Etsy Education

Let me revive another point I’ve made before at this blog about online education of any kind, including blended learning and “flipped classrooms”. This thought may be a bit less comforting to folks at the University of Virginia, though it is of no comfort whatsoever to the members of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.

One of the red herrings in the debate about any form of instructional technology, online instruction, machine learning or distance education, whether it’s as modest as the use of PowerPoint or as dramatic as MOOCs, is that they intrinsically and inevitably lower the quality of instruction in comparison to face-to-face teaching and assessment.

I’m not the first nor will I be the last to observe that much of what is seen as negative or lower-quality about instructional technology and automation in higher education is simply building upon very long-term changes in teaching and assessment that predate digitization and the Internet. Marc Bousquet put it beautifully in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently>: “Machines can reproduce human essay-grading so well because human essay-grading practices are already mechanical”. Large-scale testing of all kinds has for three decades been increasingly required by state law and institutional buyers to force graders to follow algorithmic constraints in how they mark writing and other responses, for the sake of consistency.

That’s only one example. One thing that very well-designed MOOCs may accomplish is to demonstrate that there is not that much difference between a lecture-based course with 800 students in it in which the only face-to-face contact that students have is with teaching assistants of highly variable quality and a MOOC. In some contexts and subjects, the MOOC might well be superior: an educational institution can work very hard to perfect the content presentation in a MOOC, make it richly multimedia and engaging, whereas a university can only be somewhat assured of the quality of all the lectures in all the courses, particularly if the MOOC-makers spent as much on assessment as a university might on hiring teaching assistants.

I’ve argued with Margaret Soltan about this a number of times, but I think there is only a slight distinction between a bad PowerPoint presentation and a bad lecture, that to see the technology as responsible for bad pedagogy is to mistake a symptom for a cause. As a graduate student, I had to work with a professor who gave lectures verbatim that he wrote ten years previously, with almost no feeling of a live or interactive performance. We could have played the tapes of the lectures (which he had in fact made) with a picture of him on screen with almost no real difference. That’s before PowerPoint or the Internet, at the dawn of computers.

Instruction at large universities has in many cases been heading steadily in this direction for decades: large classes, remote lecturers, sage-on-the-stage pedagogies. If MOOCs and other instructional technologies step into that trend, they are at their worst doing little more than continuing it. At their best, in the case of sensitive or interesting versions of blended learning and flipped classrooms, they may well be actively reversing it.

What a MOOC might do in some cases is clarify for students (and their families) that they have been paying higher and higher prices for a product whose quality has been dropping in inverse proportion as faculties have been adjunctified, classrooms overstuffed, instruction commodified, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t education out there that’s worth the price, but it might clarify that that education is a handmade, artisanal product that can’t be scaled up for all or most of the students seeking an undergraduate degree. MOOCs might pose a valuable challenge that makes institutions that charge foie gras prices prove that they’re not just serving McNuggets.

For an institution like the University of Virginia, what that means is that you really need someone more like President Sullivan, who can figure out how to sharpen the sense of what a liberal arts education is and why it matters, to demonstrate the special value of a handcrafted education while working to make it financially viable. You don’t need strategic dynamists are just dreaming up new ways to brand the McNuggets that they’ve already decided have to be served. But if you push back as an artisan, you have to to figure out how to continue to make artisanal products in a mass-production world, which is no easy challenge.

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5 Responses to Etsy Education

  1. Jim Groom says:

    That last sentence or two is like Dostoyevsky novel, the existential dilemma is far greater than any sentiment to deal with it. The changing nature of the internet does suggest a liberal arts education would understand itself as part and parcel of the brain trust of the web. Share there freely and build it boldly. It does radically change a lot, but not anything like the UVA Board Members could imagine, and therein lies the issue: Imagination :)

  2. Western Dave says:

    I am stealing the phrases “handcrafted education” and “artisanal education.”

  3. G. Weaire says:

    So am I, but I need to devise some way to compare this to the cheese counter at Whole Foods.

  4. Ken Ashe says:

    Lectures needs to be fresh and engaging every single time they are given. If there not, it’s the professor to blame, not the technology.

  5. Contingent Cassandra says:

    Artisanal, handcrafted, local — many of the values we’re in the process of rediscovering in connection with food do, indeed, work well for as metaphors for education (as, unfortunately, does factory farming for some of the alternatives). Of course, some will say that not everyone can afford to eat, or study, that way, but it’s partly a matter of what you spend your money on — Europeans spend much more for food than Americans, and also eat better. The other sad part is that the people who most need the handcrafted, local alternative are often those who have the least access. But many jurisdictions are finding ways to make WIC and food stamps and similar assistance usable at farmer’s markets. And well-run community colleges, with teachers who are decently-paid and given enough service time and autonomy to tailor and re-tailor their approaches for the current crop of students (the place where the speed and flexibility associated with “strategic dynamism” is actually needed is very, very locally, in the individual classroom/course/department/program), are a pretty good parallel (and a very good alternative, from every perspective, to the comparatively expensive student-loan-driven online for-profits).

    I also agree that there seem to be competing strains of reasoning from the edu-pundits, to the point where I sometimes wonder whether they read not only each others’ work, but the column/blog post they wrote last week, or yesterday. On the one hand, we hear about MOOCs and making education accessible and affordable (and/or profitable) and crowd-sourcing and such. On the other hand, the talk is all about flipped classrooms and the death of the lecture and student engagement, which tends to boil down, when one looks closely at it, to giving students a chance to work, alone or in small groups, on exercises that allow them to apply concepts and practice skills, with the instructor who designed the exercises, or someone at least equally knowledgeable, close by to answer questions and provide guidance as needed (and, presumably, use the information gained from the process to design/tweak the next exercise, and/or the next iteration of the course). For someone who has managed to teach for several decades without talking for more than 15 minutes at a stretch (well, give or take a few class “discussions” that turned into near-monologues), the “death of the lecture” stuff is a bit puzzling, and amusing. And all of the ideas for increasing engagement sound great, if unsurprising and not exactly new. They also sound labor-intensive, which is just fine — unless, of course, one is expecting any of this to be cheap and/or profitable. It’s not, any more than building a solid, durable bridge or highway or subway system is, but infrastructure — in this case, human capital — is well worth its cost.

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