The rise of online learning raises questions about the price we put on education

Bang for the buck.
Bang for the buck.
Image: REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
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“If a regular book is worth HK$100 (Rs978), how much would you pay for the equivalent e-book?” I ask undergraduates and MBA students this question in my introductory marketing classes at the beginning of the session on pricing.

Responses usually settle at around HK$20, an imputed value that is 80% lower. A little probing reveals that the underlying reasons mostly relate to manufacturing, transport, and storage costs.

I then ask whether they would prefer a regular book or an e-book, and why. Most students usually prefer e-books, because of convenience, ease of storage, and sustainability.

I then ask, “If an e-book offers all these different advantages, why are you only willing to pay a fraction of the price?” They realise that their price quotes were anchored not in the core value of the book and its content, but on peripheral benefits—the bells and whistles.

Students who prefer hardcopy books also realise that their stated reasons—the heft of a volume, the feel and smell of the pages—also relate to bells and whistles. No one really knows how they value the essence of the book.

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused educational institutions worldwide to go online, and the current debate about the value of online education is analogous. Just as an e-book must be cheaper than a regular book, some people feel that an online class must be cheaper. Others feel that online education is inadequate because of decreased human interaction.

However, for every such comment, I have heard its opposite and more. Indeed, many students have reported that they are interacting more in class than ever before.

Not only is it easier for a hesitant student to communicate using text, they now see professors up close and personal rather than at a distance of 20 metres and over the backs of multiple heads, and this is a generation that likes communicating through screens.

Happily, over these past three months, I have also witnessed several colleagues move from “that was better than I had feared,” in February, to “I am really enjoying this,” of late.

Nevertheless, while I have been awed by the recent outpouring of cooperation and mutual support among educators worldwide, the jury is out on the relative effectiveness of online classes, done properly.

When the dust settles, we need to preserve what is good about the online format, recognising that the traditional mode of classroom instruction and closed-book exams was designed more for efficiency and crowd-control than for pedagogical effectiveness.

These comparisons miss the deeper point. Pricing is inherently a strange process. It relies on the concept of money, which in turn relies on the notion of utility, neither of which maps reliably onto any human fundamentals.

Behavioural scientists Dan Ariely, George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec demonstrated that when reference prices are not available, people “construct” prices that seem appropriate based on other available information. Then, given those prices, they make inferences about value, a phenomenon they called “coherent arbitrariness.”

We can ask a similar question about education. A two-year degree should cost more than a one-year degree, but why do people need an education at all? What is the core value here? Recently, on a Friday evening Zoom hangout with friends, I mooted the idea of abolishing grades entirely.

After the initial stammered responses, someone said that would be impossible because grades are a service that universities provide to society. That made me wonder—is that the point of a university? Does society really need grades as a service? What is the cost of this service, in terms of stress, incentivised dishonesty, and counterproductive distraction from the essence of education?

The question of core value is important for individuals who choose to go to university because someone who buys an e-book on sale, or enjoys a take-home dinner at a 20% pandemic discount, has no reputational investment in that book or that dinner. In contrast, the university you choose brands you for life.

I am a university professor, but my identity is indelibly stamped by my alma maters, not my employer. I will remain a graduate of those institutions for life and the fact that they attract and graduate excellent students has a continuing positive effect on the value of my past education. If they were to discount themselves into retrenchment and oblivion, I would suffer.

There is a deeper implication for society as well. In an age of design thinking and wicked problems (problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of the many interconnected factors involved), education is not so much a certification of knowledge acquired as a journey of self-discovery with an appreciation of how to keep evolving. In today’s context, EQ (emotional quotient) is as important as IQ (intelligence quotient), if not more so.

Modern societies are built on opinion, and, whether it be differences on when to reopen bars or borders or any other issues of social and political import, the key questions are: do we know how to engage constructively with those who differ, and do we know when and how to update our opinions based on emergent facts?

Education—be it in appreciating literature, the beauty of the natural world, or the trajectory of an MBA case discussion—teaches us to open, reassess, and change our minds. There can be no discourse, and no social progress, unless people know how to change their minds.

In this time of deep financial stress, it is critical for universities and governments to offer financial aid on a needs basis. Compared to their North American counterparts, universities in Hong Kong have a safety net because they are largely funded by the government. They do not have to balance their books on bloated athletics programmes, and by farming out fundamental activities to low-paid adjuncts.

However, cutting the price of education signals a possibly irreversible discounting of its value—a process that has already begun. As a society, we must push our universities to teach our children how to change their minds. For, in the final analysis, the education we get is the education we pay for.

This post first appeared on South China Morning Post. We welcome your comments at