The Mass Production of Education

Terran Lane

There’s been a lot of excitement in the media about Stanford’s 100,000+ student computer science courses, MIT’s open-sourced classes, and other efforts at mass, distance-education. In some ways, these efforts really are thrilling — they offer the first truly deep structural change in how we do education in perhaps a thousand years. They offer democratization of education — opening up access to world-class education to people from all over the globe and of diverse economic and social backgrounds. How many Ramanujans might we enable, if only we could get high-quality education to more people?
But I have to sound three notes of caution about this trend.
First, I worry that mass-production here will have the same effect that it has had on manufacturing for over two centuries: administrators and regents, eager to save money, will push for ever larger remote classes and fewer faculty to teach them. Are we approaching a day in which there is only one professor of computer science for the whole US?
Second, I suspect that the “winners win” cycle will distort academia the same way that it has industry and society. When freed of constraints of distance and tuition, why wouldn’t every student choose a Stanford or MIT education over, say, UNM? How long before we see the AT&T, Microsoft, or Google of academia? How long before 1% of the universities and professors garner 99% of the students and resources?