Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The changing business of education

I've come across a couple of interesting articles recently that have made me wonder if (some) schools are actively anticipating the bursting of the student loan bubble, and responding in advance by streamlining their processes and making education less expensive (and more democratic). The most intriguing of these articles was cited in this post on the Marginal Revolution blog, discussing a new approach to math classes at Virginia Tech.
There are no professors in Virginia Tech’s largest classroom, only a sea of computers and red plastic cups. 
In the Math Emporium, the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor. 
The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000. Students walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays... 
Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support. 
“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.” 
No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency via technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges.
This is an interesting development, particularly in light of Stanford and Harvard's recent decisions to begin streaming online courses for free to the masses over the internet.

While Stanford and Harvard's programs' ostensible purpose is to "democratize education", it's hard to understand why they would be so willing to give their product away for free (of course, we could argue that their real product is "diplomas", not "education", but that's an argument for another day). One answer might be that they're experimenting with new (and cheaper) ways of delivering their educational product to consumers, using the public as guinea pigs rather than their tuition-paying students. It's just a theory, but I think it makes a lot of sense.

The simple fact is, the traditional model of education (professor lecturing to a room full of bored students) has in many ways outlived its usefulness (a topic I first explored in this blog post). It's wildly inefficient, and it's now becoming overly expensive to deliver. Many schools on the cutting edge of education are wondering whether there might be a better model out there, and they're beginning to experiment with new options.

Granted, the schools are only doing this experimentation out of necessity, recognizing that the trend of ever-skyrocketing tuition costs simply cannot continue forever. If the schools don't adapt now, they risk being left behind (or left for dead) if and when the bubble bursts. But regardless of the reasons for the experimentation, the outcomes are nevertheless intriguing, and I'm interested to see if projects like the Math Emporium start to catch on elsewhere.

I'm certain that similar experiments will face an extraordinary amount of pushback in the short term (particularly from professors who earn their living from the old model), and maybe they should. But I'm hopeful that a new and more efficient higher education model awaits--and that I won't have to mortgage my house to send my daughter to receive it.

[Marginal Revolution]

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