Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else

“There is a change coming. There has to be a change coming. The four-year undergraduate residential experience is the gold standard — small classes, lots of intimate contact. How do we create as close to that ideal as we can, while reducing cost?”
That’s John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University, appearing in the documentary Ivory Tower (dir. Andrew Rossi, 2014). In this film and elsewhere, Hennessy is a voice of inevitability: disruption and all that. But there’s nothing inevitable about diminished access to real college, by which I mean not dorm life but a community of teaching and learning, with professors and students present to one another. Diminished access is the result of institutional choices: fewer professors, more online courses, more administrative bureaucracy, extravagant construction projects, and ever-increasing costs to students. MOOC developers Sebastian Thrun and John Owens follow Hennessy’s turn in Ivory Tower. Thrun likens online coursework to videogames and says that such coursework “empowers” students. Owens says that online work puts the focus “back on the student,” then blithely speaks of the MOOC professor as a “rock star,” one professor doing the work once done by 500. So who, exactly, is in the spotlight?

An often-repeated claim among those who insist on educational disruption is that the efficiencies of teaching — one teacher, one room — have stayed the same for too long. But then the efficiencies of, say, cutting hair — one barber, one head — haven’t changed much either. Perhaps there are good reasons why. The great irony for me in the rhetoric of disruption: those who speak it will no doubt seek for their own children what Hennessy calls “the gold standard.” There will always be real college for the few. For everyone else, it may be another story.

But perhaps change is indeed inevitable. Before Ivory Tower was released, Thrun pronounced his company’s courses “a lousy product.” His new venture: nanodegrees. And just two weeks after the film’s release, Hennessy voiced his disappointment with MOOCs. Haircut, anyone?

A few related posts
The Adjunct Project : College debt : Colleges and bakeries : “A fully-realized adult person” : The New Yorker on MOOCs : Offline, real-presence education : What parents need to know about college faculty

comments: 4

Daughter Number Three said...

I just completed a MOOC offered by a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota. Since I mostly wanted access to her lecture content, it worked pretty well for me, but I know I would have enjoyed it more and been more immersed in it within a classroom setting. The use of discussion forum helped a little (and the students were located around the world) but it couldn't compare with talking together in a discussion group.

The assessments used were fairly worthless. Multiple choice, to cover a complex topic that cried out for writing and synthesis.

On a separate point: Today's Star Tribune included a letter from the former acting president of the University of Minnesota, reacting to recent op-eds about tuition increases and how the university does its work. He wrote, "Why shouldn’t we expect the same productivity gains in our colleges and universities as we expect from most every other sector of our economy?"

As with your point about barber shops, I have a hard time imagining how a university can make productivity gains without sacrificing the essential nature of the enterprise.

Michael Leddy said...

Any number of students have told me similar stories about online courses.

The productivity argument is so misleading, and so appropriate in a culture in which everything is seen as quantifiable.

widdicombe said...

“A decent society will on occasion resist the efficient course of action, for the simple reason that to follow it would be to act as though we were not the people we have determined ourselves to be: a people conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we all are created equal” — Glenn C. Loury, Race, Incarceration and American Values

Zhoen said...

On the other hand, if they can keep the original method, but record it, and make that available to those of us interested, but not out for a degree, it might serve as financial support.

We could all audit courses, for a small fee, while the young students can get the one to one/essay/discussion.

I agree, though, that it should not replace actual classes.