SAN CARLOS, Calif. — Early in his career, Paul Romer helped solve one of the great puzzles of economics: What makes some economies grow faster than others? His "new growth theory" might one day earn him a Nobel Prize.
Then a decade ago, Romer, by then a professor at Stanford University, decided to tackle what may be an even tougher puzzle: Why were so many of his students coming to class unprepared and disengaged?
Romer's quest began with the proposition that the more time students put into their studies, the more they learn. It took some noodling around, but two years later, Romer raised $10 million in venture capital to start a software company he called Aplia. The idea was to develop interactive exercises that students could do in conjunction with the most widely used college economics textbooks. Students would answer questions, then get immediate feedback on what they got right and wrong, along with some explanations that might help them get it right on a second and third try.
Students seemed to like Aplia's engaging and easy-to-use software, as well as the feedback. Professors liked Aplia even more. It allowed them to leverage the grade-grubbing instincts of today's college students to get them to do homework — but without having to spend countless hours reading and correcting assignments. They also got reports from Aplia identifying which students had the most trouble with the material and which concepts stumped the class as a whole.
"In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning," Romer explains. "That is not a scalable model. There simply aren't enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students."
For me, what's really exciting about Aplia is that it finally holds out the possibility of bringing to higher education the same productivity revolution that has lowered costs and improved quality in almost every other industry.
By relieving the considerable burden of reviewing homework assignments, the technology makes it possible for universities to require professors to teach more students, either by increasing class sizes or the number of classes they teach. More important, it frees instructors to spend more time preparing for class, working with individual students and doing their own research.
The real revolution, of course, will come when Aplia or some other software company comes up with standardized tests that can measure student achievement at the end of the term in a way that not only helps the professor determine student grades, but also allows the university to compare the effectiveness of teachers and allows students, parents and taxpayers to see the relative effectiveness of entire universities. Under the current system, teachers are assessed by how popular they are with students, while universities are assessed by how well students perform on tests and what kind of research faculty produce.
"What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model," Romer says. "The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose."