No Place For The Eyes

My grandmother had a saying when someone was simply failing to get it.  “I’ve seen them blind,” she said.  “But never before have I seen them without a place for the eyes.”

Lately I’ve been thinking about this as the industries under attack by tech (not that tech is doing it on purpose, mind) just fail to GET it and think if they just paddle a little harder, they won’t go down with the Titanic and rescuers will be here soon, and then everything will go back to the way it was.

First, let’s establish something – what is happening to these industries is not simply a matter of technology rendering processes or ways of doing things obsolete.  Yes, that’s happening.  But the reason it’s taking such effect is that those industries – through business practices, through the fact that they were de facto oligopolies and gave immense power to a very few people, through series of unfortunate events and through sheer bullheadedness and refusal to listen to business facts – were running themselves into blind alleys.  Or had already run themselves there.

I’ve pointed out before how strange publishing had got, with a sort of circular reasoning where someone in an office decided what the numbers should be, then pushed the book to get EXACTLY those numbers, then took those numbers as confirmation they’d picked the right book and were publishing exactly what the public wanted.

The insanity was added by the fudge factor in the numbers – for instance, the reported print run was usually double the real printrun, it was almost impossible to find out exactly how many books were printed (reprints of less than 1k don’t have to be reported to the author and don’t count as reprints.  Whether they’re reported faithfully and to whom is a bit nebulous) and ebook numbers were largely pull from… er… air.  Sales reports could also be iffy in general – we’ve all heard of “bestsellers” who, it turned out, hadn’t sold.

So, basically, someone made up numbers, the same made up numbers came back to them and they said “Yes, we’re giving people what they want.”

Anything that went against this was swept under the rug.  The inconvenient facts, such as that print runs have shrunk 90% since the seventies, were “explained away” by telling us that people simply didn’t read as much (not quite true) and that movies and games were eating publishing’s lunch (true that, but only because games give boys something books no longer do: male heroes and action-packed story lines.)  If you pointed out that they weren’t publishing any books for boys, they’d tell you boys were sexist for not wanting to read girl books.  If you told them that they weren’t doing space opera, they told you no one wanted space opera.  If you told them Baen was doing quite well at that, they sneered “Oh, they’re right wing, and right wing people don’t read.”  (This despite the fact that baen has authors of every possible political persuasion and that to be blunt, I have yet to see different reading habits among my friends of different political stripes.  They will read DIFFERENT things [sometimes] but they all read about the same.  Stuff like time and career and education have more to do with it than political persuasion.  AND if you think that there is a great difference in education, you’ve been reading the wrong “analysis” – i.e. slanted ones.)

So, their denial of reality now shouldn’t surprise us.  They’ve had practice.  It’s just that they’re not getting how it has changed.  They no longer have control of printrun of distribution or, pretty much, anything.  They can’t make up numbers and have them echoed dutifully back at them.  But that doesn’t mater against the muscle memory of the years they could put their fingers in their ears and yell “lalalalalala” and reality didn’t intrude in their beautiful, ordered world.

I’ve said before here the next industry to be turned upside down and shaken by tech – like a rat in a terrier’s mouth – is education.  It’s probably a good five/six years from where publishing is now, but it is coming.

Yesterday, when reading this article, I knew it was true.  If you don’t wish to click through, don’t.  The claim of the article is simple: long distance learning via the net makes no difference.  People want/need to learn with other people.  Yoga videos didn’t end Yoga classes, therefore, there, colleges are safe.

Yes, that sound you hear is me giggling hysterically.  This reminded me so much of the articles as little as a year ago saying “Oh, ebooks have a ceiling.  No one wants to read books on a computer screen” and completely ignoring the Kindle and the nook and…

My long-distance-learning experience is now 5 years old.  And what they’re talking about is older than that.  HOWEVER what they talk about is older than my experience.

I took a correspondence course, once.  I never finished it.  I don’t know what the rate of finishing is.  In my case, I took it in lieu of going to Clarion, because I had two kids under five and couldn’t afford the time.  So I took a writer’s digest course in writing.  I was actually pretty faithful with it, but I got published halfway through.  Also, mostly, my teacher said “You’re good.  Keep going” which I didn’t feel improved my writing (though perhaps my mood.)

THAT was about twenty years ago.  Then my younger son had to be home schooled for a year and I discovered Great Courses.  This is what they’re talking about I that article – about that level – they’re recorded lectures by great professors.  They’re good to learn, if it’s something you’re not on a schedule to learn and don’t need to push yourself.  In other words, if it’s not something you particularly need to know.  I have used them to get background on an historical era or to understand the current thinking on something.

It works pretty well for homeschoolers, if the parent can get involved and do continuous homework/testing/further explanation, as well as make sure the kid is engaged with the video.  As good as classroom?  Not a chance.  Part of the reason the younger kid went back to school is that Dan didn’t have the time and I didn’t have the knowledge to extend his math lessons to where they needed to be.

BUT that’s old tech.  Those video lectures have existed since the mid eighties, I think.  Certainly since the early nineties.
In the middle of that same year, I discovered Lukeion Project.  It’s an academy online that teaches the classics, history and ancient language on line.

Marshall had become madly interested in the Greek classics, and they looked good.  And then under “they tempted me with knowledge” I realized they had Greek and Latin courses.  So I signed up for both.  (I keep meaning to go back, but not till the kids graduate.)

These are CLASSES.  They’re not teleconferences.  They’re more like instant messaging plus voice, but in a virtual classroom with fifteen or so students.  You get the teacher, speaking, and you can type questions.  If it’s a question that’s not relevant, they answer in typing.  If it is relevant to the rest of the class, they say “so and so has asked.”  You can ask and answer questions in voice too.

Let’s be honest.  I have a degree in languages.  I’ve found I can keep improving languages I know on my own, but not learn them on my own.  However, as far as my experience (or my kid’s) went there was no difference between this method and being in a classroom.  I stayed with it and worked my tail off, to the detriment of my health, since I was also writing six books that year.  I even made friends and developed a sense of fellowship.

The difference was as great between that and video lectures as between reading on computer and on kindle.  It’s simply not the same thing at all.

I’m not discounting that there might be groups of learners in small towns, who get together to study.  Humans are social animals.  BUT trust me, take it from someone whose writers group is virtual (and if I could figure out how, I’d mimic that classroom thing for that) and whose professional connections are all on line: distance learning is a contender and will only become more so.  It has a different “texture” from in person learning (you’re not as likely to check out the cute chick/guy across the classroom, for one.)  This is just like Kindle has a different “feel” from paper books, but it’s not inferior.  Just different.  HOWEVER it’s immeasurably more efficient and cheaper than a system that while not as sclerotic as publishing is becoming unaffordable and more dedicated to internal approbation by professors’ peer group than to actual results.

Will it work for exercise?  I don’t know.  That’s more a matter of forcing people to do things most of them frankly are resistant to.  I think the tech is NOT quite there yet.  You need camera connection to be reliable, and my experience with the things is that it sucks.  And the teacher would need a bank of monitors to see every student.  Give it ten years.  And it might never work for Yoga, because well… most people who do yoga want to be seen doing yoga.  It’s a culture as well as an exercise regime.

Will it work for art?  Probably.  With better video.  Will it work for mechanics/hands on assembly?  Um…  That is more difficult.  I’m not ruling it out, but I think it’s a long way off.  Like comics and art books, they’re still better by the old methods.  But it’s changing.

HOWEVER, most learning subjects do not require you to assemble stuff or for the instructor to read/see more than your words.  And those subjects and the way they’re taught will change and fast over the next four/five years no matter how much the establishment screams “Inconceivable!”

What can’t go on, won’t go on.  And creatures without eyes are limited to very restricted environments.  Dark ones, too.

76 responses to “No Place For The Eyes

  1. ppaulshoward

    Good points and you covered a thought I had on “long distance” learning.

    One “problem” with “self-education” is often the lack of somebody to ask “dumb questions”.

    Personal example, I had books on Access (a PC based database programs) but wasn’t getting any where.

    I took an Access course (at the local Junior College) and ended up getting a head of the class.

    Why? Once I ‘got over the hump’ with how Access worked (by asking “dumb” questions), I was able to learn from the book and by “doing”.

  2. This ties in very neatly with the idea that Glenn Reynolds keeps talking about, that we’re in an “higher education bubble” similar to the housing bubble, and that the people getting a university education right now are basically getting screwed. 5-10 years from now, when more and more people abandon traditional colleges in favor of online education (and some of it will be as good as the credentialed colleges, though I doubt the credentialing agencies will see it that way), the higher-education bubble will burst and we’ll see universities going broke. Or, more likely, getting bailed out (with our money) by the politicians who graduated from those colleges and who can’t stand the loss in reputation. Grrrrr.

    Don’t know if I’m right about this prediction, but I’ve just got a feelin’, ya know? 🙂

    • … Ah, I think I finally managed to get WordPress to display my full name instead of just “rmunn”.

    • But those Universities and Colleges that have foresight may reinvent themselves as part of a new learning system. It has been done before. There are some things that do not ‘distance.’ Chem lab for one…

      • From the blog of Walter Russell Mead:

        Online College Startups Give Higher Ed a Boost

        Education reform ideas are a dime a dozen these days. Yet few of them have been more exciting or had more potential than online education, which promises to make education both cheaper and more accessible to students. Programs like MITx have already begun to offer courses by some of the nation’s leading professors in math and science available to the public at large—along with credentials for those who complete them. Meanwhile, screen sharing programs are making it possible to expand tutoring programs to inner-city students.

        Stanford, which was one of the first traditional universities to offer a significant online courseload, has now decided to expand its online offerings through a startup called Coursera. To help finance this expansion, it has already raised $16 million from Silicon Valley venture capital firms that have expressed optimism that Coursera can become profitable (even though some of its courses may still be offered for free). If it succeeds, students may be able to take courses at the nation’s top colleges without leaving their homes—and without going into debt.

        The progress does not end there. Akademos, another education startup, has begun rolling out a new system making it easy for college professors to comparison shop for textbooks. Rather than taking the word of textbook company representatives, professors can use Akademos to compare the (painfully expensive) textbooks with their cheap (or free) counterparts. This is a small but important innovation for chipping away at costs for cash-strapped college students.

        All of the above is good news for students. The proliferation of startups like Coursera and Akademos suggest that there are indeed ways to make education more affordable without dumbing it down or reducing the quality. And it’s encouraging to see institutions of higher ed, if not always embracing change, at least giving it room for growth.

        Embedded links available at:

      • 'nother Mike

        MIT 10 years ago (about) had a simulated Chem Safety lab that was considered BETTER than an actual lab could be. Why? You can’t afford to let learners have the kinds of disasters in real life that the Chem Safety lab included. It was an excellent application of the tech.

        • Interesting. It might be something to put everyone through a virtual lab before you let them play with the real stuff.

          The Daughter tells the story of her first unlamented lab partner, who wore an angel sleeve top to lab. I believe she was also the student who left the class room to pour chemicals down a bathroom drain. At the instructor’s request students like that disappeared from the class post-haste.

          At the same time I keep thinking of all the dangers in the labs we had in High School in my youth. How did we not kill ourselves?

  3. Exactly what would you like for your writers group? I assume that having one person as gatekeeper (the teacher) would not work.

    • No. More like an online meeting room. Yes, I know those exist. But most cost money — I just haven’t found the time to DEAL with finding an affordable one. :/

      • Google+ hangouts might work. There’s one large video of whoever is currently talking, and thumbnail windows below that of everyone else.

        I’ve used them with 4 other people at the same time without any issue, and it’s free (well, as free as anything google). That and maptool work great for long-distance D&D.

        • 'nother Mike

          You might also consider using google sites + google moderator — which is intended for discussions. Best bet is to set up a site and embed the discussion, I think (there are instructions on google sites about setting it up)

  4. I agree about education. These days, the knowledge is there if you seek it. There is probably a lot of money to be made in:

    1. Making the search easier.
    2. Giving credentials to people who already found it.

  5. masgramondou

    And lets not forget the Khan acadamy…

    In the UK the Open University has done combinations of correspondance course / video course with short (one week a year ish) everyone meet up events very successfully for years. In terms of actual useful knowledge I can’t see that this methos, combined with some of the interactive things you describe, could not replace 99% of most university and lots of middle/high school too.

    It doesn’t help that, as Instapundit has pointed out repeatedly, tertiary education has priced itself out of the market. The one, limited, drawback to online education is the lack of certification in most cases (a degree from Cambridge beats one from the Open University or from the New York Columbia Institute of Distance Learning) but I think that’s something that can be readily overcome in subjects where an objective score is posisble (i.e. STEM, economics, medicine, maybe languages) because employers and others can readily evaluate the grades received and see whether an A from NYCIDL is indeed about the same as an A from Cambridge (or rather a First since Camridge degrees are different).

    I also note that I’ve heard more and more people use the term ‘a “Do you want fries with that” degree’ refering to those in the hyphenated studies and other less career oriented areas.

    I expect the top universities to retain their ability to attract students for the traditional course, but I expect that there will be enormous pressure on the lower tiers that will lead to lots and lots of prefessors, diversity deans etc. being out of a job.

    The next profession after education is lawyers. Huge chunks of contract law is boilerplate and combining boilerplate together is something that lends itself very handily to computers. As is the analysis of said documents once received.

    • The Khan Academy – of course, that was the name. I knew there was someone I wanted to mention in my earlier comment but I just couldn’t call his name to mind.

      I love how ironically appropriate his name is, too. Most of the professors, diversity deans, etc. who will be losing their jobs in the next decade or two won’t be aware enough of the market forces in play to know who to blame for their predicament. But those who do know will be clenching their fists, grinding their teeth, and screaming “KHAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNN!!!” 🙂

      • Melvyn Barker

        I still don’t see online learning replacing university/college as a rite of passage/ route to independence for young people. Staying at home with an online course wouldn’t have the same attraction as going to University/College. And an online course doesn’t offer the same opportunities for networking and social contact that lets students make the friends and contacts that will help them in their future career.

        • Socialization? Young people will find a way to associate with each other, believe me, they will. I am not sure that I would say that what goes on many campuses these days is that constructive. Binge drinking? Disparaging those students who prefers to spend their time in studies and/or eschew hooking up?

          And I cannot help thinking that living at home might be a powerful motivator to complete you studies in a timely manner, get work and get out on one’s own.

          • Add to that that RIGHT now about 60% of young college students are living at home in the US (as opposed to people who go back to school in middle age.) My kids are. Why? Money. We’re going to be shelling out, between two kids, about 40k a year for a STATE college fees. There simply isn’t money for them to lodge elsewhere, and with both of them in demanding courses, even if they worked, they couldn’t pay for their living expenses. So, as far as a rite of passage, college, in the US right now only works for people who are wealthy. (Or only children. We could pay for one child. Maybe. With effort.)

            • Or possibly those who are lucky enough to get scholarships. But counting on the gold ring of a scholarship is rarely a good idea.

        • masgramondou

          Well right now we see lots of kids leave for university, graduate and move right back in with their parents because they haven’t got a job or apparently much of a chance to get one. This is a global phenomenon.

          If we’re right about online education someone will find a way to offer ways for kids to get out from under their parents and still study. How about (say) diners, pizza shops and the like offering cheap rooming for employees? or companies doing the same for internships that run in conjunction with the course? after all there are going to be all sorts of well appointed dorms and the like available once the colleges go

          • If the college fees weren’t so exorbitant and they didn’t pile the humanities nonsense on STEM degrees, the kids could afford to work and live on their own. Dan put himself through college. Of course, his college — one of the near ivy-league ones, for the initial years of his education — was a FIFTH what the kids pay.
            Mind you, other than the humanities nonsense, Robert is getting a superb education, and I expect so will Marshall. But the cost, for a state school, just doesn’t compute for a middle-class writing-bum-mom (I understand, no one’s fault but mom’s) family. Merit scholarships are few, far between and more importantly, the kids aren’t made aware of them in time to apply. And most scholarships require BIZANTINE applications hard to follow while at the same time maintaining your grades. As for loans, they’re insanely high on interest, impossible to discharge into bankruptcy AND to cover the entire cost, we’d need to co-sign with them. Not happening. I’ll write them through college or die trying. And btw, I wouldn’t even do this if they weren’t both going into STEM degrees. The rule has been “Humanities? Learn it on your own.” (No, I don’t think I influenced them. They both have clear… what can only be called vocations and they’re both for science professions.)

            • It seems that universities are managed for the benefit of their senior staff, not their customers. Adding to the humanities burden adds increases the need for humanities PhDs.

    • I realized some years back that the difference between a High School Diploma and a G.E.D. (General Educational Development) Certificate is primarily that a diploma is these days little more than a certificate of attendance while a GED is a certificate of achievement.

      A lawyer is not someone who has attended law school, a lawyer is someone who has passed the Bar Exam. Graduating Medical School does not make you a doctor, nor does completing an Accountancy degree make you a CPA.

      Moreover, have you ever looked at the flunk out rates for schools such as Harvard? My understanding is that while they are very difficult to get into they are almost equally hard to flunk out of — allowing you to do so would be an indictment of their admissions process, nicht wahr? And Higher Ed (they must be high to believe what they do) suffers the same problems of circular reasoning that Sarah describes in publishing; a Harvard Degree earns more because its holder is perceived as better, NOT because its holder has demonstrated superior performance. Top law firms recruit Harvard grads more assiduously, give them more prestigious assignments once taken into the firm and assign them more prestigious mentors, all of which tends to increase the earnings (and rate of ascent within the firm.)

      Does not the process sound familiar?

      • There didn’t used to be any requirements to take the CPA exam – anyone could take it. More than one person just studied the GAAP regulations and passed the exam without even a college degree (why must we think a college degree is the only sign of education? Real education begins after college). Nowadays, you have to have a masters degree (or the equivalent in graduate level classes) along with a bachelors to even sit for the exam (which ensures that the people who pass the CPA exam have pretty poor social skills, since they’ve spent their lives studying). (I can say this, I have a CPA and the dang masters.) My father, a CPA of the old school, said that his firm would hire people with masters degrees, but they would have learned so much more in those two years if they’d been working instead.

        I recently read a book called Stover at Yale, written around 1900, which was considered a primer for Yale for the time (check it out on Gutenberg, along with its prequel, The Varmint, which is Stover at prep school). Back then, Yale was strictly about educating young men to go into business. The tuition was much lower relatively. A student could earn enough money at a summer construction job to pay all tuition and have enough left over to live frugally off campus. And anyone could attend Yale, as long as they passed the entrance exams – that’s what prep school was for. One character, an “older” guy of 22, has no fancy prep school background, took the exams six times before he finally passed, and is working his way though Yale. He’s one of the most admired characters in the book. How did we get from this to our universities of today?

        One more thing – I understand about costs forcing students to live at home and commute. I’d really like to see lower costs to allow all kids to participate in campus life. The vast majority of my college education, particularly my undergrad degree, was not learned in the classroom, it was hanging around a bunch of other bright kids in the evening talking about history or physics or whatever our classes were (we were a brainy school, we didn’t party much). Or the dorm theater groups or choir or the band (we had a terrible football team; we all only showed up to the games to cheer on the band). I made most of my adult friends in those years. Commuting in graduate school, that was just hoop jumping to get the CPA requirements. I have no fond memories of it.

        • I commuted both undergrad and grad and I still got my education from hanging out in cafes with friends, and going to extra presentations late at night. (Shrug.) It can be done. Robert has gone off both summer vacations to intern so this will likely be his last summer at home, and we’re trying to arrange something for Marsh next summer. It gives them a taste of living alone AND far away from mom and dad. But at least for the first two years, or until grad school, both kids are stuck at home. It’s just the way it is.
          Paralegal in CO used to be what you describe for CPA. I actually considered taking the exam, but either it changed OR I had read the old regs. Now it requires a masters. This, IMHO is silly. If you CAN pass the certification exam, what’s the school for? Must be that “Well rounded” thing (snort.)

          • My university (aimed at bright kids who’d been social misfits in high school), created social groups for incoming freshman, including the off-campus kids, so they woudn’t be alone until they’d had a chance to form their own groups. My group had an off campus gal, and you’re right, she was able to participate. She hung around campus all day, met people for lunch, often stayed for events. So yes, it can be done. I think the fact that she was given a group to hang out to begin with helped a lot. You just don’t meet people in the classroom. You meet them in the dorms and the cafeterias and the cafes and the extra-curricular stuff.

            But, with costs these days, yeah, what choice do people have? That’s the real problem. (I drove through my old university last summer to see a friend’s concert. Pretty new buildings, good labs, I’m fine with these, but they’ve got a freakin’ spa, with exercise bicycles. And a tram to take kids around campus. We didn’t need a spa, we had to walk everywhere. In case anyone wonders what’s being done with all that money.)

          • When I first started surveying, I went straight to work and learned everything on the job. Several of the guys I worked with had gone to school for surveying, they all agreed that six months on the job was worth two years of school, and a four year degree wasn’t worth that much more than a two year degree. Probably worth about 8 months on the job. To get your PLS (professional surveying license) you had to be sponsored by another PLS, have X numbers of hours on the job training (a two or four year degree were worth a certian amount of those hours) and have a LSIT certificate(licensed surveyor in training), pass an exam and be reviewed before the board for the state you were attempting to get your license in. To get your LSIT you needed a certian amount of hours on the job; about half what was needed for your PLS, and pass your LSIT exam. If you had enough hours for your PLS you could take both exams at the same time (In fact I knew a guy who did this and passed his PLS but failed is LSIT exam and had to retake it to qualify for his PLS). Oh, and the hours required in many states had to have a certian amount in field work and a certian amount in office work.
            They changed it in Idaho a year or so ago so that you now need a 4 year degree before you can get your license. I have heard that if you already have a license in another state the 4 year degree requirement is waived, but don’t know this for a fact. I’m not sure what the 4 year degree proves, except that you are either gullible or stupid enough to waste time and money learning something that you could have learned in much less time, while being paid to learn it, instead of paying to learn it.

            • I’m not sure what the 4 year degree proves, except that you are either gullible or stupid enough to waste time and money learning something that you could have learned in much less time, while being paid to learn it, instead of paying to learn it.

              It also proves you are stubborn enough to stick to (at least) four years of classes, navigating bureaucracy, and all the other nonsense that ‘higher learning’ brings with it in order to reach a goal.

  6. Universities and Colleges are already crumbling from within. There are innumerable tales of students taking extra years to graduate, and not because of the student’s unwillingness to do the work. The schools offers insufficient seating or sections of necessary courses for completion of a degree. They offer necessary classes infrequently, irregularly or both. One young man I know faced choosing between four courses he needs that are being offered concurrently next fall. He will have to wait on the other three, and that means he will have to wait on the courses for which they are a pre-requisites. The schools do not seem to be run for the sake of the consumer, the student, at all.

    • YES! But for this, Robert would be finishing his undergrad this year. ALSO at least at our local college the “requirements” for “general knowledge” and humanities have gone up through the roof — for SCIENCE degrees. the excuse is that they want your student to “know a little about other disciplines” — what the heck is High School for, then? I mean, they require x amount from “world knowledge” and x amount from “gender studies” and… for a biology degree. Dan tells me the requirement are about double the hours he had for his own STEM undergraduate degree. No wonder so many kids are taking six years for their bachelor’s.

      • what the heck is High School for, then?

        That’s an excellent question. When I did the Cosmopolitan One Room School thing, (watch Naked Reader for the upcoming book version 🙂 one of the inciting facts was seeing what had been the exit exam for 8th grade. it included questions like “compute the amortization table for a 30 year mortgage at 3 percent” and “name and locate on a map the Nile, Mississippi, Amazon, Orinoco, Yangtse and Mekong Rivers.”

        There are a lot of college graduates who couldn’t pass that one.

        • I’ve seen the Defenders of the Status Quo (DotSQ) response to that: back then (circa 1900 for those not familiar with that exam) the majority of the population never got to take that exam, so it represents an elite standard we cannot be expected to match today when so many minorities are matriculating!

          Yes, boys and girls, the DotSQ explanation for today’s abysmal academic performance is that we are educating more Blacks & Hispanics, so of course scores are down. And they call us racist! That also completely overlooks the large swaths of newly arrived immigrant families who were matriculating back then.

          • High school has been dumbed down – it used to be you didn’t pass to a new form (or grade) until you’d passed the exams for that form. People could take years to do pass a form, and that was normal.

            Consequently, college has been dumbed down as well, and has become what a high school degree used to be. That’s why people have to get graduate degrees these days for professions that used to require only a bachelors.

      • I did get turnabout-fair-play requirement when I was in college (a bit under 20 years ago…) — I took a Computer Programming For Liberal Arts Majors class, for instance. Pascal, fine. Prolog? Stunk on ice. (I didn’t have to do a lot of non-English-Major classes there, because I’d been pre-vetrinary before I transferred. Don’t get me started about math books written by faculty. If I hadn’t needed the cash from selling it back, I’d have shredded it, found the author’s door, and glued the remains to it.)

    • Back in the late 80s Kinkos and competitors offered professors the ability to construct textbooks to order at costs well below those of the textbook publishers. Copyright holders (aka the publishers) came down on them like the proverbial ton of bricks. Couldn’t have literature or economics profs assembling their own readers and casebooks.

      Textbook costs used to be significant; now there would need to be major price cuts to get down there again.

      Student fees can be as high as (or higher than) tuition. As to what those fees underwrite the less said the better. Residency expense (room & board) are high and include serious non-financial costs (anyone who’s tried to study for an exam during a “party night” knows whereof I speak) even for students living off-campus (preparing your own meals costs time, right?)

      Then there is the opportunity cost of not being full-time in the job market — in 4 years working only a $7.50/hr job you would earn over $62K before taxes. You might also learn valuable lessons about the reality of human existence and the value of work.

  7. I once ran into a former anthropology professor of mine at the local Borders and, in refreshing memories of associates and trends in the field I ran past him as a test of credibility an idea I’d been percolating.

    Prior to WWII (and the post-war GI Bill) attendance at college was indicative of having already “won” in life. You weren’t attending in order to qualify for a career — that your family could afford to spend four years worth of tuition, that you could afford the opportunity cost represented those four years was evidence of your economic solidity. College, Liberal Arts education, was not to enhance your earning capacity but rather to enhance your enjoyment of the wealth which enabled your attendance.

    It did confer certain advantages in an earlier society. It afforded access to various webs of connections, either through fraternities or school connections (it once was — still may be — common for large American cities to have English-style clubs affiliated with Harvard, Princeton, Yale or other colleges. A graduate traveling for whatever reason could take advantage of the club and the social connections it afforded, at a time when such informal connections were probably more valuable than were formal structures.

    I could expand but I expect the thrust of this thesis is readily apparent. Former anthropology professor certainly concurred and was able to expand on the premise. Americans being what we are, an inherently bourgeois, middle-class mercantile people, went at college after WWII and transformed its role without addressing its structure and traditions.

    • masgramondou

      yes indeed. And it isn’t JUST a US phenomenon. Same applies 100% in many other countries.

      These days though it’s probably at least as useful to have a geographically dispersed group of likeminded FB friends (or similar). For example, the company I work for will hire a bunch of barflies assuming we have the money and they want the jobs. Likewise I’ve stayed in the house of someone I met solely through SF (not a barfly in this case) and so on.

      The internet just disintermediated a whole load of “old school” networking which was always chancy because the other chap(ess) might turn out to be a bounder, a cad, or worse a fake who claimed association that he hadn’t earned.

      There are some advantages to this, but I do worry what happens when we’ve disintermediated 50% of all jobs. I think many people like the idea of job security and being told more or less what to do and how to do it, as well as the chance to weasel ahead via office politics and I don’t see a lot of future for many of those sorts of middle management, large organization kidns of jobs

      • OTOH it allows us to find like-minded friends, even when we are H*ll’s own outliers…

        • The Daughter has made friends in a number of states and several countries while sitting at home. She thinks nothing of this. The Internet has always existed in her world, even when she was not allowed to access it freely. Well, would you let a young child wander in the big city unsupervised?

          And the net is like the ultimate big city. Libraries, theater, cafes and other hangouts good and bad are all there. (Why not schools?) You can meet people of like interests. You can also run into a few sleaze bags.

    • Prior to WWII, it was just a statement of economic coolness — where? Not at any of the teacher colleges. Not at any of the agricultural colleges. Not at Ohio State or the land grant universities.Not at MIT or the other science and tech colleges. Not at U of Chicago. Possibly at some of the Ivies, although most of them were still about working your butt off at insanely difficult classes run by real scholars.

      • Certainly not at the Catholic colleges, the other religious colleges, or the theological schools and seminaries and rabbi schools.

        • Didn’t say College was merely “cool” nor even easy — just that it was an unnecessary good. Arguably, one consequence of that was it had to prove its value … as opposed to our contemporary circumstance where the diploma is the good. More demanding students means much.

  8. I took a bunch of AP tests which saved me from the ginormous ampitheater weed-out classes when I went to college–and it also made the class load easier. Don’t know how much those are used nowadays (my college gave me full credit for them too).

    Why do people constantly worry about this “human contact” I hear so much about? As a proud, card-carrying Introvert real people are vastly overrated for the most part. You imaginary folks on the internet are much more fun 😉

    More seriously, a real-time class always has a limitation–it can only go as fast as its least-capable student. I remember getting in LOTS of trouble in grade school when we had to read out loud in English class. I would get so frustrated with the glacially slow readers I would read ahead–and get so immersed in the story I didn’t notice when the teacher was breathing fire at me because it was my turn again and I wasn’t paying attention. I like the Khan Academy method better–read material, do the homework to see if you understand it, and only *then* talk to an instructor when you have specific questions.

    • Sabrina,
      Both my kids too AP credit classes. It’s a money saver, for one. Robert got better than a one semester credit, is getting special permission for extra hours, and it still takes four years to complete. Think on this a moment. Honestly, when the kids are out of the house I want to take Latin and Greek. There’s a national exam, so it doesn’t matter how I take it, I can get “accreditation” — which I think is a thing of the future.

      • Abraham Lincoln never attended law school nor college yet by all repute was a fair country lawyer. If by “fair country” you mean the kind who could take on the railroad trust Ivy League graduate lawyers and teach them how law works.

        Harry Truman, the last president to serve without benefit of a college degree, as a boy assisted the doctor performing his mother’s appendectomy on the family breakfast table. Some consider his a fairly successful presidency … certainly almost any Dem would praise him above Yale grad & Harvard MBA George W Bush (although I expect Truman would agree with W on far more than he would agree with Obama or Clinton.

        The fact is that in America until fairly recently even the professions required a practicum and could not be attained with academics alone.

        One advantage of Community College over 4-year schools these days is that the quality of teaching is probably superior at the CC. In the 4-yr school the first two years are probably instructed by grad students, teaching assistants and/or lectures by distinguished professors who think at such rarefied levels that the undergrads haven’t the slightest idea what is being said. At the CC, OTOH, the teacher is probably somebody who had to make a living based on understanding their subject matter and has a keen awareness of the differences between theory and application.

        • Community college doesn’t work for a STEM degree. Most community colleges simply don’t offer the courses.

          • I dunno, maybe our state CC is just blessed — we have a number of retired chemists and engineers teaching at the CC. Of course, NC has a statewide “Technical College” system from which the universities are required to accept transfer credits. We have two years of chemistry, biology, math, etc at reasonable rates transferable straight-up to university.

            I knew a guy who had been VP of training for a national corporation who, after having his job eliminated in a downsizing, decided what he really loved was teaching, so he took his PhD to the CC in Fayetteville.

            • most in point of fact will allow their students to get their gen eds out of the way before moving on to the four year school.

              • I got Chem and History from Community College — as it happened, before I graduated High School.

                It started when I was having trouble with Chemistry in junior year. Small private school, with a M-W/T-Th class pattern, and electives on Friday. So I wound up doing M-W morning Chem, T-Th lunch Chem, and community college Chem in the evenings. (I forget what my final grades wound up being that semester. Either two As and a B, or two Bs and an A.)

                I went on to take history classes in the summer, an Anatomy and Physiology class intended for pre-nursing majors, and fencing. Mmm, fencing. I also took part of an off-set printing class, but dropped it because I was too slow. Still, picked up enough to have a clue how to do illustrations (in Illustrator88, on the Mac) for the family business, as we owned a small off-set press at the time!

  9. adventuresfantastic

    One of the reasons colleges and universities have gotten so exorbitant is the way the coaches, particularly football, and the athletic directors are overpaid. It’s not really about education any more. I’ve been in academia all my adult life, and it’s nothing like what many people imagine. In the public sector (can’t speak for private institutions) it’s often as mismanaged as, well, New York publishing.

  10. Will it work for mechanics/hands on assembly?

    This is already being done, with remote technicians (from the equipment vendor) communicating with plant maintenance through web cameras for diagnosis and giving specific instructions to solve machine problems.

      • I’ve seen reports on the application of 3D animated modelling for manuals on iPad. ’nuff sed?

      • I am told that three years ago at the local SF Con the following was the start of a panel on cutting edge SF: Col. Kratman stands up, hold up his smart phone and announces, ‘I hate my job.’

    • Not really new, just an extension of previous practice. As a service tech I spent many an hour on the telephone to somebody far away, leading them through a diagnosis or repair procedure. Adding a webcam to that would have made it much faster; adding two webcams (one on each end) would have reduced the whole problem to hand-eye coordination. If I could see and hear what the machine was doing, or not doing, it would have been much easier to lead the remote tech to the next branch of the diagnosis decision tree, and if I had a working device I could show the tech via the magic of video, he would much better understand what it was supposed to do.

      Alas, that was long ago and far away — not so much so that the wench is dead (as a general rule), but in most cases she’s taken up something different to amuse herself. Tatting, perhaps, or plotting to overthrow the Galactic Empire.

      • A “Real” computer helpdesk works in similar fashion (I say, “Real”, because too many of them start out with someone basically reading from a script). I walked more than one customer through rebuilding the RAID drive on their server over the phone, and in a couple of instances I had to figure out what to do based on them reading the choices from the screen. If I had a video link, I would have been FAR more confident.

      • Good lord I feel your pain. The number of times back when I was a mechanic someone would call up and want me to diagnose their bake over the phone.

        “It’s making a funny noise.”

        “Bring it in.”

        “What do you think it is?”

        “Could be any number of things, bring it in.”

        “Is it the engine.”

        “Possibly, bring it in.”

        On and on and on…

      • masgramondou

        We use goto meeting and skype with show your desktop to do this in our company. There are pleny of other similar ways to videoconf these days and they all mostly just work (TM) because most computers seem to have a built in camera too. Smartphones & skype video are even better for more mechanical tasks. Give the remote tech a bluetooth headset and he can talk to you while panning the phone camera around to show whatever is needed.

        The only time I’ve had a problem with this sort of thing is when someone I was helping sort out his firewall was a bit to quick on the commit and forgot the critical accept all line at the end of the rule list. As a result he blocked off the entire internet from anyone inside the firewall. Among other people affected by that was himself and, in particular, his conversation with me where I was explaining how to not do that.

  11. Looks like some of the bigger universities are getting into the online education thing. “Coursera will offer more than three dozen college courses in the coming year through its website at, on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to neurology, from calculus to contemporary American poetry. The classes are designed and taught by professors at Stanford, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan” Though the article goes on to say it won’t be for credit but they will provide certificates of completion and transcripts. It is going to try to turn a profit by connecting employers with students doing well in relevant classes.

  12. Just spare an occasional thought to those of us who discovered over the past two years that we are the modern version of buggy-whip makers. Especially as we try not to “reach out and touch someone” when Dr. Tenured says, “Gee, I can’t understand why you don’t have a job yet – you’d be an asset to any department you worked for!” Well, I would be except that I did not have the opportunity to learn how to do distance-teaching and internet courses while I was a TA, and now no one wants to hire anyone who does not already have experience with . . . That is, in addition to publications, classroom experience, service experience, fundraising experience . . . all the traditional requirements. As you have said, it is rough on the folks who are having to pay for others’ lack of foresight.

    • TXRed
      I KNOW what you feel exactly. For the last ten years, my friends who came in earlier kept going “I don’t know why you’re not a bestseller” — turned out it was mostly NOT me but what was happening in the field. My advice to you is what I’ve been groping towards in writing. There must be SOMETHING you can do, possibly in the self-starting line that will bring you income, even if not the prestige/perks of tenure. Turn your mind in that direction. Buggy whips are gone, but have you thought of the bespoke trade? 😛

      • Buggy whips aren’t actually gone, much like swords and swordmakers. There are still people that make buggy whips and swords, but it is a niche market, while it might be a nice hobby, almost nobody actually makes their whole living at it. If you want to make a living you need to switch to the industry that made buggywhips and swords obsolete. Try making high performance auto parts, or 1911 replicas. If you can’t or are unwilling to do that, get a day job and putter around in the shop on the weekends and evenings. You may sell a few buggywhips or swords to traditionalists or as conversation pieces. Maybe even enough to pay for a nice vacation every couple years, and you can show them off to your friends for bragging rights, but don’t expect to make a living at it.

    • Have you considered doing training in industry? It is really hard to get geeks who are capable of teaching. Universities are in a bubble and going to downsize. You don’t need nearly as many lecturers with the MITx model or the WGU model. But as long as companies keep coming up with new complicated products, somebody will be needed to teach those products to the customer. At least, that’s what I’m betting on.

      • Ori, it’s a possibility. I’m also trying to develop custom teaching jobs, have one non-fiction book in contract and a second under consideration by another press, and am working on getting some fiction ready to shop around. I am not a tech-geek, alas, and I’m singularly inept at translating computer into English.

        Thank you all for ideas and encouragement. It’s fascinating to see the parallels between academia, journalism, and the publishing business right now.

  13. I do suspect that classes that rely on an instructor coming and looking at you in 3D, and possibly manually correcting your posture/position, are ones that are not so good for long-distancing. I don’t think fencing, for instance, would do very well with neither an instructor nor fellow students to hit with swords. 🙂

  14. ” If you told them Baen was doing quite well at that, they sneered “Oh, they’re right wing, and right wing people don’t read.” (This despite the fact that baen has authors of every possible political persuasion and that to be blunt, I have yet to see different reading habits among my friends of different political stripes.”

    Somebody told me a couple days ago that Baen was right-wing. I pointed out that Eric Flint wrote for Baen and I didn’t think he was right wing. They then informed me that Eric Flint was a right-wing communist. After thinking about that for a minute I went looking for a brick wall to beat my head against, because I felt that would be more productive than argueing with anybody who could; with a straight face, describe someone as a right-wing communist.

    • If you find the wall, let me know! I need to beat mine, too.

    • Right wing communist? Whoa. Must have a serious case of “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts!”

      Don’t beat your head against a wall. I think that is what ‘THEY‘ want us to do. It causes brain damage and lessens the ability to resist.

  15. My 2 cents. We live in a world with 3 dimensions and 5 senses (6 if you want to go there). The point being that while you can learn thing through a computer/technology there are some things most will never learn correctly. You can watch it now with knowledge and language on the net. Some slang words have come not from people making a word, but simply from misspelling. Then we have misconception spread around until it is more factual than the truth.

    It isn’t about sticking to the past nor running to the future. Like everything else it is about combing the best of both. To not accept that any one thing is going to be the total answer. The more senses that are required to do something the more senses that have to be engaged to learn it correctly.

  16. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    Thanks for mentioning the Lukeion Project. They’ve got some neat stuff.

    As to the future of education…

    Assume a mechanic was to use a 3D scanner (about $7000.00 currently) to scan their project, and email the scanned file. This would allow the teacher to grade the work.

    That’s just a thought. It might not work. Laser Scanners might not come down in price (I think $500.00 might work) enough to make it practical. But I suspect someone will come up with a solution.


    • Regarding 3D scanners – I see two possible solutions. There are a few software packages which will produce 3D frames from multiple photographs, plus it’s probable that if distance learning becomes widespread enough, that education outlets will partner with businesses who would provide services, including 3D scanning, as part of the student’s tuition and fees, or at most for a small per-service fee.