Brick-and-mortar college

For some reason, this article about Best Buy as a showroom (from earlier this year but I only just read it) made me think about the conversation going on about MOOCs. I had to ask myself if my willingness to turn to online stores for a deal rather than spending more for a more robust experience (being able to try out products, get advice, have it immediately) revealed my feeling that small, in-person classes are still worth the money hypocritical or, at least, motivated by self-interest.

So I thought about what I do buy in-person, rather than online. Clothes, obviously – once I was out of grad school and had a bit more money that was the first thing I stopped shopping for online, being willing to pay more to get clothes that fit better. But in general, it’s items where I am picky about the features, particularly usability features. I could use a new computer bag, but no matter how many descriptions and pictures there are, I can’t pull the trigger on ordering one when I can’t try out the pockets myself (having a smartphone slightly larger than an iPhone means that you’ve got to test that “phone pocket” really does mean generic phone pocket and is not just shorthand for “iPhone pocket”). Any housewares where I really care what the color is – I’ll go to Target for my new dishclothes because I want to make sure the red matches instead of clashing with my toaster and trivets and such. And, items where I’m not sure I know enough about the product to buy it based just on text and images versus seeing it in person – during a toilet-rebuilding project this summer, browsing the Home Depot site on my laptop next to the toilet to figure out which part I would need to buy was way more frustrating than just showing up at the store with a crumbling gasket and looking for the one that actually matched.

So it seems like I want to go to a store when the physical form of what I am buying matters – either to ensure that it fits (my body, or my toilet), or to ensure that its appearance and usability meet my needs (having effectively placed pockets, or being visually consistent with my decor). Stores that make this easy encourage me to buy from them rather than online. And, at least for me, Best Buy doesn’t sell products where this is a factor. They would need to provide something else. When I think about what is challenging about buying electronics online, it is the risk that when you get it home, it won’t do what you want. The printer drivers won’t play nice with your wireless network, an adapter or cable is needed you didn’t know to order, or the minimum memory claim on the software assumed you didn’t mind getting a cup of coffee between commands. At least as much of my time exploring products is spent defensively – after I have decided the features, I want and selected a product at a good price point, trying to convince myself it will actually work as described in my particular setting. Finding the sweet spot in answering that need in a cost-effective manner (what I think Geek Squad was intended to do, and what some of my Mac-owning relatives think Apple stores do well) may be what is required.

And what does this tell me about my perceived value of in-person education? Well, it sounds like a similar situation. We can educate ourselves using MOOCs and other free resources (libraries ftw!), but how much additional time and effort is required to figure out how to educate yourself, what an education actually is, and determining if you are actually getting educated, versus spending time becoming educated, if your goal is the equivalent level of education? And, is it worth your time to have someone else have solved those meta-level problems for you, freeing your energies up just for the task of doing the learning?

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