Monday, May 15, 2006

Outsourcing Education

A former student calls my attention to an article in today's Washington Post, which reports how American students are importing educational services:
Thousands of U.S. students such as Del Monte are increasingly relying on overseas tutors to boost their grades and SAT scores. The tutors, who communicate with students over the Internet, are inexpensive and available around the clock, making education the newest industry to be outsourced to other countries....
The response of domestic producers to foreign competition is predictable:
"We don't believe that education should become a business of outsourcing," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers.
My views on outsourcing are well known, and the economic issues in education are largely the same as in other industries. But the phenomenon raises an interesting question: What is the pedagogical value of face-to-face interaction?

Long before the internet allowed the possibility of overseas tutors, we could have replaced live lectures with videos of previously taped lectures. In very large courses, the opportunity for spontaneous give-and-take in lectures is often limited and sometimes nonexistent. But we still expect professors to give live lectures every year. Why? Couldn't we save the students a lot of tuition dollars by employing fewer professors and offering videos instead?

To take the argument one step further, why expect the professors to perform on the videos? Maybe my job as a professor should be like that of a playwright: I would write the lecture and an actor with better performance skills would give it. My college roommate, Richard Greenberg, is now a well-known playwright. As far as I know, Rich has never performed in his own plays. In the drama industry, as in Adam Smith's pin factory, there is division of labor, in this case between writing and performing. Why is the same not true in the education industry?

Of course, in the market equilibrium we observe, professors both write and give their lectures, and videos have not replaced live performance. The fact that old production methods persist in the face of alternatives suggests that there is good reason why. Higher education is, after all, a competitive market, so we would expect better products to drive out inferior ones.

Apparently, there is something extremely valuable, which I can't quite put my finger on, about live face-to-face interaction between teacher and student, even in large courses. The high value of face-to-face interaction suggests that outsourcing education, while workable in some situations, is likely to be limited.

But maybe I am wrong and will soon need to find another line of work.