Monday, December 21, 2015

The Cost of Learning

Having demolished the final stack of student research papers for the semester, all of the patient articles long waiting in my web browser are slowly ambling up to be read.  They’re having to complete with other long-delayed affairs—laundry, vacuuming, and making apple pie—but the articles are patient; they know just when to strike.

The article on “Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs” has wisely struck not too long after grading was completed: late enough that I’m no longer merely outraged by it, but early enough that I’m sufficiently outraged to feel like lodging a quiet protest.

The claim being made by the author, Steven Pearlstein, is at least partly true: “Universities in the United States are the best in the world, but the cost of attending them is rising faster than the cost of almost anything else.”  I would like to believe the first half of that statement; the second half, based on my own admittedly anecdotal experience, seems plausible.  And it is a serious problem for students, as Pearlstein says.

Pearlstein’s reaction is to call for universities to make “the fundamental restructuring that nearly every other sector has done to reduce costs and improve quality,” which will require “changing the traditions, rhythms and prerogatives of academic life.”  Understandably, the prospect of making sweeping changes is distressing to those within the university (of whom I, admittedly, am one).  But the question should not be whether university faculties, boards, and administrators consider Pearlstein’s suggestions for change objectionable, but whether or not they are actually good for students.

For solutions one through three—depending on exactly how they are executed—I think the answer is “They probably won’t hurt.”  The fourth suggestion, that general education classes take place online, may not matter very deeply in the long run, but it is a change for the worse for students, in ways that Pearlstein does not seems to grasp.

Pearlstein is, in essence, asking for more MOOCs.  Over the last few years MOOCs have come to represent a sort of Holy Grail: they will solve the universities problems, at the expense of costing all but the purest and best of candidates their future jobs.  As graduate students, my peers and I were taught to fear the MOOC, but to recognize its advent (trumpeted by the likes of Pearlstein) as being as inevitable as Armageddon, and slightly easier to predict.  A few of us hoped that, like the annually revised predictions of global warming, the MOOCs might stay forever one step away.  But we knew in our hearts that we were self-deceived.  The Massive Online Open Course (does not the very adjective, massive, send shivers down your spine?) would swallow us all.  Perhaps, on second thoughts, it resembled less the Holy Grail and had deeper affinities with the Giant of Mont Saint Michel.

The obvious objections to certain flavors of MOOC—that it will give already checked-out students more latitude to, well, check-out—are forestalled by Pearlstein’s description.  He’s

not talking about simply videotaping lectures. I’m talking about combining great talks by one or more professors and outside experts with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises—then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of ‘active learning.’ And having ‘labs’ open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.

Resisting my instinctive recoil from this hodge-podge of suggestions (perhaps it is not so much the Giant as the Questing Beast which Pearlstein here seeks), I will point out two flaws in this picture.

First, notice that Pearlstein is suggesting supplementing these lectures with “weekly in-person sessions for discussions” and labs involving “tutors”.  If you’re actually going to provide normal (i.e., not very studious) students with the human interactions necessary to learn material well, you are going to need to hire nearly as many discussion facilitators and tutors as you would have hired professors, adjuncts, and grad students.  You will have about the same personnel working about the same hours for (presumably) about the same pay.  If anything, it might be necessary to raise adjuncts pay slightly

And since Pearlstein mentioned the idea of teaching mathematics and writing by computer program, let’s make something clear: with writing at least, that is impossible.  There are two things needed to make students into good writers.  The first is that they should read as much as possible, preferably as early as possible.  For most students, by the time they reach college, that boat has already sailed.  The second way to teach them writing is to make them write as much as possible, providing feedback on their work.  It’s possible that some forms of feedback, like MS Office’s spell check, could help teach students things like, well, spelling.  It is not going to teach students the niceties of word choice, how to rhetorically direct their work to a certain audience, how to write a complex sentence, or anything else belonging to the skillset of a “good writer” (which means simply a writer that we can read without cringing).

To reiterate my point then: if all the students are actually coming to these labs and discussion sessions—in other words, if all the students are in the class with good reason, and are observing their obligations diligently—the university running a Pearlstein-shaped MOOC will need to pay for more or less the same number of man hours as it would have done to teach these courses in small classrooms.

But that’s assuming all the students actually come.  It may be that these sessions and labs could operate with fewer people simply because fewer students will show up to them—certainly, if they are optional, only the students who deeply care about their work will be there.

Or make that—only students who don’t have a project from another class due tomorrow.

Or—only students who aren’t burnout from three prior classes that day.

Or—only students who realize that “optional” actually means “any serious person will be here.”


There are a thousand reasons for not doing an optional thing.  I should know: I wanted to study Shakespeare and, realizing that I wouldn’t ever make the time for it on my own, I enrolled in graduate school.  I am now writing a dissertation on Shakespeare—in other words, getting to do exactly what I should have been able to make myself do on my own.  I wanted it rather badly.  But I only have gotten to the point of doing it by enrolling myself in a program, and putting myself in a situation where there is a modicum of pressure from external deadlines, and people whom I respect.  (This extends to all sorts of other areas of life—who makes progress spiritually without a regular confessor? kicks an addiction without an accountability buddy? trains for a competition alone?  Those same happy few are probably the same happy few who will avail themselves of the resources they need to learn from a MOOC.)

But the point about students using or not using resources obscures the larger issue.  The larger issue is about the kinds of things which can be taught in a pre-recorded lecture, as opposed to the kinds of things that can be taught in a classroom.  Information is information.  You can memorize it diligently from a MOOCture, knowing that you will fail the course if you fail too many of the “quizzes, games and interactive exercises.”  (Although, speaking for experience with my own students, some of them are surprisingly bad at distilling video information into a form which enables them to answer such quizzes correctly.)  But let’s be clear what the MOOCture is: it is not education.  It is absorption, absorption of the sort of rote facts that the students should have absorbed in high school.  Strike that—in grade school.  

Kindergarten, they tell me, is the best time for this.
I'm not sure he's in kindergarten, but ...

This is not, by the way, intended as a slam against rote memorization, or learning facts—I wish more of that happened in American high schools.  But there is absolutely no point in coming to college for this, for facts, for information.  Take an online course independently, if you want information.  Or go to a trade school, where the information will be more practically useful.  College is (or should be) for students who want to think about ideas, making connections among them on their own.  In other words, college is for students who know that they want (in some extended sense of the word) to philosophize, or at least to reason.  It’s a somewhat unusual desire.

I do realize that if all universities seriously embraced this attitude, there would be even fewer jobs for myself and my peers than in Pearlstein’s vision of the university; so I suppose, from a selfish standpoint, I ought not to trumpet the dubious superiority of my vision.  But on the other hand, it is important to realize that the sort of university which Pearlstein has in mind is selling itself to students as the same as “my” university (for I have only appropriated an ancient vision), when in fact the divide between the knowledge of one and the liberal education of the other is profound.

1 comment:

  1. I like (and quite agree with) your point about going to school because you aren't going to do all the hard work on your own.
    Father Arne told a story to that effect at your rehearsal dinner.

    As with most campaigns for change, those championing the abolition of the university system in general (as opposed to merely its selective use) have no idea of all the implications that would have or the benefits that it entails...