Archive for the ‘Online Learning’ Category

The Future of Employment – a Focus on Skills

January 7, 2018

Where will the jobs be – and how to prepare for them?

The answer depends in part on where you live and what age you are. Discussion of this question can be found in numerous places, authored by governments, think tanks and universities. Here I aim to address an audience of those in high school and university, but it may have some value for those already in the work force, since a main conclusion is that there will be fewer and fewer life-time jobs and many will have to retrain and requalify throughout their working life.

The chart found at the following site graphs how 16 labour force occupations by sector have changed between 1850 and 2015 in the US.

See Part 3, Exhibit 2.

The three categories above Agriculture (-55.9%) are:

Trade (wholesale and retail)



The twelve categories below Agriculture are:



Professional Services


Business and Repair Services






Financial Services

Source: McKinsey and Co. 2017


Two obvious changes are the vast reduction of those employed in the agriculture, shown by the shrinkage of the light blue area, and more recently the reduction of manufacturing jobs (dark blue). Each OECD economy would show similar changes modified by the physical location and a number of other factors affecting the geographic boundaries and natural and human resource endowment of the economy. Canada would be much like the US, but with a greater relative importance associated with natural resources such as forestry and mining.

The shrinking share of agriculture is associated with a vast increase in farming output, and the substitution of machinery such as tractors and combine harvesters. The manufacturing and other sectors have expanded their share of employment at the same time that it has shrunk in agriculture. Similar forces are at work today with manufacturing, which with automation has increased the demand for service sector employment associated with computer and communications related service activities. A main conclusion will be that it is more helpful to examine the skills that are likely to be needed in the economy than the changing share of the employment by sector.


Some facts about underlying changes

Employment takes place in different sectors of the economy; the share of employment by sector changes over time, sometimes slowly and today quite rapidly.

Existing sectors, as shown in the chart, can change the type of skills required and the arrival of new technology creates the need for new skills. (When you see the word skills think of education and training now and in the future).

For example, the agricultural sector employs fewer people today but the output of the sector has increased. Manual work was taken over by machinery such as tractors, and combines. At the same time the sector created new industries and jobs with employment rising in manufacturing, improvements in seed and cattle production and now the use of information technology. Output has grown in all sorts of ways.

A remarkable statistic shows that in 2012 the average American cow produced 22,000 lbs of milk each year compared with 5,300 lbs in 1950, an increase of 16,700 lbs per year or about four times as much a year. (I imagine a Canadian cow would be equally productive, although supply management may require it to work shorter days and take longer vacations.) With 1950 model cows, today’s 33 million Canadians could be supplied with a pound of milk per day by about just over two million cows. With today’s more productive cows, it would take about half a million cows, such has been the increase in productivity.

 Other sectors have seen a real shrinkage of employment. Horses no longer do the work of machinery so the work horse industry has declined to almost nothing, as have the people who bred horses. There is a horse industry but it is associated with equestrian events such as racing, show jumping, dressage, and circus performances.

In contemplating job opportunities look for situations of job creation and job destruction, as well as for education and training now and in the future.


Will technology eliminate jobs?

The lump of labour argument states that there is only so much work in an economy and that technology will reduce the need for work in the future. The facts show otherwise as argued by the “lump of labour fallacy,” namely that employment to-date shows the total amount of employment has increased over time, but the type of jobs has changed requiring different combinations of skills and development of new skills.

One difference today is that the rate of change has increased relative to most times in the past, and this has led to the need for retraining and re-education. Doctors and dentists undergo annual retraining seminars, academics do research and take sabbatical, teachers have PD days. People can train to be a nurse today, but will have to retrain to keep up to date with nursing skills. If in the future there is a declining need for nurses but an increased demand for MRI technicians then major retraining is required to operate this equipment.

My experience of training in economics and being an academic all my working life is not typical for many of those entering today’s work force. I was employed by several different universities but to teach economics in all instances. Part of my retraining came from doing research as well as teaching, including the use of online learning techniques. It was an evolving skill set that I had to learn.


What skills will be needed?

There is extensive research and reporting by economists and others on Future Work Skills and the education and training needed for a person to meet the likely needs. While economists and others don’t have a particularly good record of forecasting future jobs, they are better at suggesting what skills will be needed in the future, given the changes, technological and other, taking place. A focus on skills allows predictions to be made on the type of education and training likely to be needed.


Drivers of change – some examples

  1. People are living longer. With an older population, people may work to an older age, either full or part-time. They will have increased medical and care costs some of which can be provided by healthcare workers.
  2. Smart machines: these will be used to monitor healthcare needs for young and old persons. Security and defense are examples of other areas using monitoring techniques, such as the use of unmanned drones and security cameras.
  3. Technology now allows for massive amounts of information to be collected and manipulated in real time in areas such as medicine, security and education. This has allowed a computer to beat human chess players and win quiz games such as Jeopardy.
  4. New techniques of manipulation and communication of information has led to multimedia forms of communication. Oral, visual and written information can be created and stored for use anywhere on the planet, meaning that the footprint of an industry or occupation can be global
  5. Social media is a particular form of global footprint (Facebook, Twitter and email) where experimentation is taking place. I first used a computer in 1962. It was housed in a large air-conditioned room and processed input entered on punch cards in batches. Early portable computers weighed 25 lbs and had 64K memory. I first used email in 1989. Messages were sent and received with letters being written out slowly across a computer screen. Today we expect instantaneous receipt of the whole message together with pictures and sound.
  6. The world is connected globally so that information can be transmitted anywhere in the world that has the technical facilities. This expands the opportunities for all kinds of activity, medical, educational and other. It also allows for bad things to happen.

University Funding

October 7, 2017

A generous donation to Carleton University by the Nicol family is to fund a new commerce building to house the Sprott School of Business. One has to wonder whether this is the best use of the $10 million input to a $48 million building. Throughout universities many faculty offices are occupied only a few hours a week, as faculty work at home connected worldwide with their own computers. This has been the case since the early 1970s. University office sharing is an option as takes place in many businesses.

Another practice is online teaching which, while it will never altogether replace in class attendance, is increasingly being used in many disciplines. Check the Khan Academy website for one online example. Over time schools and universities will learn how to grant diplomas and credits which employers will recognize. This trend also works against creating more university space.

There will be no lack of suggestions as to how the Nicol donation could be used. An obvious one, at least to me, is financial support for students. Rising fees and reduced government funding increases the burden on students and their families. Nicol Fellowships could be created thereby spreading and perpetuating the Nicol name over numerous recipients rather than one building. Fulbright Fellowships, established in 1946, were named after Senator Fulbright. Although he provided none of the funding, his name lives on with fifty-four Fulbright alumni going on to win Nobel prizes.

Student debt – how much of a burden?

November 2, 2015

Student costs for postsecondary education are primarily a combination of fees and living costs plus the cost of loss of income from employment while studying. Universities have also learned how to charge for services in addition to basic fees. Overall costs are met from student income from savings, part-time work, borrowing from parents, friends and institutions. The burden of any debt incurred depends on the borrowing costs and the terms of repayment.


Those readily employed after graduation will be able to plan their repayment. Those unemployed will carry the burden of debt longer. One interesting scheme is for universities to require no payment at the time of study, but for the student to incur a debt which is paid for after graduation and dependent on the amount of earnings. Collection can be tied to a person’s annual income tax filing.


Many universities have created a country club atmosphere of indoor and outdoor sports, clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, bars and shops. These are used to attract students, but at the same time divert student time from academic study. One way to reduce costs and maintain a focus on studying is to register for online courses, which can be taken at lower cost to the student who does not have to travel to and live on a campus.


Of course this is not a direct substitute for an on campus experience, but it is a way to reduce the costs of post-secondary education. Correspondence courses have provided this means of study for years. Today technology makes distance learning that much easier. In fact, many classroom lectures are made available as power point presentations which allows a student to either access the material in the classroom and online or just online. This means of delivery is more suitable for some disciplines (history, english) than for others where lab time is required (engineering, chemistry).


Discourse on student debt is usually engaged in by those experiencing it. My observation here is that while debt cannot be eliminated, its effects can be mitigated by a variety of means. Some of these require the student (and parents) taking action before payment for post-secondary education is required.

Technology comes to post secondary education

March 10, 2015



The plight of sessional lecturers is a lesser issue, compared with the probable plight of all lecturers and the universities where they work. Online degrees at a fraction of the cost of on campus degrees pose real competition. So far online has not eaten into the on campus experience, but it will as soon as these course are seen as providing an official credential. And that will begin to happen soon – or another of my predictions will be proved wrong.

You can stop here and read Kevin Carey’s New York Times article of March 5, 2015, “Here’s What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That are Seen as Official.”


The potential of online

Higher education has become ridiculously expensive with the combination of fees, away from home living costs and lost income from not working. The on campus experience has features not available from online learning, but there are other ways of gaining this experience. Many students today are on campus and on their cell phones and pads anyway, interacting with other people and web material electronically rather than face to face. Universities, in order to compete for students, have turned the on campus experience into a country club-type ambiance with athletic facilities, social clubs, sports medicine clinics, restaurants, shops and services not directly related to traditional delivery of disciplinary learning.


Those who want this full monty educational experience will have to pay for it, and the Ivy League and Oxbridge experience will be less affected. Those more concerned with an education in a narrower sense will now be able to afford it with a credential which employers recognize. I know, the narrower experience is not what education is all about, but there are now more efficient ways to get a sound education in a cost efficient manner, plus the time and means to buy the other aspects (the country club trimmings) as well. At least, that is what Kevin Carey argues and it seems to make sense.


The tsunami-like technological changes which have hit the banking, movie, music, television, telecommunications, publishing (books, newspapers and less so magazines), retail and manufacturing industries is coming to education. Many instructors in schools and colleges are already embracing the technology in their teaching in traditional institutions. Classroom lectures are often available as power-point presentations, sometimes online before the live lecture. A student has the option of attending the live lecture but need not, and online discussion groups may also exist.


Off-campus learning started way back with correspondence courses, and in the 1960s with televised courses, the Open University in the UK, and today online courses. (Carleton University was one of the early providers of televised courses with tapes available for student use, but it never experimented with the technology to develop other options. I once attended a lecture where the course was given on a screen in a lecture room, darkened like a movie theatre. A student next to me watched for a few minutes, and unimpressed said she was going to the do her laundry. I have no idea whether she watched the tape later, but it forever reminded me to try to be interesting when lecturing, or as L.A.G.Strong, a literary critic wrote “Think of the reader not yourself. Make everything interesting. Write about everything – even linoleum.”)


This raises the current dispute involving part time or sessional lecturers who argue that their work load has increased without a commensurate increase in remuneration. If their contractual terms have been broken, or if they want to strike for better terms, the procedures are available to do so. Here I want to take note of the market for university instruction.


Teaching as a type of outsourcing

Outsourcing abroad and temporary foreign workers are two sides of the same coin. If the price is right, work will be sent from Canada a high wage country to a low wage country. If the work has to be performed in Canada, then foreign workers are brought to Canada. The latter occurs for agricultural workers especially at harvest time, for home helpers and in areas like Northern Alberta where there is or has been a resource boom. All use some temporary or part time workers. A form of this takes place in universities.

Opportunities occur for part-time workers in higher education where two types of teaching labour are employed. Tenure track employees receive detailed screening and are evaluated in their first years of employment before being granted tenure, a contract which provides a high degree of income security. Some may not receive tenure. A second type of worker are part-timers, sessional lecturers hired to teach a particular course or series of courses at a much lower salary. These are not expected to undertake administrative chores or research, and so they perform a different type of job.


Since at least the 1960s, classes in Canadian universities, especially at the first year level in the arts and social sciences, have been taught by sessional lecturers. Over time, their use has increased as student enrollment has risen in total and as a proportion of the 18 to 24 age group.


The economics of this process is straightforward. More students require more resources, teaching and other. This is paid for either by raising student fees or through taxation. There is no free ride and “water bed” economics applies – change in one area inevitably causes changes elsewhere. When a change occurs in one part of the educational market, say more students, increased resources are required to supply the demand. Full time faculty is the desired path but teaching can be provided at a lower cost with sessionals. The quality may not be the same but as Quebec students have shown, many are not prepared to pay higher fees. The quality of their education will suffer but this seems to be acceptable, at least at the moment.


Over time the number and share of courses given by part-time teachers has risen. What are the consequences? For the university, teaching cost increases are reduced. Flexibility is maintained by the nature of the sessional contract. Quality control of teaching can be managed for sessionals who are evaluated after each course by the students. Poor ratings result in teachers not being rehired. It is far more difficult to dismiss a tenured employee even with poor student course evaluations.


There are issues which arise with the use of student evaluations with students and their parents lobbying and expecting to get high grades, and faculty catering to these expectations. Research on this topic shows that there has been grade inflation not only in schools but in universities. Both full and part time university teachers are subject to these pressures. With online courses, the pressure for grade inflation should be reduced. Firms will want to show that the credentials they issue are seen as valuable and informative to employers.


At the high school level in Ontario, the proportion of graduates who are Ontario scholars has steadily increased since the late 1960s when province wide exams were abolished and now each school grades its own Grade 12 students. Those with an 80% graduating average has risen from 20% in the 1960s to 60% today. (I have discussed this in a Aug. 12, 2014 posting.) The Ontario government is reluctant to provide the time series data for this conclusion, but teachers and former students will confirm this.


Another aspect of the teaching market is that while university courses may be taught by teachers who may not have a tenure track position, some are taught by those who have a full-time job in another area, but want to do some teaching and are willing to accept the terms and lower university payments.


As suggested above, the future will likely see an increased delivery of online courses which will affect both the demand for regular university courses at particular institutions, and a reduced demand for faculty both full and part-time. Today’s dispute over sessional lecturers relates to conditions prevailing in the past not the future.


Kevin Carey notes that full time enrollment is increasing, as universities are still seen as the places where credentials are recognized by employers. It will take time for universities to incorporate online teaching and for other institutions to establish the value of their credentials. My guess is that the changes will come from the demand side as students (and their parents) discover ways to reduce educational costs and still get recognized credentials.


The Minerva Project

August 19, 2014

The Minerva Project described in the Atlantic Monthly (August 13th, 2014) signals ways in which higher education is evolving, resulting mainly from developments in communications technology. Institutional structures will change with implications for students, teachers, administrative staff and governments. Minerva is an accredited university in San Francisco and will shortly open six campuses outside the US.

1. The Atlantic article argues that the model of higher education and probably education in general is being hit with a wrecking ball, as the magazine cover depicts.  How the parts will be reassembled and how students of all ages (I include myself but am more interested in those born after 2000) will be affected is a subject for study. Similar changes have occurred in numerous areas including book, newspaper and magazine publishing, film, television, music and video production and distribution, banking and finance and shopping. How often do you now go to your bank, write a cheque or use a broker to make stock transactions? Post secondary education is the next institutional arrangement to be reformed with implications for students, teachers, administrators and governments.

2. Online learning as provided by MOOCs is one model in contrast with in class learning. All current teaching combines some combination of in class and online learning. The latter has a long heritage with correspondence courses and the Open University in the UK (I am sure there were models in other jurisdictions with which I am unfamiliar). These suppliers solved the problems of invigilating, marking exams and creating credentials which employers recognized. A large number of people often register for MOOCs, but a small percentage take the tests which result in some kind of credential. I am one of those who register. I do so out of interest in a subject and it’s free. Others register in order to search the available options before deciding which ones to take. Persons over 30 are more likely to seek a credential, suggesting that online learning is being used as a method of continuing education.

3. What Minerva does is to combine online and in class education in a novel way which creates for-pay education, students selected entirely on the basis of academic ability from around the world – no entitlements for certain groups, awarding of credentials (which will have to prove their worth as is the case with any new brand), and a requirement that faculty teach and conduct seminars and discussion groups in a particular way, not just how they choose. None of us who were in this game before had much if any experience in lecturing and conducting seminars, other than what we had been subject to. We mostly winged it with student evaluations providing some feedback. Today, social media provides often ruthless comments on instructors.

4. Minerva charges a fee of 28k dollars annually with some financial aid provisions. This is about half an Ivy League fee. If fees are considered an annual consumption expenditure then they are high, but if treated as an investment and a capital expenditure then they are similar to taking a mortgage to invest in home ownership or a loan to buy a car. The value of the educational investment will only be known in the future as will the ownership of a house and car. The latter depreciates with time and will become worth less unless it becomes valued as an antique. None of the cars I ever owned fell into the antique category. An education will also depreciate with time and is why the process of continuing education exists either within a firm or by taking external courses. Firms offer training seminars for their employees, while academics are expected to keep abreast of their discipline by reading and undertaking published research and presentations.

5. Would a Minerva type operation grant tenure, a form of long term contract which the institution but not the instructor find it difficult to annul? Not as long as it can hire and retain suitable lecturers. If this is not possible, then it will offer long term contracts and other benefits to retain high quality staff. Note that without a contract a staff member can be fired at any time. And if lecturers with long term contracts wants to leave early, it is probably a good idea to let them go as they may not be delivering the best teaching services thereby reflecting adversely on the institution.

6. My guess is that the Minerva format will be followed by for profit competitors who will try different formats for the delivery of higher education. Change is already evident and only those administrations which experiment and adapt will survive. I am willing to bet $100 that change will be clearly visible within three years – we can negotiate on who should be the judge of the outcome.
Sent from my iPad

What Future for Online Learning?

April 27, 2014

During the past year, I enrolled in a number of online courses including World History from 1300, The History and Future of Mainly Higher Education, Financial Markets and A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behaviour. These have helped to shape my views on the future of online learning, which, using current technology, is still in its early stages, although a form has previously existed. It is too early to know how it will turn out. The following are my impressions to-date about its future.


  • The beginnings of online learning occurred with correspondence courses, the Open University in the UK, and the publishing of textbooks.
  • Some who have delivered online courses see them as a substitute for text books. Students can watch the course in their own time, and attend classes conducted as discussion groups focused on the lecture content. Many lecturers already provide outlines of their lectures available as Power Point presentations, either before or after a live lecture.
  • Experimentation is taking place with various degrees of in-class and online lectures. Different disciplines and levels (undergraduate and graduate) lend themselves to different blends. The instructor and subject matter will make a difference to what does and does not work. Seminars and lab work require an in class presence.
  • Those who have given online courses say that the upfront (fixed) costs of producing the material are high. The cost of another student accessing the material (marginal cost) is negligible, and make these courses attractive to cash strapped institutions and those not wishing to raise fees. Fixed costs are likely to decline as experience is gained and software improved to facilitate presentations.
  • Those watching videos are used to the production values of first rate television programs such as Downton Abbey, a National Geographic Special or Jeopardy. Online lectures which do little more than put a camera in a classroom will be an ineffective teaching tool, regardless of the reputation of the instructor and the institution.
  • While the foregoing addresses mainly university teaching, online instruction is useful for education at all levels including schools, technical colleges, professional training and any skills which require updating as developments occur.
  • The issue of certification for online courses is always raised. For example, an online course given by a Yale professor may lead to a certificate if the student meets certain conditions. While it will not be equivalent to a Yale course credit (or degree), if the person receiving the credit gets a job, and after a probationary period appears to have the knowledge associated with the course content, the certificate will gain the recognition of having certain value which becomes known to employers. Experimentation is taking place to test different business models.
  • Richard Levin, an economist and President of Yale University for 20 years became the CEO of Coursera, one of the largest commercial companies offering MOOCs  (Massive Open Online Courses). Udacity and edX are two others, while the Kahn Academy offers course material for free. Universities and entrepreneurs are investing in these changes.
  • To-date, information technology (IT) has resulted in significant restructuring of industries, for example, television, film, newspaper, book and magazine publishing, (although less so for periodical publishing), finance, retail shopping, and manufacturing through the use of robots. As outlined above, IT is currently creating changes to the delivery of educational and training services. Quality content is now available worldwide wherever the internet and mobile phones are available. The current world population of 7bn is associated with 6.8bn mobile phones – eg. phones per 100 inhabitants by country, Italy 147, Brazil 137,Morocco 113, China 89, Canada 74, N.Korea 8.
  •  Cost implications for universities depend on the restructuring which occurs. Some universities offer only online courses, and thus save on buildings and salaries of support staff. Others offer a mix of online and on-campus courses, where there will be a mix of additional equipment to distribute online course material but savings on classrooms, offices, support staff and buildings. Ever since the introduction of portable computers, my observation is that faculty has spent less time in campus offices and more time working at home. Other industries no longer provide individual offices for their staff which use shared space. The same could occur in post-secondary institutions.
  •  Cost implications for students include more efficient use of their time, less travel time, easier to work at home and to collaborate with other students and faculty online. They can also mix study with work more easily.
  •  It is the case that taking courses online is not the same as getting the benefits of live interaction with other students and faculty, and use of the other facilities which a traditional university setting offers, such as a library, athletic facilities, clubs and cafeterias. In the same way that restaurants offer different facilities and menus, so post secondary institutions will offer different combinations of onsite and online facilities at different prices to the students and the taxpayers. The latter tend to fund a big chunk of university education in most countries.


The Second Machine Age – GDP and Jobs

April 10, 2014

In order to plan for economic and social change, it is useful to know what is happening in an economy. Various economic measures indicate current developments, GDP being a widely used overall measure of how national economies are changing. Employment levels and the skill structure of the economy, and those employed or unemployed are other statistics reported quarterly and annually. Others have proposed a measure of happiness.

The remainder of this posting deals with two topics, 1. The adequacy of GDP accounting to assess the state of an economy, and 2. How skill requirements are changing as a result of computers and communications technology, and what this may mean for those providing and receiving education.


  1. GDP

GDP was never designed as a measure of overall social welfare although, perhaps out of convenience or laziness, it is often used as a proxy for welfare. Its shortcomings are well known, recently discussed by Diane Coyle in GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History, (Princeton, 2014). To paraphrase Coyle’s preliminary comments on the limitations of GDP (p.35):

  • It measures paid for goods and service, excluding many unpaid services such as parents’ care of children, cooking at home and housework.
  • It includes “bads” such as the environmental costs of pollution.
  • It ignores improvements in the quality of new goods, especially when technology changes (for example from manual to electric typewriter to word processor).
  • It excludes many indicators of progress such as health, education, infant mortality and life expectancy.
  • The simple reporting of GDP per capita does not show the distribution of GDP between rich and poor.

Coyle surveys other indicators such as the Human Development Index, Gross National Happiness, and the output of a working group lead by Nobel winning economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz examining the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

In sum, there is ongoing research both to improve the measurement of GDP and to develop indicators which incorporate other aspects of social, political and economic welfare. Economic activities associated with the second machine age create some urgency for this work, as many information related activities generate free but valuable goods and especially services, and therefore underestimate a country’s GDP.

Downturns, such as followed the recent recession, may not be as bad in aggregate terms as reported. By April 2014, ninety-three percent of the labour forces in Canada and the USA were employed. But the downside is that at the same time the internet and communications have altered the skill structure of the labour force leading to un- and underemployment. We look at this in the next section.

  1. Skill requirements for employment 

Andrew McAfee, coauthor of Race Against Machines and The Second Machine Age predicts that rapid advancements in automation are eliminating more middle class jobs. The skill profile of the workforce will change from looking like a bowl, with lower skills at one end moving bowl-like to higher skills at the other, to a Tuna can with almost entirely low skilled jobs at one end and high skilled jobs at the other, and very little need for medium skilled (perhaps middle class) jobs. The hamburger flippers are at one end and computer scientists at the other. These skill changing forces are reflected in the rhetoric of politicians who try to win votes by pledging to save the middle class. which is adversely affected by the changes. Probably they cannot deliver.

These trends will likely accelerate. While Canada decries the loss of so-called good jobs in manufacturing to low wage countries, the same loss is happening in China. While initially the jobs moved from high to low wage countries, low cost automation is now replacing low wages.

John Carroll, co-author of The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups, states:

  • “Technology has improved so much, and will keep improving for the foreseeable future. Sensors are so cheap that you can build them into anything for almost no cost. Add a motor and you have a robot. Computing power costs essentially nothing, and everything can be controlled wirelessly these days, so it isn’t hard to imagine interesting things that the robots can do.”

If robots are going to substitute for people, then schools and post secondary institutions will have to adjust their course offerings and their means of delivery with more of it online. Students who want a liberal arts education will still be able to find one, but it may not lead to the desired type and level of paid employment. At the same time they will have the opportunity for lifelong learning, due to the availability of various combinations of online and in-class learning with some of the best instructors from around the world.   Indicative of this trend is the appointment of the former President of Princeton University to become the CEO of Coursera, one of the main commercial firms offering online courses.



Three of the current remarkable examples of computer robots are Google’s driverless car, the computer which beat a chess champion, and the one which won at Jeopardy by answering questions.

Following are some further references to the probable changing skill structure of the workforce, from the Conversible Economist posting for April 9, 2014. (

It reads as follows:

The current discussion is about robots that are mobile, able to receive a variety of commands, and with the capability to carry them out. For example, the March 29 issue of the Economist has a lengthy cover story on the “Rise of the Robots.” But I’ll focus here on Stuart W. Elliott’s article, “Anticipating a Luddite Revival,” which discusses how robots will affect the future of human work. It appears in the Spring 2014 edition of Issues in Science and Technology.  Elliott did a literature review of the robot capabilities that are cutting edge and now becoming feasible as discussed in AI Magazine and IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine from 2003 to 2012. Here, I’ll refer to his discussion of the more recent capabilities of robots in four areas: language capabilities, reasoning capabilities, vision capabilities, and movement capabilities.


Language capabilities. “[T]he tasks included screening medical articles for inclusion in a systematic research review, solving crossword puzzles with Web searches, answering Jeopardy questions with trick language cues across a large range of topics, answering questions from museum visitors, talking with people about directions and the weather, answering written questions with Web searches, following speech commands to locate and retrieve drinks and laundry in a room, and using Web site searches to find information to carry out a novel task.”


Reasoning capabilities. “[T]he tasks included screening medical articles for inclusion in a systematic research review, processing government forms related to immigration and marriage, solving crossword puzzles, playing Jeopardy, answering questions from museum visitors, analyzing geological landform data to determine age, talking with people about directions and the weather, answering questions with Web searches, driving a vehicle in traffic and on roads with unexpected obstacles, solving problems with directions that contain missing or erroneous information, and using Web sites to find information for carrying out novel tasks. One of the striking aspects of the reasoning systems was their ability to produce high levels of performance. For example, the systems were able to make insurance underwriting decisions about easy cases and provide guidance to underwriters about more difficult ones, produce novel hypotheses about growing crystals that were sufficiently promising to merit further investigation, substantially improved the ability of call center representatives to diagnose appliance problems, achieved scores on a chemistry exam comparable to the mean score of advanced high-school students, produced initial atomic models for proteins that substantially reduced the time needed for experts to develop refined models, substituted for medical researchers in screening articles for inclusion in a systematic research review, solved crossword puzzles at an expert level, played Jeopardy at an expert level, and analyzed geological landform data at an expert level.”

Vision capabilities. “[T]he tasks included recognizing chess pieces by location, rapidly identifying types of fish, recognizing the presence of nearby people, identifying the movements of other vehicles for an autonomous car, locating and grasping objects in a cluttered environment, moving around a cluttered environment without collisions, learning to play ball-and-cup, playing a game that involved building towers of blocks, navigating public streets and avoiding obstacles to collect trash, identifying people and locating drinks and laundry in an apartment, and using Web sites to find visual information for carrying out novel tasks such as making pancakes from a package mix.”

Movement capabilities. “[T]he tasks included moving chess pieces, driving a car in traffic, grasping objects in a cluttered environment, moving around a cluttered environment without collisions, learning to play ball-and-cup, playing a game that involved building towers of blocks, navigating public streets and avoiding obstacles to collect trash, retrieving and delivering drinks and laundry in an apartment, and using the Web to figure out how to make pancakes from a package mix.”

Some Economics of Online Learning

March 14, 2014

Who benefits and how much?

From a search of online learning, e-learning, distance education and MOOCs in text, audio and video formats, there is more material on the web than most people will have time to access. And more flows in daily. Journals on this topic include the Journal of Online Learning and Technology, the American Journal of Distance Education, the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, and the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, amongst others. Online learning is a rapidly growing field of interest, which can relate to traditional educational systems as well as to those training people for artistic, industrial and other types of activity.

The following looks at some of the costs and benefits of online learning with implications for how traditional university models may change. One aspect to keep in mind in any comparison of distance learning with on campus learning is to understand how they differ. If I watch the Wimbledon tennis championship on television, it is a markedly different experience from attending the championship live, where I can enjoy the matches, mix with the spectators, visit the bars and eat strawberries and cream. Or, if I buy a meal in a restaurant, it is not the same as staying in a hotel with all its facilities including eating in its restaurant. Contrasting these alternatives is a case of apples and oranges, which is also the case for online and on campus courses.

I start by focusing on the three main players of the educational system, the students, the faculty and the university.


Students are required to pay a fee for an online course if they wish to receive a certificate which states that they have completed the lectures, quizzes and written assignments. They may also have to grade the assignments of other students. As an option, a written text may be offered for purchase. Anyone not wishing to fulfill these requirements can access the lectures for no charge, although registration is required. Thus the reports show that several thousand people from around the world are often registered, but only about five to ten percent receive a certificate. Many, like myself, take them for free, out of interest and because of the convenience.

Aside from these direct costs which are low, students can access the material in their own time. They do not have to travel to the lectures or reside away from home or on campus. Convenience and time is acquired for other activities. The main costs for on campus students are fees, residence, if away from home, and foregone income from having full or part-time employment. All three items are reduced or eliminated for online students.

At the same time, some features of the on campus experience are missing, such as the interaction with students and faculty, and the use of athletic and other facilities offered on campus. Interaction with other students does take place online as witnessed by the popularity of social media, and athletic opportunities are often available elsewhere. Direct comparison of online and on campus courses is an apples and oranges situation. They are not the same. Each offers something different from the other.

Another online advantage is that students find it easy to interact at negligible cost with other students taking the same course. They can form discussion groups, create online forums and identify issues which they want to question or dont understand. They feel connected and not isolated. A number of professors emphasise that they have improved their courses by altering the format or material of their inclass as well as their online lectures as a result of listening to and accessing student forums.

Online connection to the internet is not free. It requires owning some form of hardware and paying for wired or wireless access. A printer may also be useful.


The fixed upfront costs of developing the material for delivery online is one of the main costs to the online lecturer. If the person is employed by a university then it is a university salary cost. If the course is delivered by a firm like Coursera, then it is a firm cost negotiated between the teacher and the firm. The Kahn Academy provides instruction online for free for tutoring a student.

These upfront costs can be high but are spread over the number of students taking the course in the current and future years. It is similar to the costs of producing a film where the cost per film are high but the cost per viewer depends on the number of people who watch the production. Since a lecture is a type of video performance, viewers are used to the values incorporated in TV productions. Just putting a camera in a classroom with a teacher is not enough to hold an audience. My admittedly limited viewing has seen cheap unappealing productions from distinguished academics, and those with outstanding production values from lesser known people. Software such as Desire2learn is available to help format lectures.

Duke University Professor Cathy Davison, the instructor of a recent MOOC, which I accessed, writes “We spent an estimated 40 hours a week from May 2013 through January 2014 working on the MOOC — and that’s before the course even begins. The investment in time makes sense for me, since I am passionately interested in innovation in higher education, and (meta again) I wanted to learn about making a MOOC inside and out”. 

The posting from which this quotation is taken is worth reading as one view of the costs and related issues

In Canada, the University of Waterloo is at the forefront of developments. Professor Katherine Acheson in the Department of English has commented as follows:

“The situation with the development of online courses is different now, overall, than it was when the University of Waterloo started its distance education program. Online courses no longer necessarily imitate in-class courses. They are developed using technologies that offer affordances that classrooms can’t. Group work is enabled, potential for content is expanded, contact with the instructor and with other students can be richer. (There are down sides too.) At this point I am not sure that we have enough experience with this model (both the costs and the quality) to come to conclusions. 

But it is apparent that building the infrastructure and cultivating the talent to use the new technology well can be costly. It’s unbelievable to me the amount of admin, space, time, expertise etc. required to produce courses that are really cutting edge. And all online courses are delivered through a Content Management System (we use Desire2Learn) — also used as adjunct to in-class courses. It is expensive and extremely frustrating as it does not always work.”


Costs are incurred in developing the courses, arranging their delivery, both of which involve capital as well as operating costs. It would be interesting to know whether the development costs are treated as capital or operating costs. Athabasca University in Alberta is primarily an online university. Contrasting its financial statements with that of an online university would be one way of making a comparison. While universities publish statements which are available online, comparisons might be difficult, since almost all universities offer some online courses in conjunction with on campus courses, and on campus courses may involve some online features.

A personal note — as far back as 1990, I gave up having regular office hours. Instead I was available by email to interact with students and if desired would arrange an in person meeting at our mutual convenience. It worked more efficiently for both student and teacher, and many issues could be resolved by email. Other faculty did the same. In fact a visit to faculty offices in many departments today finds them unoccupied, as faculty work at home and attend the university mainly for teaching and administrative duties such as committee meetings. Many non-academic businesses no longer offer individual offices but provide shared space which can be used when needed. A university could save on building costs by reducing the number of offices in many faculties. Online teaching should reduce the need for more buildings and may allow existing buildings to be rented out to other users.

Credentials for online courses

March 12, 2014

Do I get a credit?

The short answer is no, because I am not looking for one.  At my age I enroll in online courses out of interest and for free. I dont write the assignments, answer the quizes or fulfill the requirements that will earn a certificate. This is not the case for students looking for a degree qualification and a job.

 Following are a few facts published by the Babson Survey Research Group:

  1. In 2013, of the 21.3 million students enrolled in higher education in the US, one-third is enrolled online.
  2. Since 2003, annual growth in online enrollment has varied between 35% and 5%, higher in the earlier period when it was starting.
  3. Sixty-six percent of university chief administrative officers think that online education is critical to the long term strategy of the institution.

Another number frequently quoted is that only four to ten percent of those who enroll in online courses actually complete them, presumably meaning that they get some type of certificate. Many like myself take them out of interest and because it costs nothing to enroll.

What is a university degree ?

It represents certification by the university that the person has completed a particular course of study, and is recognized as such by potential employers. Universities are given the right by governments to issue degrees and diplomas. The value of the degree (or course) varies with subject matter (medicine, law, engineering, arts, social science), as well as with the reputation of the institution granting the degree. Thus a graduate in history, engineering or business from Oxford, Stanford or the Sorbonne may receive an intial salary higher than that of graduates from state and local universities in their respective countries. The market is responsible for this outcome and there is nothing surprising about that.

What happens when a person receives a certificate as a result of taking a MOOC? It depends in part on who is offering the instruction. (The term was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and now with the National Research Council of Canada.) In the US, three of the firms offering MOOCs are Coursera, Udacity and edX. Each business was started mostly by academics going into business and then arranging for courses to be offered online. There is no one format for how the courses are priced and staffed, but the firms try to make them equivalent to a university course so that they are attractive to students. Others are entering the field and there are many varieties of the online experience. The Kahn Academy offers a different type of instruction for free.

The question is whether a certificate issued by a private firm, received as a result of someone taking an online course given by a PrincetonUniversity professor, for example, is the same as a similar course taken by someone enrolled at Princeton. The answer is no, but the online course does have value as a certificate of accomplishment. An employer will treat the MOOC certificate as a screening device, and may take the person on as an employee on a probationary basis to find out what knowedge the person has. Over time, firms, instructors and online courses will gain reputations (good or bad) for their worth and be rewarded accordingly by employers. 

The MOOC certificate will probably remain valued less in the labour market than the equivalent university course, but the former’s value over time will depend on the experience of employers. In the meantime employment contracts are sufficiently flexible to allow testing to occur, giving opportunities for employees to showcase their skills however acquired. Students will benefit if their costs of education are reduced, a topic for a future posting.


Will Online Learning Replace Inclass Learning?

March 11, 2014

What future for education?

The fact that this is being written on a website suggests that some form of online learning already exists. A web search of this topic provides an ocean of postings with conclusions all over the map. Online learning works; it doesn’t work; it works in some cases, and so on. Because we are in the early decades of the internet age, when developments in communications and information technology are changing how many things are done, it is not surprising that the future is unclear. People are trying to navigate through mists to determine how education, medicine, travel, privacy, crime, government, broadcasting, publishing and many other social, political and industrial activities are being and will be affected.

My interest is to understand how these developments will affect my grandchilren and their parents, by drawing on what little I have learned over the past 80 years, 40 of which were spent in university teaching and research, plus a number of years before that as a student in schools and universities.

One starting point for considering the future of higher education is to decompose the university as an organisation into three parts, staff, students and facilities.

Staff — consists of the academic staff undertaking teaching and research, the support staff and administration.

Students — include full and partime students, on and off-campus students, online, out of town and by correspondence, and former students.

Facilities — include land, buildings (classrooms, offices, residences), equipment (vehicles, laboratories, computers), athletic, medical and other.

This is a bare bones description of a university as an organisation and in some ways similar to a conglomerate firm, because of the range of activities undertaken. Consider these and the associated facilities. They may include student residences, athletic facilities, restaurants and cafeterias, book, computer and other stores, a post office, medical and nursing facilities, banks and cash machines, parking and security services.

Like firms, universities compete with each other and look for a wide variety of revenue streams to meet their costs. Like firms, universities have to negotiate with unions and faculty associations. Another way of looking at a university is to see it as a community neighbourhood, village or suburb.

The complexity of the administration is something I did not appreciate when I was a faculty member, and even when I held a minor administrative position. As a student it never crossed my mind. 

Similar to a conglomerate, a university has certain activities which are essential such as teaching and research, while others are useful or convenient to have but less essential. The business models include full service universities and others offering less services. When I attended the London School of Economics in the centre of London, it consisted of classrooms, library, computer facilities, squash courts, cafeteria, pub, bar, admimistrative offices and washrooms. Other facilities such as residences, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, theatres, book and other stores, parking, and tennis courts were available nearby but not owned by the university. Costs for a university will vary with the services offered, while revenue streams come from fees, rent, research and government grants, donations from alumni, and from various services, such as parking.

Common to many universities is the under utlisation of the facilities, both daily and year round. This has changed as some courses are offered in the evening and year round, such as summer courses, both on campus and online off campus. This is where online teaching can further change the economics of universities.

On and off campus courses

Discussion of online learning often focuses on Multiple Open Online Courses or MOOCS, offered by commercial enterprises in conjunction with university and other academics. A more useful distinction for present purposes is to contrast on campus with off campus delivery of courses.

Earlier versions of off campus delivery were correspondence courses where students were mailed material, listened by radio or view by television, and then wrote proctored examinations near where they lived. E-learning, a general term which includes off campus courses began in 1960 at the University of Illinois and Stanford University. In 1969, the Open University opened in the UK and continues to the present, while in Canada the University of Guelph was an early entrant in the field. MIT was another pioneer.

“ MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to put all of the educational materials from its undergraduate– and graduate-level courses online, partly free and openly available to anyone, anywhere. MIT OpenCourseWare is a large-scale, web-based publication of MIT course materials. The project was announced in October 2002 and uses Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.” (Source: Wikipedia).

Today, university offerings range from one hundred percent on campus to one hundred percent off campus delivery of courses as well as blends of the two using various combinations of hardware and software. This is the likely future direction which delivery will take.

Consider some alternatives using the internet. Video lectures are delivered online. Forums are set up for students from around the world to discuss with each other and with the instructor the material presented in the lectures. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are used to create a community of those participating in the online lecture. Assignments are set and marked by fellow students online with some direction from the instructor.

Contrast this with the past where lectures were “the sage from the stage” variety on campus. Students were given a reading list, encouraged to read ahead of the lecture and perhaps could ask questions, if time permitted in large undergraduate classes. Discussion groups might be held on campus lead by teaching assistants with often few students attending. One possible blended course format would be for students to watch an online lecture from a first rate professor, and then attend on campus classes where discussion of the lecture would take place. Such blended possibilities are numerous and are already occurring on a formal and informal basis.


The question posed in the title of this posting remains unanswered, because it depends on two other sets of factors, how credentials for off campus learning are established and recognised, and the likely economic implications for students, faculty and universities. These will be discussed in subsequent postings.