Billable hours for professors

Yesterday’s post on MIT OpenCourseware touched on some of the difficulties of independent study using online tools. Three barriers stand in the way – one practical, two structural.

On the practical side, it’s hard to get help without paying for it. If you understand the materials well, you ought to learn as easily from them as any undergraduate taking the class on campus. But if you hit a snag, you might be stuck a long time trying to work through it yourself. That’s what professors, teaching assistants and tutors are for: getting you around the snag, so that you can keep progressing.

On the structural side, colleges use every means at their disposal to defend their role as credentialing institutions. Getting a degree – a certification – means paying somebody. And one tool in their arsenal is copyright – they may give you their lectures and notes for free, but they can’t distribute the textbooks, graphics, or images that have been drawn from other sources. Sad but true – I show photos of fossils and sites routinely in my classes, as well as graphics from published articles. Those don’t go into free online content – hence again, personal is better.

Kevin Carey writes in Washington Monthly, “College for $99 a Month”, focusing on a new player in the transfer-credit business, StraighterLine. It’s one of several outfits trying to make a business out of online education. The article’s title draws attention to the unique pricing scheme – for 99 dollars a month, you can take as many courses as you want. It’s like Netflix for college classes:

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industriesautomakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. Its tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. Theyre also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

The company (and others) makes a business out of low-cost information by offering low-cost services. The parent company, Smarthinking, offers 24-hour tutoring by Internet whiteboard along with purely online tutorials developed in partnership with universities and textbook publishers. Some universities have outsourced their on-campus tutoring to the company, I suppose trading better service for work-study dollars.

Carey’s article covers some of the challenges facing StraighterLine – I was interested in the part describing how Fort Hays State University (in Western Kansas) had evaluated some of the company’s courses as transfer credits, only to invoke the ire of the North Central accreditation board and professors. It illustrates the guild system that protects the universities’ credentialing market, for the time being.

The underlying issue for colleges is that upper-level specialized courses are money-losers. They take up a large fraction of expensive faculty teaching time, but they have low enrollments – making them better for students. Colleges cover these costs in part by offering big lecture classes to underclassmen. If students could take 10 of these classes in four months with StraighterLine, they’d spend $400, compared to the many thousands that the same credits would run on campus.

Bob Cringely’s current column (“Burn baby, burn”) touches on the same problem:

Education, which along with health care seems to exist in an alternate economic universe, ought to be subject to the same economic realities as anything else. We should have a marketplace for insight. Take a variety of experts (both professors and lay specialists) and make them available over the Internet by video conference. Each expert charges by the minute with those charges adjusting over time until a real market value is reached. The whole setup would run like iTunes and sessions would be recorded for later review.
Remember, all lectures are also available online for free. What costs is the personal touch.
Say a particularly good professor wants to make $200,000 per year by working no more than 20 hours per week or about 1000 hours per year. That gives them a billing rate of $200 per hour.

That’s an interesting business model – make every professor into a paid consultant. Many already make substantial income in that way, particularly those verging into industry-dominated fields like engineering and medicine. But it’s hard to see many English or history professors making $200 per billable hour. Cringely points out that the deal would substantially improve the deal for students:

Now look back at your university career. How much one-on-one time did you actually get with the professors who really influenced your life? I did the calculation and came up with about two hours per week, max. Imagine a four-year undergraduate career running 30 weeks per year 120 total weeks of school times two hours of insight per week for a total of 240 hours. At $200 per hour the cost comes to $48,000 or $12,000 per year.
Thats a huge savings compared to the $200,000+ an MIT-level education would cost today.

The difference in cost is facilities and administration. Some of those facilities are necessary for an MIT-level education – lab work can’t all be virtual.

But, there are a lot of ways to involve undergraduates in research, and $200 an hour for direct tutoring in research methods plus subsidizing publication in the university-run open access journal – that might well be a better (and more practical) advanced education than a faculty-led seminar. It’s like music lessons, except for science.

Or students could pool their money to have the professor attend their seminar weekly – get enough people together who want a Milton seminar, and then hire the Milton scholar. Or two, on alternate weeks. Take what was once passive and make it active.

Well, there are some perspectives on the future of education. Who knows how they’ll turn out?