Sunday, December 22, 2013

Technology, academia and the division of labor

     Over the last several years the impact that technology will have on higher education has become a topic of great interest to educators, policy makers, students and parents. In the December 2013 issue of The Freeman, Mr. Michael Gibson and Dr. Peter Boettke debate the future of higher education and the role technology will play. Mr. Gibson believes that technology will fundamentally transform higher education while Dr. Boettke argues that higher education will continue as it always has with relatively few changes. I agree more with Mr. Gibson than Dr. Boettke and I think that one potential outcome is that technology will allow for a division of labor that has been absent from academia. The researcher who teaches, which is the accurate job description of professors at large research institutions today, may finally be divided into the researcher and the teacher.

           As a current graduate student and instructor it is obvious to me that there are different comparative advantages among newly minted PhD’s and professors.  Like being a good player versus being a good coach, the skill sets of researches and teachers do not necessarily overlap. In the current academic climate nontenured professors are told that teaching matters. But the dirty-little-not-so-secret truth, especially at research universities, is that the strength of your research record determines your ability to obtain tenure. Being a good teacher doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t help much either. This begs the question; why do some professors have to teach at all?

           In a world of scarce resources academic departments have a finite amount of funds to hire a staff. Thus many of the professors who add more value doing research are required to teach at least some classes even if their time would be better spent doing only research. To ensure that the best research professors spend the least amount of time teaching as possible many universities use cheaper graduate students, lecturers, and adjunct professors to teach as well. But technology may allow universities to take this a step further. If education technology keeps improving and the student experience along with it, it is feasible that professors could someday be divided into teaching specialists and research specialists.

Teaching specialists would be full time professors, but instead of focusing on research they would focus on teaching. Today, many universities simply do not value teaching enough to pay a premium for relatively good teachers in the same way that they will pay a premium for relatively good researchers. However, if technology gains made the best teachers more productive universities would be willing to pay for this increased productivity. Each of these teaching specialists could utilize technology and capital to teach hundreds or perhaps even thousands of students, eliminating the need for professors who have an advantage in research to teach classes. The best teachers, those who are able to adapt and take advantage of the economies of scale that technology provides, would experience gains in income even if teaching is all they did. As higher paid professional teachers they would also be more likely than adjuncts or lecturers to remain at one university for long periods of time. This would allow them to build relationships with students in ways that shorter stints prohibit.

Teaching specialists would also lead to more classroom innovation. Many professors do not want to take the time to invent or experiment with new teaching techniques. This is understandable since teaching is only a small part of their job. Keeping up with the latest literature and research techniques of their respective fields is far more important for their career than keeping up with the latest teaching techniques. But is that a good thing? Should universities value improvement in research but expect parents and students to accept, and pay for, mediocrity in teaching? I agree with Dr. Boettke that the peer to peer and teacher to student interaction found on college campuses is important; but it is not priceless.  If the student experience at universities does not keep up with the improving student experience of online and virtual classes, brick and mortar institutions will find it difficult to charge the premium that they are currently charging. Having a portion of the full time faulty focused on maximizing the student experience in the classroom could be an ace up the sleeve for universities.

I admit that specialization might not be the answer to everything and experimentation will be required to find the right balance. Teaching specialists would improve undergraduate education, but second, third and in some cases fourth year graduate students will need to be taught by professors who are on the cutting edge of their field. Teaching specialists will likely not have the time to maintain that high level of expertise. But I see no reason why a competent PhD holder cannot instruct first year graduate students in many fields. Most of the literature used in first and second year economics courses is at least several years old and often much older. A thorough understanding of this material is well within the reach of teaching specialists who have obtained a PhD, and they will likely teach it better since they will be experts at teaching instead of researchers who teach. I think that teaching specialists would be capable of being educators for undergraduates, masters, and early PhD students.

Economists since Adam Smith have praised the benefits that the division of labor has produced. As a serious student of economics I think it is time that academia realized these benefits. The overlap of teacher and researcher is cumbersome and when compared to other industries it seems anachronistic. I cannot think of any other industry today that so crucially relies on one type of worker to produce such two distinct outputs.  Technology may be just the thing that finally breaks up this marriage of convenience and allows individuals to focus on what they do best. I think the result will be better universities for both faculty, and most importantly, students.

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