Friday, June 21, 2013

The New Geography of Jobs, and Online Education

I am currently making my way through the book The New Geography of Jobs which was published in 2012 by Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti.  I am halfway through and I have already gotten my money's worth.  This book should be required reading for anyone interested in cities and the innovation economy.  It is also particularly interesting for those of us who live in the Bay Area / Silicon Valley, as much of the book focuses on this region (for what should be obvious reasons).

Perhaps when I am finished with the book I will write a review on it here, but for now I just wanted to post one quote from the book, because it relates closely to a conversation many of us at SJSU are having about the future of higher education, and in particular on the role of online education in universities.  In discussing the importance of face-to-face contact leading to industrial clusters (where firms in the same industry want to locate near one another, like in Silicon Valley), Moretti writes:
Geographical distance seems to impede the flow of ideas even within the boundaries of a firm.  This alone should discourage companies from outsourcing any part of the innovation phase to low-cost countries.  Take the high-tech company Cadence, with about two thousand employees in San Jose, one thousand workers in India, and another thousand scattered around the world.  An Indian software engineer at level T4 makes about a third of what a similarly qualified software engineer in San Jose makes.  When I asked Cadence's executive senior vice president, Nimish Modi, why the company does not move more R&D to India, given the potential savings, he told me that proximity and personal interaction matter to the creativity of its engineers.  "We have sophisticated videoconferencing facilities, and we use them all the time to communicate with India.  But it is not the same as face-to-face interaction.  Nothing replaces a group of engineers sitting together and arguing in front of the whiteboard," he said.
Relating this to the conversation about online education, one of my SJSU colleagues, Dan Williamson, who is a Lecturer in our Philosophy department, in response to what he perceives as the misguided preference by some for online education, remarked:
If online is the preferable medium, then why do so many of the large corporations have such large facilities here?  They even ironically call them "campuses." Their answer might be revealing.  Perhaps they need face to face engagement!

His comment made me think of Moretti's book, which addresses this point exactly.

My own feeling is that we should certainly be willing to embrace online education to some degree.  At the same time, we should not have illusions that online education is a magic bullet for the education crises in our country (which incidentally is addressed at length by Moretti).  In short, the answer to the question, What is the proper role for online education in the university? -- is that it is a question of balance.

I have more to say about all of these topics and I will write more posts on them in the weeks ahead.