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Education and “Internet Time” June 30, 2015

Posted by gordonwatts in Teaching, university.
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I saw this link on techcrunch go by discussing the state of venture capital in the education sector. There is a general feeling, at least in the article, that when dealing with universities that things are not moving at internet speed:

“The challenge is, in general, education is a pretty slow to move category, particularly if you’re trying to sell into schools and universities … In many cases they don’t seem to show the sense of urgency that the corporate world does.” says Steve Murray, a partner with Softbank Capital, and investor in the education technology company, EdCast.

I had to laugh a bit. Duh. MOOC’s are a classic example. Massively Open Online Courses – a way to educate large numbers of people with a very small staff. The article refers to the problems with this, actually:

The first generation of massively open online courses have had (well-documented) problems with user retention.

So why have universities been so slow to just jump into the latest and greatest education technology? Can you imagine sending your kid to get a degree from the University of Washington, where they are trying out some new way of education that, frankly, fails on university scale? We are a publically funded university. We’d be shut! The press, rightly, would eat us alive. No institution is going to jump before they look and move their core business over to something that hasn’t been proven.

Another way to look at this, perhaps, is that each University has a brand to maintain. Ok, I’m not a business person here, so I probably am not using the word in quite the right way. None the less. My department at the University of Washington, the Physics Department, is constantly looking at the undergraduate curricula. We are, in some sense, driven by the question “What does it mean to have a degree from the University of Washington Physics Department?” or “What physics should they know?” or another flavor: “They should be able to explain and calculate X by the time they are awarded the degree.” There is a committee in the department that is responsible for adjusting the courses and material covered, and they are constantly proposing changes.

So far only certain technological solutions have an obvious “value proposition.” For example, the online homework websites. This enables students to practice problems without having to spend a huge amount of money on people who will do the grading of the exams. Learning Management Systems, like Canvas, allows us to quickly setup a website for the course that includes just about everything we need as teachers, saving us bunch of time.

Those examples make teaching cheaper and more efficient. But that isn’t always the case. Research (yes, research!!!) has shown that students learn better when they are actively working on a problem (in groups of peers is even more powerful) – so we can flip the class room: have them watch lectures on video and during traditional lecture time work in groups. To do it right, you need to redesign the room… which costs $$… And the professor now has to spend extra time recording the lectures. So there is innovation – and it is helping students learn better.

I think most of us in education will happily admit to the fact that there are inefficiencies in the education system – but really big ones? The problem with the idea that there are really big inefficiencies is that no one has really shown how to educate people on the scale of a University in a dramatically cheaper way. As soon as that happens the inefficiencies will become obvious along with the approach to “fix” them. There are things we need to focus on doing better, and there are places that seem like they are big inefficiencies… and MOOC’s will have a second generation to address their problems. And all of us will watch the evolution, and some professors will work with the companies to improve their products… but it isn’t going to happen overnight, and it isn’t obvious to me that it will happen at all, at least not for the bulk of students.

Education is labor intensive. In order to learn the student has to put in serious time. And as long this remains the case, we will be grappling with costs.

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