Disrupting Class: Technology & Timeframes in Education

Earlier, I was reading Ricardo and wondering whether technology will remove the 'rent' associated with well-known place-based colleges and expand the access to accommodate the teeming masses that are knocking on the door. I did not think I was arguing against good education: I was arguing against the elitism in education, which in turn allows the formation of education ghettos in sub par community colleges and training institutes.

My thoughts have moved forward, in line with my reading about Alfred Marshall's life and work, and I have started wondering about another impact that technology may have on education, by altering the time frames we are used with. Yes, I typically thought education is 'long run', and advised so to the wannabe education entrepreneurs. However, my usage of the terms, 'short run' and 'long run', was more in line with popular use, than the meanings ascribed to them by the economist who first used them; Marshall, indeed.

Marshall's short run and long run concepts were not just a short time and a long time, but had proper economic meaning ascribed to it. He thought of short run in terms of the time frame required to vary the 'variable factors' of production, like hiring more labour. His 'long run' was the time one requires to vary the 'fixed factors', like land and machinery. He indeed thought this varies from industry to industry.

Consider education for a moment in this light. Short run in education is the time we require to expand (or shrink) variable factors, like the number of lecturers and administrators. The long run is the time we require to vary the 'plant and machinery', not just rooms and air-conditioners, but also curriculum and material and everything else that requires more time and preparation.

Now, thinking from this angle, I can see two problems with my earlier thinking. First, it is wrong to think that there is no short run in education. Short run is a technical term employed by economists, and not to be confused with the 'royal road' in Aristotle's dictum. There is always a short run in every industry, even if short run means a few years in some of them. Second, the time frames for short run and long run in every industry is shrinking because of technology. Since long run isn't a fixed time as one would like to think, but a technically defined time horizon, it is indeed variable.

In my experiences with the universities, in India and in the UK, I think these points are often missed out. The academic world seems to move with its own invariable timescales, which is oblivious of technology and everything else around them. There needs to be exam boards where the members of the faculty must meet physically, and hence it needs to be on an appointed day when all members need to be geographically present, regardless of the increasingly global nature of academic work and prevalence of conference technologies at every level of modern day work and life. Meeting of such kind on Skype or Webex will surely be sacrilege. I have picked a particular example, but such rigid time frame thinking prevails at every level of university work.

I was recently confronted by a pretty recently formulated rule that a student can not be granted a post-graduate degree within one year of their registration with the university: While one can argue that the student is supposed to do an one year long course, time tabled, to earn a post-graduate degree, one can clearly see that this rule is a still-born when this is being applied to a completely online programme.

It surely helps to read Marshall and understand his concepts of economic time. One should remember Marshall was a gradualist, deeply influenced by Darwin and who started his famed Principles of Economics with the Latin quote 'Natura non facit saltum', 'nature makes no sudden leaps'. But keeping in mind the Darwinian principles, whereas a thousand years makes not much of a difference (which would surely suit some of the university professors), a short lifetime of a single mutant may determine the future of a species. In education, whereas the concept of short and long runs may vary in time from the popular perception, it still remains a dynamic concept and may just be reaching the tipping point of the mutant species.


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