Will MOOCs lead to the democratisation of education?

6610909727_fffab8d252With all the recent discussion of how hard it is for journalists to read academic articles, I thought I’d provide a little service here and ‘translate’ the recent NBER working paper by Daron Acemoglu, David Laibson and John List, “Equalizing Superstars” for a general audience. The paper contains a ‘light’ general equilibrium model that may be difficult for some to parse.

The paper is interested in what the effect of MOOCs or, in general, web-based teaching options would be on educational outcomes around the world, the distribution of those outcomes and the wages of teachers. It does this by starting with a model whereby different countries have different levels of student ability (at pre-school) that are correlated with different teacher skills (or available time/funding) across countries. That means that there is one country that is the ‘top of the heap.’ The assumption made is that the top country’s teachers are superstars and the web means that some of their skills can be transmitted to students around the world.

The key model element, however, is what the teachers do. They do a number of tasks (think transmitting base information and reinforcement). The web technologies allow some of those tasks to be done at the skill level of the top country (base information) and free up the teacher time to allocate more of their energy to other tasks (reinforcement). This is a pure gift to education in all countries other than the top country. They get world’s best practice on some tasks and freed up teacher time on the rest. Of course, the top country gets none of these benefits as they already had the best. This is one tick for equality but the authors also show that the ‘bottom’ countries benefit the most from the boost and moreover, the ‘next to top’ country might actually have students out-performing the top country — think of a country just below the top country, they get a whole lot of almost top teachers freed up to devote their times to non-web tasks and in aggregate could end up outperforming the top country.

Basically, what the model is saying is that ‘free gifts are good especially for receivers.’ However, there is nothing unique about the web here. What the model is saying is that whenever some teaching tasks can be moved costlessly to best practice, that is good news for educational outcomes. So it could equally apply for web technologies deployed across schools or, for that matter, textbooks which basically substitute some teacher tasks to a non-rival public good. Of course, so long as lower cost education means more education, such innovations will lead to more education. But if the educational model is provide a given amount of education at the lowest cost, this may simply mean a displacement of teachers.

So let’s focus on the teachers as we academics do really care about them. What happens to their wages? If their wages are related to the marginal productivity of the students being produced in their country, there are two offsetting effects. First, yes teachers can reallocated effort to other tasks but there are diminishing returns to that effort on each task — this tends to depress teacher impact on marginal productivity and hence, their wages. The authors call this ‘crowding out.’ On the other hand, there is a complementary effect. As a country now has some tasks at the world’s best practice, the productivity of the other tasks actually rises. This makes teachers more important and increases their pay. Not surprisingly, the bigger the boost the higher the complementary effect and so the teachers in the bottom country almost surely get paid more as a result of this. But the teachers close to the top don’t have that far to go and their wages would likely fall.

Now that conclusion may leave some consternated — but? but? surely if you are close to the top and of high skill things can’t be that bad? This is where the model’s key assumption is at work: there are a fixed number of tasks and you are always doing some of them all both pre and post-Internet. But, as any teacher would know, there aren’t a fixed number of tasks. While it is not considered in the paper, what you are able to do with students is more fluid than that and, moreover, adding other tasks requires some upfront fixed costs. That means that you won’t add a task unless you have time to do it in the future. As already mentioned, the web-based technologies are a free gift to teacher time allowing them to reallocate effort to other tasks. If those tasks are limited, the model applies. But if those tasks can be expanded, then there is increasing returns and not diminishing returns. In that case (a) all teacher wages will rise; (b) the next to bottom is more likely to outperform the top and (c) there will likely be some amplification of inequality in educational outcomes and teacher pay.

The good news is that we can actually look at past educational innovations (such as textbooks and better teaching methods) to see these things at play. Were educational outcomes more equal or more unequal as a result of these past technologies? Actually, we might be able to see these effects in the earnings of those providing the technologies.

5 Replies to “Will MOOCs lead to the democratisation of education?”

  1. I think the question in the last paragraph is rhetorical, but I don’t know the right answer. Did the invention of textbooks make educational outcomes more equal or more unequal? And how can we deduce that from the earnings of textbook authors or publishers?

  2. There are so many shaky assumptions—I’m being kind here—that I almost don’t know where to start. Here are a few: (1) There is such a thing as one “top” professor for teaching any one concept or subject to all students; (2) Whatever is “top” about that professor is easily transmissible in the videos and short quizzes provided by a typical MOOC; (3) Whatever is top and transmissible about those professors can easily be adopted into a classroom context by other teachers elsewhere; (4) The adoption of these transmissible elements will reliably have measurable impact on the total learning outcomes for the classes.

    Underlying all of these bad assumptions is an economic model which assumes that teaching can be reduced to digital goods that have a knowable and consistent value. But pedagogy is not currency. There is no exchange rate that makes a video—no matter how dazzlingly delivered—work as coin of the knowledge realm.

    This paper is utter nonsense.

  3. I concur – on some level textbooks provide a lot of the same boost that ‘flipped classroom’ provides. So we might be able to learn some interesting things from seeing what happened when that transition occurred. Unfortunately, I bet the data is not very good for answering that question…

  4. If the traditional classroom-based education is like hand-written books passed on from one generation to another in the pre-printing-press era, the nascent MOOC-based education is like printed books circulated to masses in the post-printing-press era.

    If the traditional classroom-based education is like on-stage acts lively presented by actors in front of a small audience in the pre-cinema era, the nascent MOOC-based education is like on-screen movies produced by actors and later on presented to different audiences.

    This analogy clearly explains that we are witnessing a major revolution in the form of MOOC education. This revolution will change the type of teaching/learning skills required from teachers/students and might alter the demand of teachers.

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