1) Go read Lauren's post.
2) I agree with a very large chunk of what Lauren says and/ or brings up from the article she's citing.
I worded something funny in my response to Lauren's post via Twitter, and I am afraid she took it as me saying "this will never happen" or "you're wrong", neither of which was my intention. I love what Lauren has to say, and unlike what you do see occasionally (ie: "how do we turn all these college classes into video games?", which has been asked to me before) the ideas make sense. Its mixing the technological with the sociological in a way that understands the dynamics of a bad situation and proposing plausible solutions.
Now, what started the great Twitter debate of 2011 was that I made a comment about cost and culture as barriers. What was I on about?
Some background: Of my 13 years since graduating, I've spent more than ten working in higher education (and a year in the employ of higher ed prior to graduation). In that time, I have always been employed in offices which have been responsible for rolling out new technology to universities, faculty, researchers and students (going back to when pages were written in this stuff called HTML), several years getting courses online in all shapes and forms, and now working in Digital Libraries (or, as I wish to re-configure it: Research Networks). So let me share a few things.
If there's risk here of crossing swords with Lauren, its in noting that a lot of what she pitches isn't news on most college campuses. Rather, there is very little incentive for anyone to change the current model.
Yes, this is a depressing, depressing thought. But what sort of blog would this be if I didn't go into excruciating detail to talk about the situation?
Changing the Game and What a Prof Wants
Mostly, though, when we start talking educational policy, theory and integration of technology, its important to know that universities are shelling out what they can afford to make change and trying to work with instructors to make improvements. You're going to be hard pressed to find a major university that doesn't have offices like UT Austin's Center for Teaching and Learning, or offices within colleges such as the Faculty Innovation Center at the Cockrell School for Engineering. Universities are littered with folks with degrees in Instructional Design/ Technology, technologists bringing new ideas to campuses, offices of assessment that analyze more data on the university than you can shake a stick at, etc... In short, just because you haven't seen the changes happen in every classroom doesn't mean there aren't people working on this stuff.
These offices are the places that spend all of their time considering trends in higher education, diagnose all sorts of educational theory, plot technology-in-the-classroom integration, et al. They're out there talking about collaborative, assisted education, outcome and project based curricula, what-have-you. Unlike the TED-talkers, these guys aren't cranking a few ideas out and waiting for applause from true-believers, they're on the ground trying to enable change.
However (and you knew this was coming), generally those offices wind up helping only a portion of the faculty. I'm not going to talk about what should be here, I'm going to talk about what is, because these are two very separate things.*
- Within a university, colleges, departments and faculty are not rewarded for innovation in instruction, but they will do it to remain competitive with their peers at top-tier schools who generally have financial and staff support to improve their courses, and far more latitude to experiment.
- Most disciplines ask tenure track faculty to focus on research and publishing. I have seen very little evidence that faculty are able to count points toward tenure based upon innovation in instruction.
- Once tenure is had, you will see some faculty really go to town on becoming better teachers. Many, many others buy out their teaching time or teach the same two classes year after year.
- Faculty are experts in a field or science, they are not trained educators (you can expect this to be untrue in the college of Education, I suppose)
- Many faculty at research institutions have an expectation that part of higher education is the "sink or swim" model, and that their role is to provide information and assessment
- The overriding sentiment is that college was competitive and difficult in their day, and its a matter of character that those who show up to get credit best be ready to deal with what's handed them
Its likely worth noting that most suggestions for the implementation of technology is very learner focused. It matches a best-case scenarios for students. This doesn't jive very well with how faculty have traditionally taught, which gets back to the points above. Unlike K-12 education, once you get past entry-level courses in higher ed, each course and the person delivering it is considered part of the value (your learner's mileage will vary on that sentiment). Under this model, its simply cheaper to have the person delivering the course in the room talking at students than to spend time and money creating complex and expensive systems which can't be re-used should your faculty members swap out.
Now, what's interesting is that if you look at University of Phoenix (the for-profit online and face-to-face university), there's a model there that is actually not entirely dissimilar to what a lot of educational theorists like. Courses are entirely online, there's a project-based, standard curricula that can is more mediated than taught, and few online students ever meet their colleagues, and yet work and learn through collaborative courses, staying (in theory) with a cohort from class day 1 through graduation.
This model hasn't been widely adopted, and hasn't won UofP many fans outside of the state of Arizona, meaning many employers still do not recognize a UofP degree in the way they might from Backwater State U. I cannot, with any confidence, state that those opinions are changing.
Asking a tenure-track junior faculty to spend significant time redesigning a course and curricula that will pace to an individual learner's needs? When that same faculty/ researcher is also in the lab or writing papers or researching or trying to get published, all of which takes up a huge amount of time?
By the way, if I can point to one thing suggested with great frequency and which the fellow Lauren quotes pitches, do not pay the MTV Gambit. Its my experience that you do not try to tell faculty that their courses need to be video-game-like or ready for the MTV generation. (a) The MTV generation is in its mid-30's, and (b) very, very few faculty see their job is to entertain. Bear in mind the point above about an education is something people earn, and what I'm counting as 13 years of being told people will quit coming to college if we don't turn the class into Zelda... hasn't happened. I'm not saying kids wouldn't love it, but from the other side of the coin... its hard to incentivize the instructor. To those who treasure their mortatr boards and gowns, its a bit like saying "but can't we spice up how Congress works for the MTV generation?"
I firmly believe in gaming and simulation as part of learning, but I can admit that the pay-off doesn't scale very well once you hit any courses with a seat count below the 400-seat History 101 classes. But you also have to wonder how much you want a standard curricula at school after school (hint: most universities do not want it, but we'll see how things look if the recession continues).
If no faculty were willing, I wouldn't have had a job at a couple of my different employers, so let's be clear. There numbers are not in the majority, and its always a sales job (and half the effort is in keeping faculty on the rails and not doing something awful and weird). Faculty need to see that the students will be happier, and that there are positive results (ie: grades go up, students go to the dean less complaining about the abusive treatment received, etc...). Whatever you bring to the instructor has to be extremely lightweight for them to use, and it has to work on the first try. Your technology must have repeatable results, be something they can brag on when they show it to their colleagues, and be something that they can manage. Oh, and, yeah, it can never, ever go down or fail. Failure means that its always easier to just go back to how things were before these crazy kids showed up with their gizmos.
Then, of course, you have to be ready for the students who are going to misunderstand and crater once they aren't in a traditional classroom, where they've previously thrived.
To be truthful, most of what Lauren described has long been talked about, but now that technology seems like its catching up to The Diamond Age, things are going to get interesting. Likely one of the toughest hurdles to clear will be exactly how faculty remain within the structure (or as we'd say in higher-ed, "Paradigm") in order to ensure that content is the latest and greatest rather than expecting robots and pre-created content to churn out the perfect pupil.
Keeping the content updated, reliable, working, etc... brings us to our second point...
The issue with eLearning and technology solutions is that as powerful as they can be, introducing any new technology into the classroom has, thus far, had an extraordinarily high cost and extraordinarily short shelf life in comparison to white boards and markers. Your award-winning effort of two years ago can be made moot or ridiculous by the next emerging technology and/ or educational practice du jour. You may have also spent literally ten's of thousands of somebody's money getting there only to see Slippery Pete's EduWare release a free piece of software that's ten times slicker than your tool, just about the time you're ready to present on it.
For this reason, higher ed loves Open Source. There's little upfront cost, and higher ed often collaborates, so its easier to know what's going on and to contribute. But, open source is (as we say) the Free Puppy Model. Yes, the puppy is free, but you need to feed it, take it to the vet, etc... Nothing is ever actually free, but in universities its usually better not to try to put a huge vendor cost down in front of the purse holder. In general, my observations tell me the costs generally wind up evening out as Open Source generally means that the solution is not, as we said back in 2003, turn-key, and work must be done to manage and maintain the systems rather than picking up the phone and yelling at your sales rep to fix the damned thing.**
During the past decade, public support for education has become incredibly low in states like Texas and Arizona (California is going to be an interesting case as public-referendum-mandated state law binds them to all sorts of higher-ed services, but the tax dollars aren't there). During high times, legislators decided to cap tuition (which they did in Texas) expecting others would pick up the tab.*** During low times, in order to balance budgets, the constant slashing of the state budget for higher ed (as they've done in Texas, California, etc, et al) has meant a reduction in all sorts of services at your local college. The two together have caused a very odd place in higher ed, new since WWII, in that no matter the state of the economy, its time to slash and burn.
With the poor economy, the fund-raising (or, as its referred to in higher-ed speak: development) side of the pie has also been greatly reduced as wealthy alums aren't so wealthy anymore, or are investing in their own portfolios to remain afloat. And, yes, corporate grants have followed suit.****
Unless a specific grant is landed to attempt a particular new model for education, funding can be withheld in favor of projects that are considered rock solid, re-usable, long lasting and which will affect and support the most students.
Can the University Mandate Changes?
Well, let me back up. Yes, they can. If a Provost or President mandates changes - and is willing to go to the mat with their faculty to enforce that change, then one supposes that anything (properly funded) could occur. And, despite what I said above, were funding and support readily available.
This is a fundamental revision of educational delivery. But... In the next few years, someone is going to deliver platforms that can handle this as easily as Learning Management Systems. That integration into major schools took about 7 or 8 years to reach the point where the challenge isn't for the instructors, but for the IT folks to keep it running and for certain staff to guide faculty in the early days. But that's also just a handy insta-class-website tool, not a change in the educational paradigm.
University culture is notoriously independent to the point of abso-ludi-crous-ness. Until about two years ago, at UT departments were running email servers under their desks rather than give in and just admit it makes more sense for everyone to be on the same email system and at this late date, all those servers are still running, and we're just waiting for the right people to quit paying attention before they get shut down. But its never been the business of the university to do more than assess and try to help faculty who admit they need help (or, I suppose, those who get such bad evaluations, somebody feels the need to intervene).
And so, in conclusion:
I don't want to paint the change of education as a hopeless pipe dream, but its going to take time, its going to have to be easier for faculty, and its going to need to be cheap. Take heart, you dreamers of a better world, your advocates are out there and they are trying.
To see change, faculty have to believe that they aren't doing something correctly, and higher-ed is a pretty big echo chamber reinforcing some pretty bad habits (its SOP in undergraduate engineering to believe that all students earn 50% on exams and then the instructor just curves the grade and that's working - but somehow instructors believe that doesn't mean students missed half of the material taught to them).
Its going to happen. Slowly, painfully, and a lot of people will need to die and retire before you see a sea change in how education occurs. But it'll happen.
*I should be captain of a crack commando squad bringing our own special brand of justice to the streets, I am sitting on my couch in need of a shower
**One thing nobody really talks about is that we insist education, K-12 and higher ed, be "wired" without considering what that's looked like on the ledger. Universities spent a lot of money ramping up IT in the 1990's and have absorbed a terrific cost in hiring systems folks, programmers, security people, networking people, etc... none of which was part of HR consideration two decades ago when the height of classroom technology was an overhead projector and university IT systems = telephone exchanges. This cost has been passed along to the consumer, to an extent, and it has gradually reduced some staffing as efficiencies have been found, but, of course, then you have this whole expensive IT staff you've got to pay somewhat competitively. Very fortunately, the cost of It infrastructure itself seems to drop quite a bit on a continual basis, and universities opening themselves up to the idea of use of commodity IT resources has helped to lessen the blow.
***by the way, part of the skyrocketing costs of higher ed are not bloated university salaries or gold-plated chairs for faculty. Its the cost of benefits (ie - health insurance) for staff and faculty. Staff salaries are usually below those at private companies, but the understanding has been that the benefits are good. This is increasingly untrue, and good people are pulling up stakes and moving on. We lost 1/4 of our own staff in the past few months.
****I've seen the other side of this during boom times. Having a corporate patron trying to think of ways to do new, cool things is a very strange experience in a place where ordering a white board marker requires multiple signatures.