Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Virtual University and the Future of Education

I worked in the eLearning space for most of my post-collegiate career (and depending on your definition, for a year before I graduated). Due to my career path, for years, I've seen articles cross my monitor that look more or less like this one from this weekend's Washington Post.

First: read the article, or much of the following rant will not make sense
Second: In the spirit of full disclosure, my paycheck today comes from a consortium of 18 universities (and growing), and my office is located in the basement at the library of one of these major universities. Its a great job, and I'm biased toward believing my employment will continue. I have also been employed by major universities from 1997 - 2002, 2002 - 2006 and 2008 - present.

1) I'll start with an obvious problem.

The real force for change is the market: Online classes are just cheaper to produce.

This is, I assure you, not true. What is cheaper? An instructor who walks into a classroom, fires up the projector, and begins talking? Or that same instructor, the instructional designer who helps them adapt their course for online distribution, the developers managing the content management system, the servers which must be maintained (admittedly, this is moving to the cloud), the hardware required to push the data out to the world, the money spent by the school for an IT infrastructure, the money spent on the people to manage that infrastructure, the licensing of software for off-campus use, etc...?

There are a multitude of hidden costs completely ignored in this seemingly straightforward statement.

This doesn't begin to approach the various models employed. I've been involved with asynchronous video distribution of courses, which was a very expensive model, but also provides a guarantee to both student and faculty that you've reduced the separation between on-campus and online students. That requires, at minimum, several thousand dollars sunk into production-quality equipment to capture the instructor alone. To capture the entire "studio classroom", the price increases exponentially.

Asynchronous, non-video models tend to see significant attrition. They are cheaper to produce, and are what one sees at places like Univ. of Phoenix Online. Make no mistake, this is significant work for both faculty and student to prepare and manage discussion, with artificial, time-consuming expectations placed on the students to ensure participation.

Whether instructors have a few online students or they have thousands, part of a college class is homework. Which requires a fairly complex document management process from the distance learning organization. While most Course Management Systems offer standard form-based quizzes, hopefully higher education is requiring a bit more than a multiple choice quiz. And that all costs money, including staff to grade.

And none of this takes proctoring exams into account.

Let us not also forget that universities are not a defensive driving class. The sciences and engineering require sophisticated labs for even their undergraduates as standard operation for the course. You do not ship an oil derrick to a petroleum engineering student's home, nor a nuclear reactor to a nuclear engineering student's home. You don't inject rabbits with ebola over your sink to see what happens (I mean you could, but that's a totally different experiment).

There's a sort of Henry Ford model inherent in the idea of printing courses and being done with it. But Ford also didn't sit on his laurels and stop dead in his tracks after the Model T. Scholarship is a funny thing in that there always seems to be something to add, some changes to be made, suggesting that after you've done all of this once, even a Roman History course will need to be refreshed on a fairly frequent basis.

Author Zephyr Teachout may be shocked to find out that most universities do not have the endowments and budget that Harvard is able to play with, and cannot afford all of the technology that is required (and that may even include a Blackboard Course management System) to run an eLearning course. It may be cheaper to employ adjunct faculty and turn on the lights rather than reproduce its entire curriculum online every semester.

Assuming cost remains constant or drops is, on its face, wrong.

2) Higher education is not a product one purchases like a car.

Universities are not looking for customers, they are looking for select bodies of students to help them maintain their profile.

Teachout says:

A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses and openly available syllabuses online. And in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54-) year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online classes, complete with take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other "students," and links to free academic literature.

Some schools like MIT are currently happy to share their content online from classes that are hitting the internet, but because universities actually value their own intellectual property, no university at my last check was offering MIT's content as their own. Nor is even the most motivated of people eager enough to (a) sit through a 45 hour semester course with no pay-off 9and certainly not do homework and lab work), (b) multiply that by enough courses that would have earned them a degree.

What Teachout describes exists, but the intention and believed use was for people who might use snippets here and there, not kill the time they could have used earning a degree watching courses and NOT earning a degree.

As universities are not businesses, and operate on a model which values scholarship above all else, I can see how it might be difficult for a business-minded person to understand that universities are not likely to begin looking to cut costs by turning to corporate pre-packaged materials.

The essence of scholarship is the generation and dissemination of ideas, something that I would believe Teachout somehow missed as a visiting faculty at Harvard. I am guessing, in fact, that Teachout most likely sampled the Blackboard course management system, realized the possible applications, and leaped ahead in her assessment without considering either the lengthy history of distance education, or the value of scholarship as created in the university campus and disseminated in the classroom.

The efforts most universities are engaged with today are the polar opposite of the McDonald's style of homogenized scholarship Teachout foresees. And, in fact, most universities are working to produce resources for their faculty to extend their scholarly communication out to anyone who can Google it. They are challenging faculty to not live in an ivory tower, but use the tools of communication to reach out to one another and better promote their work.

3) The Nintendo Generation

In 1999, an IT person came to my office to meet with my team and announced "We are looking at the Nintendo generation. We need tos tart figuring out how to turn our courses into video games or we're going to lose these kids".

Nobody turned their course into a videogame in the entire college where I worked, and yet, semester after semester, students continue to turn up.

And the young students of tomorrow will be growing up in an on-demand, personalized world, in which the notion of a set-term, offline, prepackaged education will seem anachronistic.

A few things Teachout is missing: the idea of turning a course into something that millions of students will take will, by default, mean that the course will no longer be agile or more easily updated. It will, in fact, mean that the courses will be the pre-packaged courses she suggests won't happen.

In fact, if one wishes to partially use her metaphor, its far more likely that students would jump from course to course offering, depending upon the befits of which course were maximum and still earned them course credit. This can only happen, of course, if there are little start-up courses available AND ACCREDITED (which presents a whole new problem).

When radio and television were introduced, it was believed a primary function would be educational. Satellite, cable and videotape have made the possibility for the classroom seating virtual thousands to exist well before the internet. And that's ignoring the packet-based "correspondence classes" recognized by most universities when I was an undergrad. During this time, semi-affordable video conferencing equipment was the rage, and joint courses began being held between campuses.

My first full-time gig positioned me as manager of a studio classroom, which went from video-conference suite and tape distribution center to online broadcasting within about a year. Integrated with a CMS, we'd pretty much achieved several of the goals Teachout suggests.

Later, I'd work with something called "NTU", which was a clearinghouse which allowed for students to take courses from a potluck of offerings from all sorts of universities. Walden continues to exist with NTU as a subsidiary. I think it's a great idea, but its been in the market for a long while without finding a ranking for engineering schools. So do with that what you will.

4) CostCo Law School

I'm a tremendous fan of the dystopian comedy "Idiocracy". In the movie, as the timelost protagonist and his newfound companion wander through a future-CostCo (which stretches beyond the horizon), the contemprary character off-handedly comments that he got his law degree at CostCo.

In viewing education as lowest-common-denominator product that should be simplified and put online, so the maximum number of learners can gain the same knowledge for the lowest cost possible might be where public education is headed in Texas, its antithetical to the ideals of actual scholarship. There's value in creating communities of competitive ideas, where students have options and can work outside of their comfort zone.

Universities strive to offer programs in diverse knowledge areas with faculty in cutting-edge research not just to build up their portfolio of NSF grants, but to offer that learning experience to students.

5) The Newspaper Analogy

I get where Teachout was going with the newspaper analogy, but its a tough one to swallow. If we honestly believe that the same sort of data that's generated in our research universities will be found without those research centers, but just, you know... out there on a blog or something... we might as well start just packing it now as a culture.

I've no doubt that it would benefit community colleges to synchronize on some of their courses that take up teaching load and are basic requirements. Its certainly a possibility. But those are also a small, small portion of the courses one takes in college. And, at a major university, those are the classes that employ associate and junior faculty.

I understand the belief that courses will be aggregated, but I see it far more likely that you'll see cross-listed courses at "partner" universities (see: Western Governor's University), as researchers and various universities find ways to collaborate in the classroom as well as the lab.

That's a good thing, and its more like picking up articles from a wire service, not like saying good-bye to the local paper.

6) Keggers and Football

The university experience is, of course, as much about what happens outside of the classroom as within.

I'm not really sure I need to elaborate here. We've all seen Animal House, correct?

7) So in Conclusion

I am a strong proponent of eLearning. I believe in it. I've worked in it a heck of a lot more and longer than most folks who teach a semester in the modern university.

I would suggest the following again:

Universities are not a business hunting and pecking for student money. Unlike anything else that costs as much as a university education, it is not a consumer driven model. It is far more akin to earning a job and succeeding in that job.

It is therefore not necessarily the role of the university to turn its courses into video games or lose their students. Its the role of the student to rise to the set of challenges created by or issued by their university, not for the university to quiver in fear of their students' demands for immediate gratification, 24 hour communication with their faculty, or a specific letter grade.

In my experience, technology enters the picture not when students demand it (if they attended public school, they usually don't expect much out of a classroom), but because the university found it was more productive for their faculty to have access to the technology.

While a strata of education will see change, Teachout's belief that only elite (read: Ivy League) schools will go untouched by her model, the model of the university is not going to crumble in the 10 - 20 years Teachout predicts.

At some point education may become the consumer commodity Teachout suggests, but we're a long way from the CostCo model today. Students are still asking to get in and hoping to get accepted. Perhaps this model will change in my lifetime, but the students aren't anywhere close to dictating what happens on their campuses today.

Now wealthy alumni...


J.S. said...

I got a question. How does the grading procedure work? Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like it would be really easy to just cheat with online claases by, for instance, just paying someone else (someone who's already taken the class, or someone else who's currently taking it) to do your online homework for you and/or take your tests. (I guess this can happen at regular universities, anyway. I know a guy who paid another guy to take a class for him at Trinity that he didn't think he could pass)

The League said...

If students are willing to share passwords and credentials, then there's very little to keep students from cheating.

I've worked primarily in graduate level education, and that's a very different ball game from undergraduate level work. Grad work is usually something people very much want to pursue and probably aren't able or willing to repeat.

For undergraduates, I've heard of various methods, including forcing students to come to campus for exams, which isn't realistic as a scalable solution.

For some of our courses at the grad level, we would only ask that they find a proctor of some sort to sign paperwork saying the student had fulfilled the requirements of the exam. It wasn't a terribly rigorous process.

If a student is willing to fake it for the duration of the semester, and not just an exam, then there's very little a university can do, and that's a definite problem.

What course management systems generally build in is: a shuffling of questions, often pulling from a pool of questions, so students sitting next to one another won't receive all of the same questions, and definitely not in the same order.

Other responses have been to require papers and projects for courses rather than exams, which is a better learning model, anyway.

The League said...

I should mention, many schools and large corporations have a proctoring service built into their institution for the express purposes of distance education.