen in the company of almost all the rest–the ability to read and reread his personal copies of Publius Ovidius Naso, Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Titus Livius, Plutarch, and the rest makes them his friends: almost the only people who will receive him with affection, and definitely the only people who will honestly answer his questions about politics and history. And it is important to have such friends, and to pay them proper respect. Hence Machiavelli will not go to them in his clothes-of-the-day–those in which he had managed his farm, haggled over the price of firewood, gambled, and on which he had spilled beer. He will, instead, enter his library only in “garments regal and courtly.”

His library creates for him a true Invisible College inside his own home. Instead of just talking to and learning from those one runs into in the campus hallways, in the lecture halls, and in the lounges, one can, as we say these days, learn via the construction followed by sustained virtual interaction with Turing-class instantiations of minds that we construct and run on our wetware. That is what a book allows you to do. It is far from perfect–Plato, especially, thought it was far from perfect, and tried really hard to write dialogues rather than treatises for powerful reasons. As Plato put into the mouth of Socrates in the [Phaedrus][]:

Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality….

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves…. Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this, and having far greater power-a son of the same family, but lawfully begotten?… I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent…

The printed book is far from perfect. The cheap printed book is far from being a panacea. But it did remove what had for four hundred years been the principal raison d’etre of the lecutre.

And yet the lecture not just survived but flourished after Gutenberg. That suggests to me that the successful potential MOOC-takers are a smaller fraction of the population than even those who excel and strongly benefit from our current system of higher education.

Now those who can learn from books can certainly learn from MOOCs. MOOCs are wonderful for me. MOOCs are wonderful for those people who, like us, would attend a Clark Kerr lecture. MOOCs and such–the other offerings of Coursera–are going to be good for Berkeley and for Yale students.

But how broad will their effective audience ultimately be?

Bluntly: the big technological revolution came with the inventing of printing on paper with metal movable type. Yet it did not have a big effect on the structure of universities.

And cf. Mark Thoma, who is making it work very well:

I thought the same about online courses before I did them. But I have changed my mind. I stand in front of a whiteboard and give a regular lecture. Just the same as teaching a class. The one disadvantage is that they can’t ask a question. But I tell them to pause the video, read that section of the book, rewatch the part they aren’t getting a couple of times, search Google, or just think for a moment before taking it off pause.

There are real advantages. The board is never erased too fast (again, they can pause and take notes). My foreign students (our major is approx. 40% Chinese these days) with language barriers get together in a room in the library, project the lecture, and stop and talk about each part as a group. And I think the students who never quite make it to class end up seeing a lot more lectures than they would otherwise (though some binge watch, which isn’t a great way to do it). The courses have also worked well for students who have jobs or other obligations that make scheduling courses difficult. With the video lectures, the course is the same as a traditional course though the online format adds quite a bit of flexibility and a few extra bells and whistles.

There are things that are harder, e.g. labs for econometrics students (which can be done online, e.g. the t-statistic is, the estimate on the fourth iteration of Cochrane Orcutt is with fill in the blanks that are graded automatically), and proofs still have to be submitted and graded by a GTF–can’t figure out how to automate that yet, but other than that the classes pretty much run themselves. They are almost all UO students, and they take the lab in a testing center that is very secure, more so than a classroom, so no worries there (and we have agreements with testing centers at most Universities for distance ed)….

I think I could handle 500 without too much trouble (though the testing center would have to expand). Maybe more with some GTFs (I do it myself now).

I don’t see what I do in a classroom and what I do online as being very much different, so not sure about the ratios. I think anyone who does well in a regular course would also do well in the online version. I think there are some students (language challenged in particular ) who do much better with the online format.

But not all. Maybe we are attuned socially to listening to a storyteller around the fire. Watching a movie at home is not the same as with a group in a theater. Something about the group experience locks you in. You can’t just get up and go to the refrigerator, etc., or be interrupted by a phone call (well, maybe, texting doesn’t seem to be inhibited in class), whatever, somehow being in a group engaged in the same activity locks in attention. There is less drift (though looking at some students in class, maybe not…). I think some students need the group experience, and I don’t know how to duplicate it.

I also use the videos again and again, so I don’t talk about current events as much. But for econometrics it doesn’t matter. For intermediate macro perhaps it does. I could do that by just recording a bit more each quarter, an applications video perhaps, but haven’t done so…

Rick Levin Kerr Lecture Outline: Toward Sustainable Financing of Higher Education

  • Baumol-Bowen Cost Disease
    • Poses a dilemma
      • Government subsidies could mitigate
      • Economizing on other activities could mitigate
      • But solving rather than mitigating requires increasing faculty productivity
  • Decline of government support for higher education
    • Entitlements are to blame—especially health care
  • University capital
    • Financial capital
    • Physical capital
    • Human capital
    • The Yale spending rule
    • Metrics
    • Yale deferred maintenance—failure to do accurate cost accounting for buildings
    • CRC—capital replacement charge: a $54 million endowment alongside a $100 million construction cost, plus program cost endowments, and all this assumes a real rate-of-return on endowment of 5%.
  • Faculty productivity
    • “You will not be surprised to hear from the CEO of Coursera…”
    • MOOCs
    • Blended courses overwhelmingly, damnably difficult
    • Is it effective? Will students pay? Is it consistent with the mission of the university?

May 24, 2017


Brad DeLong
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