The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul for Higher Education


I’ve argued previously that technological innovation is going to sweep away many of the assumptions that underlie the current system of higher education. One of these assumptions is that putting instructors and students in the same place at the same time for a standardized number of hours each week — contact time — ipso facto guarantees a certain amount of learning. One can easily see how this assumption plays out in entry-level courses at many universities —  massive lecture halls, often half-empty, with the students who are in the room half-asleep.

Recent research by Ithaka S+R indicates that that much of what happens in traditional classrooms is the pedagogical equivalent of watching a Japanese cat video.  Ithaka S+R’s study examined the use of interactive online learning platforms — Coursera MOOCs and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative — in courses taught at seven universities in the University System of Maryland. The study compared students’ performance in hybrid sections of the courses with that of students in traditionally-taught sections. The research included ten additional case studies on different applications of MOOCs in campus-based courses.

The research found that students in the hybrid sections, including those belonging to under-represented minorities, who came from low-income families, or who were less prepared academically than their classmates, “did as well or slightly better than students in the traditional sections in terms of pass rates and learning assessments.” However, the students in the hybrid sections spent only about half as much time in class as the students in the traditional sections (p. 4). These outcomes occurred despite the fact that the instructors for these sections were teaching in the hybrid format and using the technology for the first time.

While students in the hybrid sections did report “considerably lower satisfaction with their experience” (p. 5), the lack of a difference in learning outcomes between the groups suggests that this dissatisfaction may have been driven at least in part by students’ preconceptions about what “college” and “learning” entail.

If interactive online content can replace up to half of traditional classroom time without a negative pedagogical effect, what are the implications for us real live humans who currently work at colleges and universities? Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich, of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School, have looked at this question in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion as it pertains to business schools.

Terwiesch and Ulrich reach several interesting conclusions:

  • Online delivery of multimedia interactive content holds an estimated 40 percent cost advantage over traditional instruction in the average MBA program.
  • Any new technology that enables the marginal cost of instruction to drop to zero renders obsolete the scale economies upon which institutions of higher education were built. No longer is it economically necessary to locate education within a massive centralized institution. It becomes affordable for people to learn almost anything whenever and wherever they want.
  • The typical business school classroom session prices out to about $100; anything that expensive “should be a significant event, a true experience” (p. 24). If students find that they can get the same learning through other, less-expensive means, they’ll go elsewhere. To counter this, university faculty — if they want to keep their jobs — need to adopt teaching methods that make the classroom a high-impact learning experience that is difficult to replicate with new technology.
  • “Unlike some areas of higher education, in which knowledge is pursued for its intrinsic value, business schools are focused on providing professional skills that have some future value in the workplace. In that sense, getting an MBA education is like purchasing a Swiss army knife — you buy it today to use it one day in the future — but you know neither when you will use it nor which part of the knife you will use first . . . From the students’ perspective, the [MBA follows the same] pattern: learn-learn-learn-certify-wait-wait-wait-deploy. And that is the best-case scenario, omitting scenarios in which the student learns something that was either useless or forgotten along the way” (p. 21). In other words, once technology allows people to learn what they want in a just-in-time fashion, it is hard to argue that everyone must march in unison through an entire curriculum on the off chance that parts of that curriculum might prove useful years later.

Anant Agarwal, an EECS professor who led the team that designed MIT’s first MOOC, believes that recent technological innovations presage an era in which the university experience incorporates active learning, self-paced learning, instant feedback, and peer learning to a much greater extent than it does now. Universities should be asking themselves whether it is better to be ahead of this curve or behind it.

Are you prepared for the higher ed apocalypse?
Are you prepared for the higher ed apocalypse?