Sunday, August 7, 2016

Online learning - Coursera

We are experiencing a revolution in the teaching system, which is going to have deep impact in the educational welfare.

When I was a student, you had to pay hundreds or thousands of euros in books and courses to get an education and very often you had to go to the university which was the closest one to your hometown, unless your family could afford to send you to another place and pay for the rent, the fees, the food etc.

Now, if you want, you can get a decent, yet basic, education by spending a few dozens euros thanks to learning-on-line platform, wherever you are and according to your daily or weekly schedule.

You can learn mostly for free: if you want a certificate, you pay for it.

For example, let's have a look at Coursera.
At this link are some of the universities and large companies whose courses are available online, which include:

  • University of Washington
  • University of Sydney
  • IBM
  • Copenhagen Business School
  • Ecole normale superieure
  • Stansford
  • John Hopkins University
So we are not talking about god forgotten universities in the middle of nowhere with flex teachers taken from the unemployment lists.

I wanted to sign up for a course in Macroeconomics, so I typed "macroeconomics" in the search bar of the home page, and this is a screenshot of the current available curses.

The list is updated every once in a while because some courses are deleted when they are over and replaced by others.

So, let's pick up "the power of economics: economic principles in the real world" from the list. Sounds nice.

The course is taken by Dr. Peter Navarro, from the Paul Merge School of Business. There are 13 hours of videos and quizzes, the language is English, with many subtitles available.
Then, a very important thing in this Web 2.0 world. The User Ratings.

I think that the user ratings is by far the most important information you may get through social media. If people are happy or unhappy about the product (good or service) that they buy, they express their reasons or concerns and, long before you buy the product, you get an opinion by yourself. You can average the results: the more the opinions are, the better is the idea that you get.

When I was a student in the engineering branch at La Sapienza in Rome, you were assigned the courses in a particular discipline (for example numerical methods) according to your initials. There were many students and they had to be split up between several teachers, so if your last name started with "B" you went for the coursed of prof. X, if your last name started with "S", at the far end of the alphabet, you went with prof. Y.
Of course, if Y was an incompetent or a far less brilliant teacher than X, there was little or nothing you could do to change that. How ridiculous!

NOTE: if you think this is also a good way to multiply the jobs of professors in Italian universities, you may not be too far away from the truth.

Let's move back to Coursera and the lessons in macroeconomics:  I watched the first hour of lessons, a mere introduction to the discipline, by Dr. Navarro: he uses a friendly way of explaining macroeconomics by means of examples taken from recent history, and I think I will end up buying the certificate.

How much for the certificate?
Answer: 44 euros.
The price of a dinner in a restaurant, or two monthly payments at the local gym!

You can see with this example a case of deflation induced by new technologies: the same teacher can reach thousands of pupils, instead of a few dozens. So, on the long run, there is less need of teachers. As a consequence, giving the same amount of available teachers, they are paid less. This is an example of deflation caused by oversupply (of teachers).

Now, let's move to the other side of the coin: the demand.
The demand is given by people who want (or need to) learn macroeconomics. Of course, thanks to the fact that

  • the teaching can be done off-line, so whenever it best suits you;
  • you can stop and resume whenever you want.
  • you can reload and rewatch past lessons.
  • you don't need to be in a classroom
  • it costs only 44 euros

this can potentially give a boost to the number of people approaching the discipline of macroeconomics (or fluidodynamics, or genetic engineering, etc).
Since you do not need more teachers, (Dr. Navarro is always the same folk) the cost will go down, and, thanks to the user feedback, the quality is going to improve.

Is it everything nice and flawless? of course it is not, there are drawbacks and pitfalls in everything, also with the shiniest coin.
First, you are not in a classroom, so there is no interaction with the teacher or with other classmates (no friendship, no deepening of the topics). Secondly, unless it is part of a larger course in economic disciplines, the certificate you get is not "expendable" in the labor market.
Thirdy, each lesson is very short, just a few minutes. Extremely helpful if you need to split the time in studying into many frames, but it leads to excessive fragmentation of the topic. Maybe I am too severe here, but I studied philosophy and for me it is essential to have a continuous flow of concentration to get the maximum out of a topic without close a window, go back to previous web page, open the next session and so on.
Finally, you need to understand English. But to me this is not an issue, since I think that if you do not understand (I do not expect you speak English properly) a minimum of the English language, you are completely cut out from high-profitable labor market.

So, I think that online learning is extremely powerful if you already have a specialization and want to learn something extra, or if you want to have a different approach to the topics you are already studying at the college, or if you need to grasp better concepts and gain extra skills for your business and for your job.
It cannot replace formal education at the college or at the university.

The funny thing is....formal education at university is becoming more and more expensive (raising fees, decreasing tax-breaks), and on-line learning is becoming cheaper and cheaper. I already covered the cost that a student has to undertake in a previous post.

A final note on this course in macroeconomics: not in the introduction, nor in the titles of the modules, is mentioned the breakup of the Bretton Woods system in 1971. To me this is an extremely severe deficit in a course in macroeconomics, but I think that the issue here is the way macroeconomics is taught worldwide.
I do believe that the main cause for the raising in inequality in the Western countries was the abandonment of the gold standard, and more and more studies are backing this conclusion. So, a course in macroeconomics that does not cover this, is incomplete, as a minimum. I wrote about the consequences of leaving the gold standard here and here.

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