A Possible Future for Education

The other day as I was reading about the Stanford professor that ran a huge online version (100,000 students) of his AI class, I had a glimpse of a future for education that I have not heard discussed previously. As we worry here at the UW about the future funding for public education I see a new deep pocket on the horizon.

The argument has always been made that at least part of the “public good” of education is that it helps churn out workers, training them in the skills that businesses and industry need. One goes to school to learn aeronautical engineering with a possible eye towards employment at Boeing, or one reads Chaucer so that one can work at Microsoft (someone needs to write those manuals, you know – English majors can get jobs!). Yes, the connections are not always direct but the requirements for, “Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Math, Physics or related field” in a job description make it clear that at least some aspects of education are required/desired by industry.

So industry tells the government, “We need trained employees, “ and presumably the government agrees and funds public education. But there is another way that is coming up on the horizon.

A large company like Microsoft or Google could easily decide that it is in their interest to take education into their own hands. Why shouldn’t either or both of these companies decide that it is in their interest to train computer scientists? We will write our own course work, put it up on line, create our own tests, grade them (by computer, of course) and make job offers to the best of the best. Why take a BS of CS from Podunk U as an indication that they know how to program. Why not write our own tests? Why not train them in OUR OWN internal software toolkits and see how they do?

The basic idea is this, why not offer online learning, collect a 100,000 students at a pop, let them watch the YouTube videos that the company created, let them take the tests that the company created and let the company, take a look at the results and decide if they want to follow up with an in person interview. The cost is that the company would need to create courseware (good thing that there are plenty of underpaid professors out there who might be interested in some extra contract work, or maybe even interested in jumping ship to create our courseware) and then what, a few servers in the clouds, some people in HR working the telephone lines and email?

In fact, at least in the computer industry which I know fairly well, you could even blend the later levels of course work with apprenticeship/intern style projects. You hack out the code to do X, we inspect it and possibly include it in a product that we are shipping. You as an intern get to see how we work, we possibly get some useful code and more importantly get to see how you fit in before we give you any long term commitment.

Suppose more and more of this happens in the future. You could take Computer Science from Google College or from Microsoft University. You probably don’t want to go to Google School if you can’t get your grades transferred over to get a job at another company. So there will be pressure put on companies to share the grades of their students. Google will probably not get an exclusive shot at their top grads, BUT they will get a first shot, and they will get to train their students on a slightly different toolset that makes the fit better for Google.

The important thing that I see is this: Your typical university is interested in selling the high priced product. A Harvard education is expensive but it (in theory) gets you into the best highest paying jobs. Google and Microsoft, on the other hand don’t want their schooling to be any more expensive than necessary. In fact they should be willing to subsidize it. Why? Suppose that the UW educated too many aerospace engineers, their grads can’t all get jobs, or they are in so much competition with one another that the price the Boeing must pay is less. This is bad for the university. Universities, like guilds, want to limit the supply of skilled workers so that they can keep wages high. On the other hand, Boeing should see no problem in producing as many potential aerospace engineers as possible. They want to increase the supply of one of their consumables. Boeing has a reason to be interested in free education for the masses; the University of Washington does not.

Businesses already do assessment before they hire. Some of them already do some on-line assessment. The path that I see into the future is that they will start to expand that assessment from giving tests only to perspective employees who have submitted resumes, opening the tests up to anyone and making them available worldwide. The next step will be when they realize that it is actually in their interests to help people cram for the tests so that they can pass, thus practice tests will be made available. Humm, cramming for tests is just a way to encourage folks to try to spoof a higher grade on the test with just a little investment in time. There must be a better way. Finally they will realize that they should actually do the entire education on line. That way they can monitor the entire educational process and detect that talented freshman a full 3 years before they have had enough schooling to pass the tests. Knowledge is power!

When education REQUIRED that you have 30 students in a single geographical room with a teacher up front – it was not cost effective for a random company to be in the education business. What are you gonna do? – pay one professor to cast a net over 30 people to see if we get a potential employee? – screw that, let the government educate them and we will sift through the finished product. BUT on the other hand if you can cast your net and sift through 100,000 or eventually a million users why not create and distribute and grade your own coursework. Just like advertising it is all about REACH, if you can only reach 30 people advertising is not worth the cost, but if you can reach millions with your ad, it is suddenly cost effective to pay Madison Ave for writers, graphic artists, camera crews, actors and special effects. Educators that reach 30 people will be quaint. You can probably pay extra for that traditional old-time feel at a country club like Harvard.

I do not expect to see the nature of education to change overnight. That is not the way things ever work, BUT I see nothing that prevents big industry from deciding that they could and should start educating their own future workers and stop relying on public education to do it for them. I expect that you will see this progress in the way that their job listings will read. Today the job requirement for a software Engineer at Microsoft is “BS in CS required”. It will change to “BS in CS required AND a grade of XXX in our own online course,” and then someday that BS requirement will be removed since it is, after all, just BS.

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