Will the Internet Transform College?

College is expensive, and it’s gotten a lot more expensive in the last few decades. The cost of tuition has outpaced inflation for years. This is the exact opposite of most industries, where real costs tend to drop over time. In most industries, that’s because productivity increases as a result of new efficiencies, better management, and new technologies. This is why the U.S. economy can keep growing even while employment declines: with productivity growth, we make more stuff with fewer people.

The reason why college bucks the trend is that the bulk of the cost is in salaries of highly trained professionals: the faculty. And the work that professors do can’t be scaled up; you can only fit so many students in a classroom–even a big lecture hall–and some types of learning have to take place in smaller classes: like discussion seminars or architecture studio classes. Another profession where costs are increasing is health care, and it’s partly due to a similar reason: Each doctor can only see so many patients in an hour.

For years, people have been saying that the Internet will change this. They think, why not record the lectures of the most awesome lecturer in the country, and have students watch them on the Internet? Then, we could have thousands, even millions, of students watch the same lecture. With so many “customers” the cost to each of them could be tiny and the lecturer would still make a ton of money. Productivity goes through the roof. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Enter MIT and Harvard with their new “edX” initiative: to deliver online learning, for example lectures by their most famous professors, all over the world. At their news conference, they claimed this is “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.” In today’s Wall Street Journal,* John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe agree, and say we’re about to see a “historic transformation in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized.”

I’m not sure I agree…yet. It’s true that having the powerful brands of MIT and Harvard in the field, really does change the game above the online offerings of less-prestigious outfits like the for-profit Phoenix University.

This new world could look very different. In a book I edited in 2006, retired Professor Roger Schank wrote an article making these predictions:

  • With online learning, top universities no longer need admissions requirements–because there are no classroom space limitations, and grading is done by computer software. So what will that do to the prestige of those universities, when the number of people having those degrees increases dramatically?
  • Research professors at top universities might not be the best teachers. Online, the researcher and the teacher don’t have to be the same person (like they do on campus). The most effective instructors on line are probably not going to be the top researchers in the field. This could be a problem for MIT and Harvard; what if the best lecturers are actually to be found at less prestigious state universities? And then, once the researchers are no longer involved in teaching, then why should they have control of the curriculum (as they do today)? What do they know about what students need to know in the real world, anyway?
  • Right now, every course takes the same amount of time: one semester or quarter, three hours in class each week. But there’s no way that every body of knowledge logically fits into that amount of time. With online learning, some bodies of knowledge could be gained in a few hours; some in a few weeks; others in a few months. The notion of “semesters” and “weekly contact hours” loses meaning.
  • And right now, on campus each student takes four or five courses at the same time. Online, a student could take one “course” all at once, full time, until finished–and then, move on to the next course. A lot of students would find this a more effective way to learn.
  • When knowledge is online, it is always available. You don’t have to learn it between the ages of 18 and 22, just because you might need it at some point in your career. When you get to a point when you need it, it will be there, waiting for you.

Will any of this happen? Should it? What would be gained, and what would be lost?

* Chubb and Moe, 2012, “Higher education’s online revolution”. WSJ May 31, 2012, p. A17.

Schank, 2006, “The fundamental issue in the learning sciences.” In Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.) Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

The New Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia

For years, I’ve wanted to visit the famous Barnes Foundation museum. It’s filled with major 20th century artworks, and yet it’s quirky and hard to get to (it’s in Merion, a suburb outside Philadelphia). For years, there’s been talk of relocating the museum from Merion to a more accessible location, and this month, it finally opened at its new location in Philadelphia, close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Rodin Museum. Most professional art critics were nervous that the move would destroy the charm and authenticity of Barnes’ collection, but the critics love this new space:

  • Ada Louise Huxtable in the Wall Street Journal: “This is a beautiful building that does not compromise its contemporary convictions or upstage the treasure inside. And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture….I have been waiting a long time for a building like this…This is what architecture does, when it does it right.”
  • Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal: “Superb new facility…a win for both advocates and opponents of the move.”
  • Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker: “In this magazine, in 2004, I termed the proposed relocation ‘an aesthetic crime,’ because I couldn’t imagine that the integrity of the collection would survive…But it does, magnificently…The spectacular contemporary architecture cradles the modest graces of the Merion structure with an air of religious veneration.”

Alfred C. Barnes was born poor in 1872, got rich selling a medical treatment he invented, and established his art foundation in 1922. He used his wealth to purchase some of the most famous European modern painters (69 Cezannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 181 Renoirs, 18 Rousseaus…) He rejected the art establishment, and instead drew on his friend, the famous American philosopher John Dewey, to help him figure out how to display the works in his home. When he died in 1951, at the age of 79, he left a will saying that every artwork had to remain exactly where it was at the time of his death.

I loved John Dewey’s book Art as Experience, and I first heard about Barnes in connection with Dewey. Dewey’s theory was that “art” was not the painting; “art” was the experience the viewer had when perceiving the painting. Artists were the people who could capture and represent an experience; each art work was designed to communicate an experience from artist to audience. So Barnes mounted his artworks in such a way as to immerse the viewer, to maximize the intensity of the experience. He grouped works from different periods, styles, and quality and mounted them close together into what he called “ensembles.” “Proper taste deemed Barnes weird for his fanatical orchestration of artistic stimuli” (Peter Schjeldahl). No other major museum looks like this.

Because it required a lot of effort, even for the most dedicated art lover, to make it out to the suburb of Merion, over the decades there were various efforts to move the collection to a more accessible location in the city center. But Barnes’ will was very clear: nothing could ever be moved or changed. A few years ago, after various legal decisions and financial calculations, the Barnes Foundation Board decided that it would be acceptable to move the collection to the city center, so long as the new building exactly replicated the gallery spaces of the old one, and all of the artworks remained positioned exactly as they had been. Now it’s ready, and I’m ready for “the experience.” Now that the museum is more accessible, I might actually have a chance to visit in this lifetime! Congratulations to the architects, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. And thank you to everyone who made this possible.

Ada Louise Huxtable, “The new Barnes shouldn’t work–but does.” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2012, p. D4.

Eric Gibson, “Saving Dr. Barnes’ vision.” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2012, p. D4.

Peter Schjeldahl, “Moving pictures.” The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, pp. 79-80.

Is Innovation Just a Washed-Up Trend?

Back in 2004, Business Week magazine (not yet “Bloomberg”) released their special 75th anniversary issue. In 100-point type, the cover proclaimed “THE INNOVATION ECONOMY” as the theme of the special issue. Right away, I thought, “When a business trend makes the cover of Business Week, that usually means it’s already peaked.”

Wow, was I wrong. Innovation has increased in importance every year since 2004. Business Week eventually added a special once-a-month centerpiece insert “Innovation and Design” (edited by legendary design guru Bruce Nussbaum). But now, in 2012, has the trend finally peaked?

Evidence: The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday May 23, 2012) argues that the term “innovation” is now so widely used, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore–other than a very general notion of “change.” Longtime WSJ reporter Leslie Kwoh says “Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge….But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating.” And then she gives the biggest insult you can give to a trendy business term, in my opinion: she compares the word “innovation” to the washed-up buzzword “synergy.” Ouch, that hurts!

In another section of the same paper, on the same day, is a story titled “Tinkerers Unite! How Parents Enable Kids’ Creativity.” This heartwarming story makes me believe there is a future for America, as I read about parents who create workshops for their children and let them disassemble old TVs and old alarm clocks, and give them soldering guns and hot glue and set them loose. As a child, I remember spending hours out in the garage, using my Dad’s table saw and making games that I’d invented, including making the boxes to store them in. Now that I have a 9-year-old son, would I let him anywhere near a table saw? No way! I can’t believe my parents let me use it (and they weren’t out there watching me, either). Maybe I need to rethink this. After all, I managed to retain all of my fingers! Maybe our concern with safety is keeping our children away from the chance to build, to make, to experiment.

These two articles present an interesting contradiction. Innovation is passe, and yet hands-on creativity and tinkering are going to lead to the next great invention. As usual, I think everyone is right (I love everything I’ve read by Leslie Kwoh, by the way). But whether or not businesses talk the talk without walking the walk, the reality is that if you don’t walk the walk, your business is going to suffer. If you’re in a non-innovative organization, it seems as if it’s impossible to do all of those crazy things that the innovative companies do. It seems impossible, until you actually do them. And then, you can’t imagine what it was like the old way, and why it took you so long to change. If it sounds like a personal and spiritual transformation, maybe it is–if an organization can be said to have such a transformation.

I hope my son continues his tinkering (so far safe, with LEGOs and other indoor toys) and his game invention. I need to think of better ways to foster this. Maybe my wife and I should create a workshop space for him. What have you tried with your children?

Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine just received a fairly critical review in the New York Times.* This follows on a famously critical review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. When I first commented on Lehrer’s book in March 2012, I was generally positive, although my overall sense was that his book didn’t really have anything new that hadn’t already appeared in other good creativity books. Poole’s scathing review was perhaps easy to dismiss, because of its bitingly sarcastic tone and also because he didn’t sufficiently ground his critique with quotations from the book. (Although I agree with his skepticism about the way Lehrer interprets neuroscience studies; see my article “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity”.) This new review by Christopher Chabris is much more sober and better supported, with specific criticisms, for example:

Lehrer makes science errors, like saying that visual information from the left eye goes to the right hemisphere (in fact, visual information from the left visual field of both eyes goes to the right hemisphere); different electrodes in an EEG do not record brain waves of different frequencies (they each record the same waves at a different location on the scalp); the Remote Associates Test is a divergent thinking test (creativity researchers agree it is a convergent thinking test).

Chabris argues that Lehrer often makes the basic undergraduate error of confusing correlation with causation. For example, Lehrer cites one study that shows that highly creative employees are also people who consult more colleagues–a correlation. Lehrer then concludes that if you increase the quantity of your office conversations, it will make you more creative (causation). Of course, it’s just as likely that creative people tend to be more talkative just because they have lots of ideas they want to share.

Chabris concludes, just as I did, that Lehrer’s book is entertaining to read, for its stories and its scientific studies. But if you want a stronger grounding in the science of creativity, you can always try my book Group Genius (one of the many books Lehrer drew his research from). And the bottom line is, I love it that Lehrer’s book is selling so well, and introducing so many people to a field of research I’ve dedicated my life to.

*Christopher Chabris, May 13 2012: “Boggle the Mind”. New York Times Sunday Book Review, page 12.

Sawyer, R. K. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. In Creativity Research Journal.

Solitude or Collaboration? Listen to NPR…

The radio show Big Picture Science just produced an NPR special about creativity, solitude, and collaboration. In the solitude corner: Susan Cain, best-selling author of the new book Quiet, arguing that solitude enhances creativity. In the collaboration corner, Keith Sawyer (me), author of the 2007 book Group Genius, arguing that all creativity is deeply based in collaboration.

Here’s the segment with my interview: http://bit.ly/K0Nqsk

Here’s a link to the entire one-hour show: http://radio.seti.org/episodes/Cosmos_It_s_Big_It_s_Weird