Being Disrupted


That’s all it costs a student to test out of my Principles of Microeconomics course.

So, knowing that my university is one of many universities that accepts the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) test credit for Principles of Microeconomics, why would a student invest a lot more money to take Principles from me?

Everything students need to teach themselves is out there (for free).

They can find the syllabi of the best economists in the world on-line. And, if they look hard enough, they can find the required textbook and chapter outlines for free. They can complement their reading of the chapters with YouTube lectures that give in-depth explanations of economic concepts with animation, graphics, and music. They can go to Freakonomics Radio to find inspiring applications of these very same economic concepts. When it comes to assessing their progress, they can find tests and answer keys on-line. And, if upon grading their self-administered exams, they find that they need help understanding why they missed a particular problem, they can hire a tutor (a graduate student in Economics looking to earn a couple extra bucks).

So, why pay to take Principles with me in a classroom with other students?

Maybe they are someone who learns best by learning with others. If that’s the case, they could organize some of their friends or even strangers to co-design the class together, follow a similar pace together and work on problems and take exams together. These other people do not need to be physically near them. They could zoom them in from all over. So, instead of being randomly sorted with a group of humans with varying level of dedication, enthusiasm and talent, imagine taking a class with a group of people who want to be there just like you do. Instead of being in a room full of people who are there because they think they have to be there or their parents think or society thinks that they have to be there, they are there because they want to be there. That’s worth imagining because the mix of students has a significant impact on the learning environment. Being surrounded by people who are unmotivated is unmotivating. Seriously, how many of us have had the unfortunate experience of trying to learn in a dysfunctional classroom? It is not easy. Moreover, imagine taking a class in a physical environment of your own choosing. You don’t have to be in a room that is poorly designed with other people eating smelly food or wearing heavy perfumes. You have control over the ambient temperature. You could have your dog (or cat, I guess) by your side. There’s no fear of being sorted into group-work with a group full of slackers. Imagine taking a class with a group of people of similar academic caliber and similar learning styles. There would be no need to slow down the class to accommodate those who are struggling. Indeed, you get to control how challenging they want the course to be. It just has to be challenging enough to pass the CLEP test.

So, what is my value added?

Well, doing what I have proposed above is a lot of work and many students will not be willing to do it. Moreover, many will not have the discipline to complete their own course. So, in part, I get paid to do build the course and hold them accountable. However, I can imagine an entrepreneur coming along and doing both of these things for them for a fee that undercuts me. Now, I do more than just those two things. But, is that more worth it?

Am I worth it?

Back in 2002, when I started my career, there was no need to ask this question. Yes, I was worth it. CLEP was around back then (it’s been around for years). However, back then, there were few if any low-cost, easily accessible alternatives to taking a class from me. Students had to take the class from me. That is no longer true. And, on the horizon there’s virtual reality and artificial intelligence and the ability to learn Economics from an avatar of Adam Smith. Imagine learning economics from Adam Smith!

I am being disrupted.

At least in teaching Principles I am.

However, why would I assume that this disruption is going to end with Principles? Why not Intermediate Microeconomics? Why not Introduction to Game Theory?

The only barrier holding back this inevitable process of disruption is my university’s unwillingness to accept CLEP test credit for higher-level courses.

How long will that barrier hold?

Who knows?

So, once again, I’m left asking, am I worth it?

I need an answer.

I need it soon.

And, I’m not the only one.

All of my colleagues in higher education need one too.

This is scary.

It does not feel good.

However, higher education’s disruption is long overdue. And, may I add just one more thing…For years I’ve watched many of my colleagues in higher education (and not just my colleagues in Economics) extol the benefits of unfettered free trade, outsourcing, technological innovations and the transition to a green economy without showing too much (if any) concern for those feeling the real-world pain of being disrupted. Indeed, I’ve watched many of my colleagues decry with head-shaking frustration the so-called backward-looking reluctance of communities to embrace their disruption (especially, the green economy). Well, now, we’re the ones being disrupted. And, let me tell you, it is anxiety inducing. So, who knows, maybe now, after feeling the feels of being disrupted, some of my colleagues will develop a bit of empathy for those who have been living the life of disruption for years. Who knows, maybe they’ll develop the humility to turn to these very same people (who for the most part come from backgrounds and beginnings very unlike their own) and seek advice on how best to navigate a life that’s being disrupted?

Who knows?

But, there’s an opportunity here for some bridge-building.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash