Online Schools

The Rise of the Mega-University

The gist is that a few players (some traditional universities branching out online, some purely virtual) are achieving massive enrollment numbers.

 Graph contained in the article. Graph contained in the article.

They are doing this mainly by serving working adults with some or no college that want to expand their career prospects.

“the higher-education value proposition is all around the most inexpensive education and certification that will get me a job,” says Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause


“For our adult learners online, it’s ‘Get me a credential that will get me unstuck, that will get me a better job,’ ”

This credential aspect is also what seems to have given the traditional universities that offer online programs an advantage over the Courseras/Udacities/Udemys of the world.

At one point, free online education was supposed to pose an existential threat to brick-and-mortar institutions — remember massive open online courses? But the MOOC revolution collapsed in part because the courses typically didn’t connect to credentials that employers, or students, valued.

My biggest question for these online programs is whether employers recognize the credentials. How do I value a full bachelor of science in economics offered online? Do these degrees actually get working adults “unstuck” from their current position? The tuition ain’t cheap either. Fees for an online academic year at Arizona State are $12,702. University of Oregon’s yearly in-state tuition is $11,898. Given, you don’t have to pay for room and board while pursuing an online degree, but I assume you’re going to be living and eating somewhere while doing schoolwork. At least for full bachelor’s, it seems like your local state university is still a relatively good economic deal.

I also think it’s interesting how we’re seeing online education specialize. It seems like some of the fears surrounding the death of the university via the internet are overblown, as digital degrees are most useful as tools of economic advancement to those already in the workforce rather than substitutes for what a high schooler should do after graduation. Traditional universities shouldn’t get comfortable though. Just because a competitor is successful in a demographic other than your own doesn’t mean they can’t enter it one day. I personally believe the 4-year live-on-campus-talk-with-real-people-go-to-class model will always have superior potential, but some institutions act like they want it to go unrealized.

The physical, tangible aspect is what will always separate ASU Online from University of Arizona, Tuscon for example. Brick-and-mortar institutions should invest real money into getting undergraduates talking among themselves and with their professors. Being able to have free and spontaneous exchanges with your teachers and peers has immeasurable value in the idealistic intellectual sense, and the professional.

What I’m Reading

The Economist

I received a print subscription for Christmas and have been enjoying it. Beyond a little bit of the NYTimes , this represents my primary news source. I particularly appreciate the global focus as I am slowly working to cure my ignorance of everything that happens outside of North America. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also gives me more impetus to stay up-to-date with domestic political affairs. I am beginning to reach an understanding of America’s outsize role in the world and the ramifications of our actions on global welfare. If you care about the well-being of all people, you should care about the decisions of the American government.

Essays on Patriotism

I’m still working through these. Kateb’s piece is especially interesting as it tries to investigate the source of patriotism and duty. If the government exists to serve the people, why would we be obliged to die for it?

The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

When I heard an ex-philosopher became a management consultant and then wrote a book about the experience, I had to buy it. The book is particularly valuable for its historical exploration of the origins of management theory. Apparently, the two most foundational figures in management thought, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Elton Mayo, were total frauds. Both fabricated stories and explanations to support their points and on the basis of this ended up immortalized in business schools across the nation. Business as an academic discipline, it seems, lays on shaky foundations.

I have yet to finish it, but the book has been enjoyable thus far.

Girls vs. Boys

Lisa Damour in the NYTimes

Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

Damour sees this fact and makes the argument that the same traits that propel females to academic success hold them back in the workforce. She emphasizes they tend to be more industrious, prudent, and better performers academically than their male counterparts, but lack the confidence that can propel them to leadership positions. Females are perfectionists. By contrast, males tend to put in minimal effort for the same academic marks. According to Damour, this means they can “see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits,” and build confidence in their abilities. Accordingly, the solution to this problem is to get females to focus on “economy of effort” in school rather than fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.

I have seen what Damour describes in my own academic experience. I know many perfectionists that don’t take anything less than 8 hours of studying a day for an answer but still seem terribly insecure about their own abilities. I agree with Damour on everything except the corrective action.

Females, ceteris paribus, are more diligent and insightful than their average male counterparts. Damour links to some studies illustrating this. I will not speculate on the origins of these difference, but my anecdotal evidence, along with the empirical supplements, highly suggests this is the case. In every step of my life, there has been a girl that has outworked me, is more articulate than me, and is generally better than I am. I expect this to be the case forever and I would be concerned if it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to say is that girls are smart and their work ethic is probably what gets them there. Currently, females have the right to increase their confidence generally because they are already winning in an academic sense. It doesn’t appear they need to change their attitudes or habits, and slack off like the boys, in order to build confidence. Rather, they should take stock of what they have and realize they should trust themselves. If anything, this is a problem with us. Why are we promoting all the indolent men running around with unearned confidence rather than the people that have consistently outperformed them? There’s something ideologically fishy about telling females they need to be like “the guys” in order to succeed.

Diminishing returns are real, and I don’t doubt Damour’s experience with young women who exert inefficient effort to curb their anxiety about school. That will always be unproductive. Yet, I don’t think females have a poor strategy, but rather that we have been rewarding the wrong one. This, I feel, is a small component of a larger question surrounding women’s equality. Does the problem lie with the world being a certain way, or women? Is the problem with women not being confident/assertive/skilled enough (all improvable traits), or us having a narrow view of excellence?

If you know me, you know I am not an expert on anything, let alone gender issues. If you think I have something wrong, please tell me. I stand by my views, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Visibility = Value

Theory: what’s valued is what’s visible.

I understand this is almost exactly what Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is, but I arrived at it recently thinking about what types of behaviors are valued at different institutions.

Eloquence and general knowledge aren’t as valued here as traits as they were at my high school. I understand there are innumerable factors that could be influencing what I observe (not the least of which my bias and ignorance), but I think salience of behavior has explanatory power.

Consider a high school classroom. It has (hopefully) fewer than 30 kids, and, unless you whisper, not much can be said without others hearing it. Pedagogically, it’s also an interactive environment. Exchanges between students, and between teachers and students, are common and often about the class subject-matter. This means academic engagement is much more salient. When someone has an insight or a perspicuous point, they raise their hand, share, and everyone knows about it. Because clear thinking is (again, hopefully) rewarded in the classroom, students see there’s social value to being intellectually present during class.

Contrast this with a large college lecture. The most salient behavior your peers exhibit in this setting is note taking and silence. If they have a point to make or are wrestling with a valuable question, you will most likely never know about it. Even though students might engage in academic behavior after class and during office hours, this is almost never visible to the majority of students. They are most likely already out the door or believe the opportunity cost of going to office hours too high. The behavior isn’t visible, so it isn’t valued.

There is much more to thinking than the social value you (may) get from exhibiting it, but I feel like this principle explains some aspects large university culture. I am definitely not the first to think of this, but I believe the slogan has a grain of truth. Our own wants and desire (ontological status pending) are often so foreign to us. It’s much easier to look to the world for cues as to what we should value.

Nozick’s Experience Machine and Video Games

Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia asks us to imagine a machine that we can plug into and it will simulate anything we desire. While we’re inside, we can experience the joys associated having a fulfilling job, listening to good music, falling in love, or talking with friends. Think of it like a pleasant Matrix. All of these images and corresponding feelings are produced by some clever electrical stimulation of our neurons and as long as we are plugged in, our experience is indistinguishable from real life.

Nozick says we gain something by imagining such a machine and then “realizing we would not want to use it.” He believes our repulsion to plugging in is summarized in three points.

  1. We actually want to do things and not only have the experience that we’ve done them. Wanting the experience of doing something, as Nozick says, is often just an indicator that we want to do the thing. How else are you going to get the experience?

  2. We want to be the type of person that actually does things. To plug into the experience machine is to acquiesce to the triumphs and vicissitudes of real life and become a type of “indeterminate blob,” according to Nozick. With every experience preordained, there is no opportunity to indicate or build one’s general, or moral, character. If we’re plugged into the machine, it’s impossible for us to know whether we are “courageous , kind, intelligent, witty, or loving,” and depending on what you believe, if we don’t have the opportunity to exercise these traits outside of a determined environment, we can’t be any of the above.

  3. Plugging in limits us to an artificial reality. This cuts us off from any type of “deeper reality,” and the potential spiritual experience that can come with it.

I would not use the experience machine, and I think if you asked most people they would say they wouldn’t either. (If you believe that pleasure is the chief human good, then I can see how you could argue that plugging in is the rational thing to do, as pleasure itself is not concerned with whether it is caused by electrodes tickling your brain or some good pasta. If you have that position send me a message; I want to talk about it). Yet, I think there’s a paradox here: if what Nozick says is true, why do so many people play video games?

There is, I admit, nothing wrong with the act of playing video games. Yet, I’ve observed many people, mainly college-aged males, devote hours and hours of their days to staring at their computer screens, engaging in what is as close to artificial stimulation of the neurons as you can get without cracking your skull open and poking around. I know very little biology, but video games, I believe, stimulate the same areas of your brain (nucleus accumbens) as drugs and alcohol, and are certainly as addictive. They are approximate experience machines.

So, why do people game so much? I offer some potential explanations.

It could be the case people do not realize they are “plugging in.” When someone fires up their computer, they are probably not opening fortnite with the intention of getting spoon-fed pleasurable experiences, but rather think they are just killing time. Nozick doesn’t pop out and give us the run-down of what we are about to do and the ramifications of doing it. To gamers, playing is only a slight diversion and not an artificial all-encompassing world.

Video games and the experience machine may also be very different things. Inside the experience machine, you’re under a type of grand illusion, believing everything you do is real and has significant importance to your own life, but it isn’t really happening. By contrast, very few people are under the illusion that they are actually inside a video game when they’re playing, and even if they did believe that, it would be another leap to assume that what they experience in the game constitutes their entire life. Because people can recognize the division between video games and what is real, they can presumably get up and choose to participate in either one whenever they please.

The distance between video games and the physical world is also getting smaller. What I mean by this is that in-game events are beginning to have a significant and lasting impact on actual lives. Consider Ninja, the internet star whose video-game prowess nets him an estimated $500,000 a month, and has made him something of a celebrity. For Ninja, video game actions and decisions are real-life actions and decisions, as they determine his income and public reputation. Video games, if played with others, can also encourage pro-social behavior. Trying to win a round or match on a team in any game requires a fair bit of coordination, and video games might be one of the only places some can cooperate with others in a constructive manner.

I feel old and crotchety writing this, but it concerns me how much time we spend in these types of “constructed worlds.” Video games, I feel, are inherently different than the constructed worlds of fiction and movies as those are focused on communicating a specific narrative while video games are just mindless. I know there are narrative-focused games out there, but those aren’t the kinds people are addicted to.

This piece is highly speculative. If you disagree or have something to add, please leave a comment. I would love to listen.

Link to the text of Anarchy, State and Utopia.