Educational experiments and the long view.

All this talk of educational innovation here at UW begs the question, what exactly are we innovating?

I do think that higher education research and teaching, even with a  500+ year tradition of the small class college instruction, 150+ year tradition of the German research university model and the 100+ year mission of US land grant schools, is going to change radically whether we like it or not in the next 50 years, and we should be thinking about the 50-year horizon as much as we do about the 5 year, if we think there still will be a UW as we know it. So I caution anyone approaching innovation to think about the long road as we move forward in new experiments in higher education and making sure we articulate what we value in our existing models.

I’m not sure we should change a lot of what we value (direct instruction, campus culture, research excellent, faculty governance), but we do have to face the statistics. The majority of faculty in US are no longer tenure track and the majority of students are at community colleges, the bachelor’s degree is starting to be seen as essential as a high school diploma used to be, and tuition at brick and mortar schools will rise faster than inflation regardless of where we end up in state support (consider private university tuition) because we continue to be a labor intensive industry (like healthcare).

And oh, Sputnik is over; US federal investment in science R&D is never going to be what it was in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, there has been a lot of buzz lately over massively online open courses (MOOCs), which appear to be here to stay.

Whether online education is a panacea or snake oil is yet to be settled;  it is probably some of both. But for those not following the MOOCs, it’s worth figuring out what they’re all about.

Consider how Khan Academy is revolutionizing math education. Or last year, how a former Stanford professor and a Google executive teamed up to offer a free graduate-level course on Artificial Intelligence (AI), that led to 160,000 enrollees from all over the world – AI was used to handle grading and moderate discussion forums. Students created social tools and networks to work on problems and learn material from each other. 23,000 people finished the course – 23,000 more people who now know what Bayes’ theorem and B-tree searching are!  The team has now formed a company (with venture capital and Google resources) called Udacity to offer more courses in sciences and math. Others are working with Universities to offer “badges” instead of degrees to facilitate piecemeal credentials for these courses; other schools are jumping on.

I don’t know if this is the future or just another fad. I’m not into doomsday talk or denigrating the value of the knowledge, creativity, and economic engine that we are as UW. But it’s worth asking, in this arena, what do we have to offer? Imagine if we could reach 100,000 people in one year to think about a topic of importance to you! What would you do?

But you may argue, there is value in small classes, labs, in-depth discussion, the in-person live lecture, written feedback, experts who conduct research who also teach. We serve to create knowledge and transmit this. What do we lose? The counterargument is that these are temporary roadblocks and technology may catch up. I don’t know the answer.

But I do know that taking the long road shouldn’t limit us from experimentation.

Maybe MOOCs will turn out to be nothing and we’ll stop blabbering about “disruptive technologies” and other cute buzzwords, but Silicon Valley is going nuts about higher ed (maybe they all got tired of the languishing for-profit charter schools) and if we’re not there in some form, even as critics, we will lose out.

Ankur Desai

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