Why do we keep paying for what’s free?

April 30, 2010

Matt Damon said it first, in Good Will Hunting: one day, you’re going to realize that

“You dropped 150 grand on a $%*#ing education you could have got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”

Here’s the paradox of college in the age of the internet: students are paying more and more for what’s available for free. Why does this happen?

Today, it’s possible to go to, say, MIT, for free. Except you don’t have to go. Let’s say you want to learn calculus. From home you can attend lectures, download your textbook, and even do all the homework and take the exams. If you compare this textbook by Strang to a standard, written-by-committee monstrosity, it’s actually written by a human, for humans. Here’s page 2, talking about comparing the odometer and the speedometer on a car [v stands for the velocity, the reading on the speedometer; f stands for distance travelled, the reading on the odometer]:

“If we know the velocity over the whole history of the car, we should be able to compute the total distance traveled. In other words, if the speedometer record is complete but the odometer is missing, its information could be recovered. One way to do it (without calculus) is to put in a new odometer and drive the car all over again at the right speeds. That seems like a hard way; calculus may be easier.

But the point is that the information is there. If we know everything about v, there must be a method to find f. What happens in the opposite direction, when f is known? If you have a complete record of distance, could you recover the complete velocity? In principle you could drive the car, repeat the history, and read off the speed. Again there must be a better way.

The whole subject of calculus is built on the relation between v and f.”

“The question we are raising here is not some kind of joke, after which the book will get serious and the mathematics will get started. On the contrary, I am serious now-and the mathematics has already started.

We need to know how to find the velocity from a record of the distance.(That is called differentiation, and it is the central idea of differential calculus.) We also want to compute the distance from a history of the velocity. (That is integration, and it is the goal of integral calculus.)”

Much nicer than your average math text, wouldn’t you say? What was the last textbook you saw that used first person pronouns? And it’s free.

Economically, something doesn’t click in all this for me. The content of college, more now than ever, is free and easily available. What are students paying for?

One answer, of course, is the pedigree (this is what the longhaired guy answers Matt Damon in the clip above). But it’s hard for me to believe that it will last forever: actual skills are starting to matter more than ever. The more important impediment is that it’s just hard to motivate yourself to watch twenty hours of lecture, do sixty hours of homework, and check yourself to make sure you’re really understanding without other students around you doing the same thing, and without a teacher or TA to turn things in to, and to check out how you’re doing (though given how large so many lecture classes are, many students barely check in with anyone anyway).

Here’s the fix then: I should offer a calculus class run in the following way: a group of 10 kids meets with me twice a week for an hour each. In between classes, they watch the best teacher in the country (someone at Harvard or MIT, say) lecture on calculus (free); they read the materials from that part of the (free) calculus text and do the assigned homework problems from the syllabus (free). When they meet with me, I don’t lecture at all (why would I? They get that for free already); rather, they bring their questions, their difficulties, and we discuss together to correct misconceptions and strengthen real understanding.

If everyone’s on top of everything, I’ll assign a particularly challenging problem to stretch their thinking further. They all grade each other’s homework, ensuring that they actually write for people, instead of a nebulous grader, and if they’re homework is poorly done or arranged, they’ll hear about it from each other. There will be quizzes/tests every three to four weeks that I grade to make sure they’re actually learning and absorbing all the material. These could be adapted easily from the MIT syllabus. And I’ll charge $1000 per student.

I’ve just designed a calculus class that is demonstrably better than MIT’s (I give the students everything MIT offers, plus 3 extra hours of dedicated attention a week in small group) for a fraction of the cost. Any high schoolers interesting in taking calculus and actually understanding it—not just having to repeat it when they get to college—should come flocking to me, right?

If the economics are right, and people actually care about what they’re getting, then I should have no trouble filling up my calculus class. If you know any interested students in Seattle, refer them to this post. If I get 10 students on board, I’ll actually do this next September. This began as a thought experiment, but if students respond, let’s make it a real experiment.

Will it happen? We continue to buy bottled water, even though it’s often “glorified tap water,” actually from the same source as tap water, but sold at as much as a 1000 times the price. Why are we irrational in this way? Why do we keep paying for what’s free?

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