What if you could go back in time to high school? Oh, it sounds like so much fun and that’s why there are so many movies made about it. Why I just rented “Back to the Future” last week.
Now, let’s tweak this a bit and ask, “What if you could go back to high school and take pre-calculus?” Ah, that’s a bit different. It’s just not the same. No one is rushing to make a movie called “Back to Pre-Calculus”.
This brings me to Nanette Asimov’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the rapidly cratering on-line education program at the University of California. The geniuses looked at their wildly successful Berkeley theme park and thought, “Let’s just bottle this up and sell it online for $1400 to $2400.” And who showed up? Just one person. They spent $4.3 million on marketing and one sucker took the bait and signed up for pre-calculus.
Now this wasn’t just any pre-calculus either. It wasn’t one of the bazillion low-cost pre-calculus courses available for just $99 or less from low rent education web sites. This wasn’t home-schooler pre-calculus given away by some mom in Iowa. Eeewwww. No. This was fancy U. Cal. calculus. For the $1400 you got the chance to buy a Berkeley t-shirt and root for Berkeley to beat Stanford and win that axe. (“Go Cal!”)
But wait, there’s more. If you put down your $1400, you also get “4 credits.” You know what “credits” are? Why in some sci-fi novels, the characters are always buying rides to Alderaan or Chluthu for 4 credits. And they’ve got just as much value today.
What lessons can we take from this debacle?
- No one wants to learn pre-calculus except for a few geeks who lapped it up when it was given away for free in high school. Even they might not pay for it.
- No one wants to pay $1400 for some YouTube-grade videos especially when YouTube is giving them away for free.
- No one wants credits unless they’re traveling to Alderaan or Chluthu.
- The value of “interacting” with the professor is highly overrated, especially by the professors and such at U. Cal. marketing these things.
And what’s the biggest lesson? Clearly the Berkeley theme park is selling something besides the information because the information is worthless. So maybe it’s the sunshine. Maybe it’s the football games. Maybe it’s the frat houses. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a scarce good that only a few people have? Maybe it’s the fact that only the so-called smartest are chosen.
Whatever it is, it’s not the information in the pre-calculus class.
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