Will Computers Replace Profs? California College Tries Out Online Learning

Are we one step closer to replacing (most) tenured faculty members with automated emails and online aides?

Today the online course company Udacity is announcing that it will partner with San Jose State University to offer a pilot slate of remedial courses to California students who are under-qualified for normal college coursework. Starting with algebra and statistics, students will consume course material online, but traditional faculty members on campus will be involved as well.

Much of the material will delivered through video lectures and with the help of online "mentors" employed by Udacity, which offers massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Students who are struggling will even get automated emails generated by the course software encouraging them and offering tips. There will also be automatically generated quizzes to test comprehension.

Since all these computers performing professorial functions tends to make tenured faculty and thier parasitic administrators nervous, the pilot offers a sop: San Jose faculty members will be part of the project as well, calming the jitters of the traditional education establishment--for a minute, anyway.

Udacity says this isn't just a P.R. move. The New York Times quotes founder Sebastian Thrun suggesting that employing elements of a more traditional model will help reduce the stratospheric dropout rates that current plague online courses: 

“I am personally troubled by the 90 percent dropout rate,” Mr. Thrun said. “The students signing up are highly motivated — and MOOCs will only succeed if they make normally motivated students successful.”

But frankly, I'm not so sure. 

The goal is eventually to have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of students enrolled in the best of the MOOCs. They will be the courses that have the most effective lectures, comprehensive material, and useful outputs to demonstrate achievement. Once you get to that kind of scale with online offerings, faculty job security starts to look less ironclad at schools like San Jose State.

There's a lot of money pouring into these massively open online courses (MOOCs), with MIT and Harvard dropping $30 million each on their venture, EdX. Another competitor, Coursera, received $16 million in venture capital in April and currently boasts well over 1 million enrollments. Udacity, which (like Coursera) was founded by members Stanford faculty picked up $15 million from investors in October.

But for now, despite the big names affiliated with the projects—who also stand to lose the least, since demand for Harvards and Stanfords will disappear last—these online course providers are struggling with legitimacy. At a time when people believe that a college degree is worth $1 million in lifetime earnings (it's not, by the by), the clamor for diplomas is louder than ever. Partnerships for credit with traditional universities are a way around that quandary. 

On a sidenote: It is perhaps not a coincidence that San Jose State was the academic of home of John Sperling, who was a faculty member there when he got the idea for the University of Phoenix, one of the early leaders in online ed. Phoenix may be on the decline these days, but perhaps the folks at San Jose decided not to let the bus pass them by this time around.

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  • John||

    If they can write a computer program that can win on Jeopardy, and I believe the did, then why can't you write a computer program that can teach most if not any college courses? As AI gets better and better, the need for things like college professors, teachers and lawyers is going to get smaller and smaller.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    I think you're basically right, but "why" questions are a bit trickier than the "what" questions on Jeopardy.

    Still, a crapton of the first two years of college, at least, is almost pure lecture anyway. You could probably get by with a DVD and an email address for questions for those.

  • John||

    You could do that for years now. It is only the guild of professors that has prevented it.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Exactly. I doubt they'll be more welcoming to AI replacements than DVD replacements.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Can a DVD push its meatbag opposition down the stairs?

  • Whiterun Guard||

    As long as we can keep all the profesors, teachers and administrators employed to supervise the programming and maintain standards, then I don't see any problem with this.

    Otherwise, I see huge, insurmountable problems.

  • John||

    National bankruptcy has a way of solving such problems.

  • Whiterun Guard||

    That only matters if you aren't going to die in the next 30-40 years.

  • Liberty||

    It is sometimes said that college is just an iq test that can't be sued for not bring ' inclusive.'

  • VG Zaytsev||

    Good line, I'm going to expropriate it.

  • SugarFree||

    College isn't about learning anything, it's just a signal that you could a) get in a college b) stay in a college and c) can afford to piss away 4-6 years of your life signaling a&b.

    Cheap classes that anyone can take with ease puncture the ABCs of college.

    Let's get off the education delusion and make a college education what it used to be: a four-year trip to a booze-soaked theme park where all the rides are made out of tedium and art school snatch.

  • SIV||

    Hear, hear !

  • Doctor Whom||

    Yes and no. A degree in a hard subject from a top-ranked university isn't the same thing as a degree in communications at [cardinal direction] [name of state] State University.

  • SugarFree||

    But the vast majority of people racking up enormous of debt for four year degrees are not getting a degree in a hard subject, but rather goofing off.

    And I bet that a traditional college setting is not the best way for most people to learn a hard subject anyway (especially when half your classwork is making sure you have enough credits in Handicapped Underwater Basket-Weaving In Underprivileged Populations to cover gen-ed requirements.)

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    And I bet that a traditional college setting is not the best way for most people to learn a hard subject anyway

    Well of course, Don't you know that thanks to SocialWebCloudMedia 2.0, everyone can finally be an autodidact?

    It's only us bow-tie and tweed wearing stuffed-shirts that are preventing Silicon Valley from helping usher in a new generation of Leonardo DaVincis.

  • SugarFree||

    I was thinking more of apprenticeships and other practical training.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I was thinking more of apprenticeships and other practical training.

    That's basically what you do in a Doctoral or Post-Doc lab, and in that, you're correct. But if you're at that level, you have the metacognitive skill to direct your own learning in the subject.

  • Fluffy||

    Online courses currently have a 90% dropout rate?

    Wow, that means they have a 10% completion rate.

    And if 10% of the people who sign up for free shit that doesn't give them actual college credit are so into it that they finish it, it must be awesome!

    That would be like having a free iPhone app that 10% of downloaders keep forever and use every day. You're fucking Instagram at that point.

    Earth to Udacity guy: 90% of people drop out because completing the course gets you nothing. Nothing. When completing 75 hours of online courses gets you a legit no BS no asterisk diploma, then people will finish the classes and not drop out.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Throughout this article, KMW shows her great ignorance on how education works, and by "education", I mean the process of teaching and learning, not the education industry. Indeed, it is clear that KMW doesn't comprehend what is wrong, pedagogically, with "There will also be automatically generated quizzes to test comprehension."

    From all the way back in the 1980's, the massive failure of language pedagogy instructional methods in grounded in Behaviorism, the evidence shows that it is foolish to believe that computer-mediated instruction is a superior model to interaction with an instructor and one's peers in a classroom setting. Anyone who suffered through the "language lab" of the 70's and 80's knows that merely by listening to a tape of a native French speaker intone Où est la bibliothèque? and repeating the phrase over and over isn't conducive in producing fluency for the majority of learners. For further information, I suggest the work of M.A.K. Halliday and his theories on social interactionalism.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    The current push for online education and computer-mediated instruction is not based on any pedagogical research, but due to factors such as cost (why pay someone to repeat the same lecture over and over when you can record him or her once and play it as needed?) and the fact that all things Internet/Social Media are trendy at the moment. Reason's, or at least KMW's hard-on for online ed. seems to be more rooted in an infantile desire to "stick it to the Man", represented by those high-falutin' Ivory-Tower folks, "what with their sweater vests and curricula vitarum, I mean 'resume' is good enough for the god-fearin' people of Reason, it should be good enough for them!" While self-directed, computer-mediated instruction might appeal to KMW ideologically (You can study by your own schedule, not the school's! That's so Liberty-Punk, man!), it is disappointing that she would support an instructional model based on ideology over its effectiveness.

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  • Tablet pc||

    Online learning is good for saving something.

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