Dan Ariely on MOOCs and the future of higher education

Behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, author of books like Predictably Irrational, speaker at TED, and professor at Duke, just kicked off a MOOC through Coursera with 144,000 participants. He talks about the experience in an insightful interview. This section on the future of higher education was particularly interesting:

I don’t think that the future of the university is doomed for a few reasons. First, having a scheduled class with obligations, deadlines, exams, real consequences and real rewards is incredibly important for human motivation and getting people to spend the necessary time and effort to really understand the material. The second reason is that the model of many universities, in which students study and live together, is a particularly helpful model for creating the environment that people need to take their education seriously. It is not just about the particular classes, but about being immersed in an academic environment for a substantial period of time.

I also think that some of the teaching in traditional colleges could be transferred to video lectures, but rather than serve as a replacement, they could be used as a supplement to free up the regular classroom to have higher level discussions and debates. This is the “flipped classroom” approach that has been getting so much hype. In essence, it could make the undergraduate college experience more similar to the graduate experience, at least in terms of the quality of the discussion.

And finally, video lectures are incredibly time-consuming to create. The team that worked on the videos for “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrationality” figured out that we spent about 150 hours on each hour of video that was produced. Of course, we could have spent much less time and effort, but then the quality would have suffered and the learning experience would have taken a toll. This initial effort was worth it to me, but I think that spending so much time revising the lectures, improving them, and creating more classes, is something that very few professors and universities will be willing to do long-term.

Dan Ariely on MOOCs and the future of higher education

Yahoo, telecommuting, focused work, and higher ed

There’s been a good amount of chatter over Yahoo’s kibosh on telecommuting. They’ve called everyone back to the office. Work from here, or don’t work. 

Some people think it’s great. Others think it’s a move backwards. A few things stand out:

  • Every workplace is different. Programmers who can be evaluated on productivity and lines of code may not need the same office environment as other jobs.
  • Environment matters. Some part of creativity comes from serendipitous conversations and connections. There’s something about connecting face to face with your coworkers that makes a difference.
  • Sometimes, to do good work, you need an environment where you can focus. This article hit home for me. It’s great to work from home, but it’s also frustrating to try to do good work from home if your work requires concentration. Sometimes it’s best to go somewhere, be present, and do your work. Then go somewhere else, be present, and do whatever you do when you’re not working.
  • The author says it better here: “Look, I don’t know what Marisa Mayer is thinking. I’ve heard her workforce is lazy–telecommuting for no good reason at all. I’ve heard her called draconian, a traitor to mothers, to parents, to her generation. And I don’t really care what she’s up to at Yahoo, whose raison d’être has been in doubt for more than half the company’s existence. But I do know that I like to work at work—it lets me separate that me from the other me, the dad I am when the sun goes down from the guy who’s charged with steering a publication into the future. Neither my family nor my co-workers should have to deal with the other guy. I certainly wouldn’t want to.”

I wonder what relation this has to the online vs physical university trends we are seeing in higher education. For some people, working at home works. But for others, going to a place with other people for a focused time makes a difference. 

Looking at undergraduate education, non-traditional students can benefit from how online options allow them to fit education into an already full life. And we absolutely need to rethink how the traditional undergraduate experience is shaped. But the physical environment – around other people, working together for a purpose – still makes a difference.

Maybe it’s not for everyone, but for some groups, the environment and experience can make a real impact on the outcome.

Yahoo, telecommuting, focused work, and higher ed