Law in the Internet Society
Food for thought from the NYT. It's a powerful point about equity. But, note the implicit assumption of a zero-sum game, that investment of "intellectual capital" at top schools means underinvestment at less prestigious schools. In a zero marginal cost world, however, at least with respect to knowledge, that proposition is false: if we write once, we can read everywhere.

Just as the concentration of wealth at the very top reduces wealth at the bottom, the aggressive hoarding of intellectual capital in the most sought-after colleges and universities has curtailed our investment in less prestigious institutions. There’s no curricular trickle-down effect. The educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. has pointed to a trend he labels the Matthew Effect, citing the Biblical injunction: “ ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’ We’ve lifted up rich kids beyond their competence,” he says, “while the verbal skills of the black underclass continue to decline.”

-- DevinMcDougall - 02 Oct 2011

Maybe food for thought, but some of it goes down a little putrid for me. Does Hirsch really expect us to believe in the declining verbal skills of the part of our society whose vernacular poetry is now the centerspine of our popular culture? He doesn't believe in rap, of course. It isn't language. What Hirsch doesn't know isn't knowledge.

"Just as" the hoarding of wealth deprives the many, so does the hoarding of knowledge? That's to deny the difference between zero and non-zero marginal cost. Teaching has non-zero marginal cost, but transmitting knowledge for those able to teach themselves does not. Hence all of what is done at MIT, where Hirsch knows the rich kids are, through MIT Open CourseWare benefits any learner in the world, which is where the poor are. With the addition of teachers to impart the curriculum, as when West Bengal adopts MIT Open CourseWare as the curriculum for the state's engineering colleges, what Hirsch would in his metaphor consider to be "redistribution" turns out to be just distribution after all.

But if the redistribution of knowledge capital is just the free distribution of knowledge, then what Hirsch thinks he wants is what the dotCommunist Manifesto and the free culture movement's critique of copyright demand.

My reference to food for thought was to the broader article, not specifically the Hirsch quotation embedded. That Hirsch's evaluation is wrong or incomplete, I think, does not alter the broader reality that educational opportunities in America are unequally distributed.

With respect to the broader article, I wasn't endorsing it wholesale; I was making a similar critique as the one you've made about the zero marginal cost of knowledge distribution: "But, note the implicit assumption of a zero-sum game, that investment of "intellectual capital" at top schools means underinvestment at less prestigious schools. In a zero marginal cost world, however, at least with respect to knowledge, that proposition is false: if we write once, we can read everywhere."

-- DevinMcDougall - 03 Oct 2011

Additionally: as it happens, there's another NYT article today, one which more precisely separates out zero and nonzero marginal costs as related to education, and recognizes the revolutionary potential of technology in knowledge distribution (Though it does not appear to recognize the role of copyright in holding back that potential or the gravity of the moral stakes involved in denying knowledge unnecessarily; the article ends with a rumination on the need of content providers to get paid):

Meanwhile, one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.

Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me.

The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity. “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience,” he said. “I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”

Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.

“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”

-- DevinMcDougall - 03 Oct 2011

"The traditional university . . . serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity"

I agree with that statement but I think there is more to it, which reveals why the "virtual university" can't work, or at least won't work for now. As you correctly point out, the elite private universities (and even many "public" universities now such as the UCs) are running a business. The product they churn out isn't someone ready to be placed in the workforce, but rather a degree. Why are degrees important? Because the businesses and institutions these graduates end up working for want students who have these degrees from elite schools.

The virtual university could definitely work and provide students with a comparable education to that given at elite universities. If Thrun can teach himself robotics, then students can learn as well, outside of the traditional university. Given the massive potential of the internet and the seemingly infinite amount of knowledge people around the world have access to, the "hath nots" can learn just as much, if not more, than the university students, and perhaps can learn more efficiently. Keller writes “In the same way that a lot of things go into the cost of a newspaper that have nothing to do with the quality of the reporting — the cost of newsprint and delivery — we should ask the same thing about universities,” Hennessy told me. “When is the infrastructure of the university particularly valuable — as it is, I believe, for an undergraduate residential experience — and when is it secondary to the learning process?”

Universities force students largely into rigid structures of coursework to create a "well-rounded" student. Students are forced to take a number of courses that are neither relevant to the work they want to do, nor interesting for the student considering his/her ambitions, perhaps to guarantee these universities 4 years of tuition rather than 2 or 3 years. Again, it is, of course, a business, and its about money. The virtual university would bring education and a framework of understanding to a great number of individuals who might be more qualified (from an intelligence standpoint) to attend one of these elite institutions but couldn't afford the diversity required to get in. The problem with the virtual university is that without that degree, without those Stanford credits, the businesses these students are striving to get jobs at won't want them. It's cyclical. The virtual university will certainly educate, and educate well. But people won't be able to utilize that education in terms of getting the jobs they want until these businesses recognize the value that can come from non-institutional, non-traditional learning.

These business know they are going to have to expend a lot of resources teaching these recent graduates how the job works, to train them in their art. Law school doesn't teach you how to be a lawyer any more than a masters in education or a phd teaches you how to be a professor. The real, necessary training, comes after graduation. The degree is meaningless except as a measure of your background. These businesses want people from only the elite schools and the demand for such students is increasing as the amount of jobs decreases during economic downturn. If the most valuable training and education comes on the job anyways, why does it matter what school you go to?

The first article Devin posted noted that there was not a curricular trickle down effect to the lesser schools. Obviously the elite schools have more money than those considered non-elite, but the educations are not necessarily any different. While this article was largely about undergraduate institutions, the logic seems to apply to the graduate schools as well, and reinforces the notion that the university is just a business, churning out degrees (because people with degrees from these schools have a better chance at getting jobs). I'm a transfer student. I'd say at least half of the jobs I interviewed for during the early interview program were at firms that do not do on campus interviews at the school I came from. Like other businesses and institutions, these law firms want students from elite schools like harvard, yale, columbia, stanford, chicago, etc. When a person transfers, law firms conducting interviews have only the transfer's 1st year grades at the "less elite" school as an indicator of the person's abilities. The only reason I was able to get many of the interviews I had was because I was NOW at Columbia Law School, paying tuition at Columbia Law School. These firms deemed my education at my old, lesser school good enough, as they offered me jobs (in theory) based on my grades only from my old school. My education at my old school was clearly "good enough" for them to hire me, but the degree I would have received from my old school was not "good enough" for them to even interview me at the old school. Thus, the way legal hiring works (at least in the private sector) reinforces the need for these elite university structures and investment (both tangibly with money and intangibly with intellect) in these elite schools. The only reason transfers are probably allowed are because of the extra tuition they bring to the school, which reinforces the notion that these universities are just businesses.

The virtual university is not going to work until businesses recognize and accept the value that can come from non-traditional, "non-elite" education. People will always need the universities so long as businesses require credits from the university, and a degree from the university. The universities will continue to be profitable so long as these businesses want people with degrees from there. The cycle needs to be broken in order for the virtual university to have impact on the ground - to allow people without traditional education to excel

-- AustinKlar - 03 Oct 2011

I basically agree. As Austin points out, the issue here isn't knowledge distribution. Of course, someone like Hirsch who accepts the premise that there is in fact something elite about the education in "elite education" would be concerned about knowledge distribution, but he's wrong. And he isn't just wrong in an era of "virtual universities" or whatever.

Of course no one ever needed to learn AI from Thrun or go to Stanford to learn AI (nor did he) -- I taught myself AI using books I borrowed from a public library and pirated versions of programming environments (on a Mac!) and if I’d wanted to wait until I got to college, I could have learned from excellent teachers and researchers at a university people out here have never heard of -- but which has produced any number of successful computer scientists. Yet, that doesn’t overlap with what you can do with a Stanford CS degree.

I agree with Austin -- the real issue is with access to those certain kinds of jobs in the private and public sector that are identified with the political and economic elite. Those are the opportunities that are limited because of the increased scarcity of seats in elite universities. You can get the knowledge elsewhere -- over the web for free -- but not get what the university is really selling, which is membership in elite society. (The society of the op-ed’s author, James Atlas -- Rhodes Scholar, Harvard grad, alumnus of an elite public high school in Evanston, whose kids go to an expensive private school here in New York -- the entire article is really about him trying to get over a guilt complex, as far as I can tell.)

So, there’s a structure in which you need the branding of the elite university (or as you go lower down the totem pole, some kind of established university with elite prestige proportional to the job sought) to get any job (but with the occasional outlier so the system can still pretend to be a “meritocracy”). It generates artificial scarcity so that universities and other businesses profiting from the educational enterprise can continue to survive in a zero marginal cost of distribution world.

Part of this is branding, but part of the scarcity also comes from laws and regulations that limit accreditation and professional licensing, or which control subsidies, and increasingly through copyright laws. Even if MIT Courseware is an exception for now, the future probably belongs to the Disney-fication of education (the brand could be called Yale, or even Disney): the fusion of brands and copyright delivering educational products to consumers who are practically denied other alternatives, whether it's because those alternatives are explicitly illegal or implicitly excluded from mainstream and elite society / economy.

-- BahradSokhansanj - 03 Oct 2011

Although I agree with the comments above about the continued viability of traditional, college education, I think the recent economic times have paved way for virtual education to play a more significant role. Currently, there are job openings and even scarcities for a particular subset of jobseekers: high-skilled workers, often with training in technical or sciences backgrounds. Now, there are many educational programs growing across the country that train people who want to return to hit the books: community colleges, continuing adult education classes, nonprofits, and universities. Given the obvious demand for classes that are open to a breadth of the population, education suppliers such as universities have incentives to invest in programs that are not tied to a traditional degree program. And with zero marginal cost delivery of education increasingly practical today, universities do not want to get left behind. They have their brand names still, and why shouldn't they not exploit the opportunity to jump into the virtual education market?

-- ThomasHou - 05 Oct 2011

Let me be clear -- I don't discount the opportunity or advantages of open education. I just believe that established institutions will do their best, using the law, moral arguments, established social arrangements, etc., to prevent any real change and preserve their brands... including as Thomas suggests, "exploiting opportunities" -- by coopting them and making them suck, while perpetuating their effective monopolies. It's what establishments do.

-- BahradSokhansanj - 05 Oct 2011



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r9 - 07 Sep 2012 - 18:15:22 - IanSullivan
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