The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Megaclasses:  This is the classic formula for institutional failure, stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap.

Those who believe in efficiency-driven cost-cutting approaches to complex undertakings should take a close look at NASA's recent Mars exploration adventures.  And learn from them...  ...Larry Cartwright - Physics Teacher, Charlotte, Michigan.

Commentary of the Day - Dec. 9, 1999:  Distance Education - Do They Really Think We Are That Dumb!:
This commentary was occasioned by two stories about distance education in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  (For those of you who aren't in the higher education game, "the Chronicle" is the newspaper of record for post-secondary education.  If you want to know what the latest "buzz" is in the field, you have to read the Chronicle.  Every college and university administrator worth his or her tweeds reads it.)  One of the latest fads sweeping the campuses these days is "distance education", and the Chronicle carries numerous articles and opinion pieces related to the subject.

Now "distance education" is nothing new.  Correspondence courses have been around for a long time.  In fact, the Irascible Professor himself took two such courses when he was an undergraduate at Berzerkly back in the dark ages.  One was an introductory course on American history and the other an advanced math course on vector analysis.  The IP aced both of them, and even learned a little bit in the process.  But, correspondence courses were slow and tedious.  You always had to wait for the round-trip snail-mail to find out how you were doing in the course.  Both instructors, who the IP suspects were poorly paid adjunct professors, were good about answering questions and writing comments about the work.  However, both courses lacked the immediacy of "face-to-face" instruction, and the stimulation of having other students in the class.  A correspondence course was strictly a one-to-one proposition.  As such, correspondence courses probably were not a big money maker for U.C. Extension - too labor intensive.  The big advantage of correspondence courses was that they offered a way for students who couldn't take a regular course on campus at a specific time the opportunity to complete a general education requirement or to finish a major requirement.  The idea of obtaining a real college degree via correspondence courses was not taken seriously by many, although there were a few outfits like LaSalle University that offered mail-order degrees.

If we fast-forward to the 1990s, we find that distance education has taken on a whole new cachet.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet and other modern communication marvels it's now possible to deliver distance education more or less instantaneously to most parts of the civilized world (and to quite a few parts whose civility is in question).  All one needs to join in the fun is a connection to the Internet and a modestly capable computer.

As far as the IP is concerned, there is nothing inherently wrong with distance education courses.  In fact, he regularly offers one himself.  It's quite possible to design a high quality distance education course using modern world wide web delivery software.  The problem arises when "educrats" and administrators who never teach anything try to push distance education as a way to teach "on the cheap".  Generally, these educrats and administrators are folks who have bought into the "business model" of higher education.  They believe that education is a commodity rather than an experience.  Like any other commodity, they want to produce and deliver it at the lowest possible cost, so that a profit can be made even in a competitive environment.

Perhaps the best (or worst) example of this attitude can be found in the pronouncements of online education guru William A. Draves.  Draves, who bills himself as America's foremost authority on lifelong learning and continuing education, thinks that within the next two decades "online classes with as many as 1,000 students will replace traditional lecture courses on campuses".  Draves, who hawks both himself and a full line of distance learning "products" through something called the Learning Resources Network, also thinks that students will benefit from these mega-classes because "they will have the opportunity to interact online with many more classmates".  "The more people who contribute, the more you learn."  He also suggests that instructors in such online mega-classes would probably have to use computer-graded multiple choice exams, because "grading essay tests would be time consuming".  --You betcha Willie, God forbid that any of the poor beggars enrolled in such a class could expect more than a nanosecond of the instructor's time.

Through economy of scale Draves suggests that edustores (I can't in good conscience call them institutions of higher learning) would be able to sell such courses to students at the bargain basement rate of $100, while still turning a healthy profit.  --You betcha Willie, they could hire some poor, untenured adjunct to teach the course for a few thousand dollars.  Throw in another few thousand to license the software and keep the servers running, and you've got yourself a cool $90,000 or so in profit from a 1,000 student class.  The only people who lose in the process are the students who think they have gotten an education from these "pretend" courses.  I sure hope they don't start teaching medicine this way!

Just in case in some delusional moment you might think Draves is on the right track, just look at the problems the University of Iowa has had with its experimental online course called "OnLine at Iowa".  This brilliant offering was intended to "teach students to find their way around campus and how to use the campus computer system", according to the Chronicle story.  The course enrolled 1,900 students.  Those who completed it received a unit of college credit.  Geez folks, even here at Krispy Kreme U we expect students to be able to find their way around campus.  Maybe we should offer them a unit or two for demonstrating that they can tie their shoelaces.  And, there seems to be something a bit self-referential about using the computer to teach students how to use the computer.  At midterm several hundred students were receiving grades of F, probably because they hadn't figured out how to find the computer lab, or maybe because they couldn't figure out how to turn the computer on.  So much for the success of online mega-courses.


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©1999 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.