Disrupted disrupting learning?

There is plenty to complain about college tuitions; they are high and going higher (something GG has personal experience from the savings-account-depleting side of things). There are lots of discussions out there on why this is (the Washington Post’s WonkBlog ran a 10 part series on this in late 2013, and the book Why Does College Cost so Much? (summarized here) explore numerous factors in play); let’s not go there today.  Lets instead consider the cure being touted most strongly: MOOCs, and how they relate to other trends in higher ed.

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are seen as a way to essentially eliminate the majority of college educators (presumably, ideally, the expensive professors) by having a few superstar professors teaching nearly everybody in college, which, of course, will finally bring the cost of college education under control.  In essence, this converts education from a service-type activity to a commodity, and the cost increases of commodities is well below that of personal services.

The funny thing is that this flies right into the face of the other trend affecting higher ed science teaching, which is to move away from the “sage on the stage” to student-led learning (“guide on the side”). (Yes, while this has been sweeping other parts of education for a long time, it seems to be a relatively recent addition to science classrooms in higher ed). This is tied in with somewhat older educational strategies like presenting material in multiple ways (so a visual learner will get something, an aural learner something, etc.).  All of these would seem to require even more instructor-student interaction, not less. in fact, one criteria for evaluating colleges is average class size, so it would seem that the colleges folks will most want to attend are apt to be those where the classes are smallest, which is where the costs will be highest.

These two models are the kinds of things that make GG grumpy just in contemplation. One model at the extreme might reduce all education to remote lectures and some whiz-bang computer-driven evaluations while the other would have students in essence reproduce centuries of research and learning directly.  Neither seems efficient and a reliable means of educating students.

Why has this gotten so much attention? Is this really about a better way to educate students, or more of a cost-containment issue?

In some ways what has changed the most in all this seems to be the responsibility for learning.  Realistically, a student dedicated to learning material can learn it from a book, from a correspondence course, from a lecture course, from a hands-on course, from a  MOOC, from audiotapes, etc.  And some people do this quite successfully.  Experience of some faculty GG knows is that the ones who can succeed at distance learning/web courses are the kind who will succeed in a classroom.  This is showing up in the results of MOOCs, where the tiny fraction completing courses are, ironically, the ones who overwhelmingly already have a degree. This some MOOC proponents are shifting to advocating more of an assisted learning environment, where students might view MOOC lectures and access MOOC materials as at present but would attend sessions where they would be assisted by, um, some learning professionals.

We used to call those sessions “recitation sections.”

All this suggests that MOOCs are likely to be a fringe element in undergraduate education; these are more likely to be highly successful for professional education.

A New Yorker piece recently showed how the love of MOOCs is tied to an intellectually questionable quest for disruption for disruption’s sake. Toss in the financial quandary that many students and families find themselves in and you can see why pressing for something like this becomes strong.  Is it wise? Keep in mind that increasingly, a BA or BS is a necessity to avoid falling farther and farther behind compared to those not attending college. At current cost levels, it seems that demand for college education is inelastic.

GG cannot speak for other disciplines, but earth science often requires a lot of lab work. Looking at rocks, going to the field to make measurements, mapping geology, running analyses on samples. None of these will work as MOOCs and arguably they already are highly student-centered. Getting a bachelor’s in earth science isn’t going to happen through MOOCs or other remote learning environments; even a motivated learner might have trouble trying to learn to map without a Brunton, do optical mineralogy without a petrographic microscope, explore environmental chemistry without a lab. Even at the intro level, seeing rocks and getting hands-on help in figuring out what you are looking at, local field trips, etc., are all important. And you know what?  These are not courses you can teach with several hundred students.

Some have gone so far as to advocate that student-determined courses of study be the norm–make your own degree (see the last paragraph of the Friedman column, for instance).  No more breadth requirements! Just take those classes that really make you feel good or seem relevant! GG recalls a poll our faculty did years ago for a self-study.  Our then-current students complained bitterly about required math, physics and chemistry classes.

What did our alums say were the most useful classes they took? Um, the required math, physics and chemistry courses.  Can’t wait to see those self-made degree programs turning out students that employers will walk away from…

So should we be disrupting university education for MOOCs and student-led learning? Considering that the U.S. in 2008 gained over 17 billion dollars from overseas students studying in the U.S., it seems that college education is a place where the U.S. is a global leader.  Why disrupt a successful model? Sure, explore improvements (and many faculty are looking hard at where MOOCs or student-led learning make sense), but wanting to dynamite the whole thing? (Even a defense of disruption, in response to the New Yorker piece, comes across as half hearted–ooh, we ‘disrupted’ university IT by going to the cloud).

So while there is certainly a problem in the cost of college education vs. median family income, the solution may not be in the classroom as much as many hope.

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Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Classroom tension | The Grumpy Geophysicist - December 26, 2014
  2. Continued College Myopia | The Grumpy Geophysicist - March 8, 2015

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