Anne Kelsch, Director, Office of Instructional Development, University of North Dakota
with a response by John Tagg, the keynote speaker and workshop leader for the upcoming Reflecting on Teaching Colloquium at UND (October 16-17, online registration and schedule is available at the OID webpage).
In a recent article for the Washington Monthly entitled “College for $99 a Month,” Kevin Carey describes StraighterLine, an online company that offers college courses at that flat monthly rate. Telling the story of an out-of-work fifty year old mother of three who gets her courses done quickly and efficiently in order to dive back into the workforce, Carrey argues that “The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities.” The article certainly has generated a lot of buzz, as academics express collective anxiety about the future of traditional universities and colleges in a free market dominated by cheaper and faster delivery (for example, see Zephyr Teachout’s response, “A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges,” from last Sunday’s Washington Post and Laurie Fendrich’s rejoinder, “The Dystopia of Distance Learning,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brainstorm blog).
The article provoked the historian in me, who has often been fascinated by the impact of technology on culture and its surprising ways of democratizing and shifting even the most longstanding and seemingly unshakable hierarchical structures. But it also got me thinking along other lines. I have been reading a lot of work by John Tagg lately, getting ready for his visit to UND for the October 16-17 Reflecting on Teaching Colloquium. Tagg has been a deep delving critic of higher education for a number of years. One of the fundamental questions he keeps coming back to is, “what is college for”? Some time ago Tagg coauthored with Robert Barr a provocative piece in Change magazine (I have seen it referred to a number of times as Change’s most oft-cited article) entitled “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” In that article Tagg and Barr described a nascent and much needed shift in higher education in which universities and colleges, which traditionally have focused on the “provision of instruction”(where enrollment numbers are the primary means of institutional decision making and evaluation), were beginning to focus on the “production of learning.” In other words, he was noting and advocating for a way of thinking about our work in terms of student learning, rather than in terms of credit-hour generating. While Tagg acknowledges that “Nobody thinks that running institutions for the purposes of keeping the classes full is really a good idea,” he goes on to say that most faculty and administrators enforce that approach “because they believe they have to, and often do so with deep resentment and distaste” (The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey-Bass, 2003).
One of the things that I like the most about Tagg’ work is that he doesn’t stop at just describing this sad reality. He goes on to offer approaches to affect both institutional and instructional change, giving examples from universities that have managed to make learning the thing that matters the most on their campus (a good example of this is found in his 2008 Planning for Higher Education article “Changing Minds in Higher Education: Students Change, So Why Can’t Colleges?” ).
To get back then to the question of whether or not we are inevitably to be replaced by entrepreneurs who have figured out how to “deliver education” faster and cheaper than we do, I would say we need to avoid letting them determine the rules of the game. If we reduce the issue to who can produce the most credit hours for the least cost, than our jobs may be in danger.
But I think we need to refuse to let the conversation start there. Instead we need to proactively answer Tagg’s question, “what is college for?” If college is only about the transfer of content or knowledge from one generation to the next, then we may have a problem. Technology clearly handles the mastery of content through repetition and multiple testing well. There is a reason that lower division courses, which most often serve as content laden introductions to the discipline are the ones most commonly put online. A lot more effort is necessary to replicate the learning that goes on in an upper division course, where the focus often shifts from memorization to higher order thinking and skills. And while it can be done effectively, the faculty that I speak with who design and teach those courses will tell you it is very labor intensive (and therefore not cheap) work, requiring tremendous effort to generate and maintain the quality of student learning that they believe necessary to meet their standards as a good class. They will also tell you that the learning outcomes they put in place for such courses can be achieved, but they are different learning outcomes than the ones they set in place for an on-campus course.
I would argue that college is not just about that kind of content transfer that is most readily available online. But the truth is that we often let this kind of learning dominate on our campuses, too. Students who attend classes with hundreds of others, who read (or don’t read) the textbook, take multiple choice exams and joke about forgetting the material shortly after the “information dump” has occurred, and have little interaction with their instructor (who most often is a poorly paid adjunct who has little support in terms of resources or professional development) have already felt that reality. Those that go to college and experience smaller classes, where they know their professors, perhaps participating in research projects with them, who have interactive classes where technology is woven into the curriculum in a way that increases the range of teaching strategies, who get their hands on materials in the lab and library —those students have experienced the costly environment that is more likely to result in profound and lasting intellectual growth.
If we allow easily measured outcomes (usually captured in standardized tests) to determine if we are teaching students, then we may have reason to fear. But if we teach students to our aspirations for them as educators (making certain to check that the courses and assessments we design match those aspirations) than I would argue that we cannot be so cheaply or readily replaced.
A Response by John Tagg, Professor of English and Core Faculty Member, Palomar College
My first response after reading Carey’s essay and the various replies to it was “how in world do they do it for $99?” Carey really doesn’t explain that in the article. Then I considered some of the responses. A few things are not in doubt. Online education has grown like Topsy and will almost certainly continue to do so. Access to higher education is already available to students in many forms that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and this proliferation of various forms of educational “delivery” will also continue. And, a point to which leaders and faculty in higher education have been largely oblivious for decades if not millennia: people are different. The best framework for learning for Tom is not necessarily best for Dick, Harry, Sally, or Minerva. To a point, the proliferation of options is likely to succeed simply because it opens up new possibilities that have been previously closed. There are probably a number of niches in the higher education market but have yet to be plumbed. But what does all this say about the prospects for the “traditional” University?
I think that Jack Schuster and Martin Finkelstein, in their 2006 book The American Faculty, make the case that the role and nature of faculty work has changed dramatically and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The question is not whether the university will change. The question is whether it will change by development or replacement — by increasing the capacity or competence of existing universities or by their being replaced by other institutions that adapt to the salient public demands and social needs more quickly and effectively.
Most of today’s universities do an awful job of educating students in the lower division. They are paying the price for that, and will continue to do so until they get better at it. What most large universities offer lower division students is a collection of distinct and disconnected classes, taught to no particular pattern and in no coherent pedagogical framework, that usually have no inherent sequence or definable consequence. General education, by and large, is a basket of black boxes the meaning and function of which is largely opaque to students. That is, of course, not always the case, but it is likely to be the case at most large public institutions. Many of these classes are taught to very large groups of students with little interaction. I think it was Randy Bass from Georgetown who expressed surprise several years ago at the dismay widely expressed at the growing phenomenon of distance education. Distance education, he noted, has been with us at least since the 1960s, but we’ve called it the “lecture hall.” Indeed, in the traditional large lecture class, if the student is 20 feet away from the professor, she might as well be 20 miles, or 2000 miles away. If what universities offer students in the early years of their college education is a pretty much patternless group of uncoordinated classes, I have no doubt that many other institutions could do a better and more efficient job of it. Indeed, they have.
On the question of online courses — and I confess that I have taught them for about 10 years myself — the most interesting and credible bit of evidence I’ve seen recently is the report released by the Department of Education that does a meta-analysis of experimental studies that actually use a control group in examining the relative benefits and disadvantages of online and face-to-face courses. It’s worth taking a look at: http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf. What they find is that online courses tend to do a bit better than face-to-face courses in achieving definable learning outcomes. More interesting is the reason. In those studies that measure time on task, students tend to spend more time on online courses than they do on face-to-face courses. It’s also interesting that they spend even more time, and tend to do even better, in blended courses, which combine face-to-face and online elements. It seems reasonable to say that a class that elicits more student effort is, all other things being equal, a better class. I doubt (though I stand open to correction on this) that it is the technology, per se, that elicits greater student effort. I suspect it is the overall design of the course. Indeed, to the extent that online courses sometimes demonstrate superior pedagogy, I suspect it is because online courses are more likely to have been designed. Face-to-face courses, as likely as not, have been inherited, copied, or extemporized or have simply evolved from a syllabus, a textbook, or a cognate course. (I’ve done it myself, Lord knows, so I know how it’s done.)
You point out, Anne, that we tend to have higher expectations for our upper division courses. That’s us. The striking thing is that there’s very little evidence that our students share this view. Look at the NSSE report from last year, which I think is consistent should the results from most other years. Seniors report spending no more time on academic work than freshmen. It does appear to be the case that we condition students early in their time at the college to a set of expectations about how much effort college should involve, and they maintain those expectations, and the behaviors that result from them, with amazing consistency until they graduate — or not. Even more depressing, if we compare the reports of high school seniors accepted to college with the reports of college freshmen — as the NSSE folks have done with the BCSSE– we find that students expect to study more before they get college than they actually do study when they arrive. So by the standard of student effort, which is the gold standard when it comes to learning, there is a vast room for improvement in the experience of students at traditional, face-to-face universities. Our future, I suspect, depends on what — if anything — we do about that.