Why in-person education isn’t dead yet…but a statistician could finish it off


A growing tend in education is to put lectures online, for free. The Kahn Academy, Stanford’s recent AI course, and Gary King’s new quantitative government course at Harvard are three of the more prominent examples. This new pedagogical format is more democratic, free, and helps people learn at their own pace. It has led some, including us here at Simply Statistics, to suggest that the future of graduate education lies in online courses. Or to forecast the end of in-class lectures

All this excitement led John Cook to ask, “What do colleges sell?”. The answers he suggested were: (1) real credentials, like a degree, (2) motivation to ensure you did the work, and (3) feedback to tell you how you are doing. As John suggests, online lectures really only target motivated and self-starting learners. For graduate students, this may work (maybe), but for the vast majority of undergrads or high-school students, self-guided learning won’t work due to a lack of motivation. 

I would suggest that until the feedback, assessment,and credentialing problems have been solved, online lectures are still more edu-tainment than education. 

Of these problems, I think we are closest to solving the feedback problem with online quizes and tests to go with online lectures. What we haven’t solved are assessment and credentialing. The reason is there is no good system for verifying a person taking a quiz/test online is who they say they are. This issue has two consequences: (1) it is difficult to require that a person do online quizes/tests like we do with in-class quizes/tests and (2) it is difficult to believe credentials given to people who take courses online. 

What does this have to do with statistics? Well, what we need is an Completely Automated Online Test for Student Identity (COATSI). People will notice a similarity between my acronym and the acronym for CAPTCHAs, the simple online Turing tests used to prove that you are a human and not a computer. 

The properties of a COATSI need to be:

  1. Completely automated
  2. Provide tests that verify the identity of the student being assessed
  3. Can be used throughout an online quiz/test/assessment
  4. Are simple and easy to solve

I can’t think of a deterministic system that can be used for this purpose. My suspicion is that a COATSI will need to be statistical. For example, one idea is to have people sign in with Facebook, then at random intervals while they are solving problems, they have to identify their friends by name. If they do this quickly/consistently enough, they are verified as the person taking the test. 

I don’t have a good solution to this problem yet; I’d love to hear more suggestions. I also think this seems like a potentially hugely important and very challenging problem for a motivated grad student or postdoc….