Monday, May 30, 2011

My Most Frustrated Post on How to Reinvent Higher Education

The Atlantic, to its credit, is being a pit bull in not letting higher education continue to get away with the terrible education it provides. The latest is an article calling for "genius" professors to make their courses available online, a la what MIT and Yale have done.

But that would be merely a drop of water in what could be an oceanic change. After reading the article on The Atlantic's website, I posted this as a comment. Forgive the frustrated and know-it-all tone but I decided to allow myself the luxury of letting 'er rip:

THE answer is to, for a given course, say Intro to Economics:

1. Assemble a team NOT of the great genius professors but those MOST TRANSFORMATIONAL TO UNDERGRADUATES.

2. Have them divide the course into the segments each best teaches.

3. Have a genius in online instructional design work with each professor to develop their segment to maximize INTERACTIVITY, SIMULATION, and other wonders possible online.

4. The resulting course would be SOLD to individual universities to offer to their students.

I've written about this so many times for DECADES, most recently: Yet, the world has virtually been silent to my call.

Now I'm getting old and I fear that this true reinvention of higher education will not occur. We will continue to be so, so, so incremental. Only a fool would argue that the method of teaching, virtually unchanged in 2,000 years, will change because Joel Klein, Peter Thiel, Richard Vedder, and a few other outsiders decry it.

It's a political problem--There is TREMENDOUS vested interest in maintaining the status quo--the research-oriented professoriate and administrations who LOVE being allowed to get away with research-first professors teaching undergraduates cheaply, and of course, that's reinforced by the mammothly powerful higher education lobby. Higher education lobbying machines litter the halls of our government.

I sure hope I'm wrong. Truly, the world's future could be dramatically improved through higher education's reinvention along the lines I propose.


Anonymous said...

The problem with putting college level courses up online is two-fold. First, even though there are plenty of learning lessons online from MIT's OpenCourseWare to Khan Academy's YouTube videos, the material is non-transferable into actual college credits. Why would existing colleges allow non-fee generating material to substitute for its current arrangement of pricey lectures and seminars? Second, outside of narrow fields like art and programming where you can demonstrate your talent through your own portfolio, self study means nothing to employers because they can't evaluate and quantify it unlike an established credential like a college degree. How could an employer evaluate a candidate who said he watch three hours of lectures on the history of the American Labor movement from 1880 to 1930?

That is not to say higher education isn't ripe for transformation. It is. Though I think efforts at trying to create an online substitute to college is flawed in that it tackles the wrong problem. The problem is not that students lack access to undergraduate level learning--they have it in spades starting with Wikipedia--but that students lack an alternative to the degree as a credential (i.e., signal to employer that he is competent and able).

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. Here, I believe is the solution:

Universities buy a license for the online course. Per student, that costs less than paying an onsite professors. Also, they can legitimately assert that students would receive BETTER instruction than they'd otherwise receive. To avoid losing students that want the "human touch," the university can continue to offer live sections of a class--e.g., 3 sections of Econ 101 could be live and 1 taught by The DreamTeam online. As demand changed, they could change the ratio of live vs DreamTeam-taught courses.

With regard to grading, no problem: the course would embed lots of little quizzes as well as a midterm and final. If a university desired additional asssesment, for example, a term paper or essay exam, that could be added and graded by a professor or TA. By the way, a local TA or professor could/would be available to provide the human touch for a DreamTeam-taught course.

K-Man said...

Marty, a number of universities have put courses online for credit, but guess what: they cost the same as taking the same course at that university physically, not to mention the student still being on the hook for all the mandatory fees.

This would have to change dramatically for your wish to happen. I'm quite pessimistic about it. The universities just aren't going to leave money on the table.

Anonymous said...

I like your plan. I have several concerns though. One is that it might exacerbate qualification-inflation. We have a real problem with that already, jobs that require a longer resume than is really needed, just to restrict supply. (Jobs that require nurses, when an LVN would do, for instance. Jobs that require a lawyer, when a two-week training might do.)

Leonard said...

I presume that Dr. Nemko has seen this recent article from THE LOS ANGELES TIMES:,0,1981136.story

Marty Nemko said...

Thank you, Leonard. Indeed, I saw it when it came out and added it to the blog post of mine in which I listed an army of recent articles finally revealing higher education to be an emperor with no clothes. Here's the link to that list of articles:

ST said...

I think also, (part of) the solution is to test candidates in the job interview with real work, or tests/questions that really reflect that the candidate can do the work, not questions that a candidate can give general BS answers to.

I know this can get expensive with every candidate who applies. I don't know how "American Idol" REALLY narrows down from thousands of singers to just a dozen or so, but somehow a graduating tier of screening processes.

We have entry level workers from a prestigious university in the area who go through sort of a junior executive training and rotation program. They have big egos, but the reality is, they have no work experience and a lot of it is fluff, they were on the football team, they give the impression they are "big thinkers" and geniuses, etc. Of course, overall, they are decently qualified enough. The reality is, they are just a cog in the corporate wheel and really won't change the company much in the long term.

Meanwhile, those of us who have been around a decade or more, have seen the hot shots come and go, and basically things just rotate around every few years, because a new executive (not from the training group above) will come and want to try something that already was tried a few years ago and failed.

So, after a couple decades, yes, we have embraced the internet, etc., but otherwise the basic machine just keeps humming along doing basically the same thing it did 20 years ago. Slow changing, and the work that needs to get done remains about the same, and we need people who can do the work and actually enjoy it. The people who are most successful in the long run are people who think the right way and have a good work ethic and some stability (i.e. stick around awhile), and they DON'T have fancy degrees or even much of a degree at all sometimes.

Joe Regan said...

Hi Marty,

I'm actually teaching myself the Python programming language at the moment through MIT OCW. It's very effective.

Unfortunately, it'll be a long time before people truly face reality. Our brick and mortal model of college is all well and good for those who are truly seeking a robust education, but how many is that? I could've gone w/out anything but my Math, Finance, and Economics courses in college.

The public is numb, though. We parade kids into 4 year schools, let them major in whatever they want for $200K, let them crash and burn on the job market, and then we ignore who's truly responsible. I have friends tell me all the time how they "need" this degree, but then hours later will tell me how easy their class on so-and-so is. This is education? What a fraud.

Leonard said...

My apologies, Dr. Nemko. Normally I read all your posts, but for some reason I overlooked (until you mentioned it on this thread) the one in which you noted the L.A. TIMES article I cited.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of puzzled here. The rhetoric around higher education in this blog tends to focus on the kind of highly selective, elite education from which Dr. N emerged, but at the same time, much of the argument claims to focus not on the folks in the top-tier schools but on the much larger group of folks in four year college for (paraphrasing) no particular reason.

There's been considerable quite good reporting on where the actual, open fraud is in education, and it's in the for-profit trade school sector. That sector now even awards advanced degrees via places outfits like the University of Phoenix.

Reform of the funding stream to the for-profit schools is actually moving through Congress right now. But despite those schools actually affecting larger numbers of students than the university system focused on so often here, and despite the fact that their curriculum is business or trade focused and thus should both promote entrepeneurship and provide useful, concrete training, this blog hasn't, in my memory, troubled itself with them.

I don't get why they fly below the radar.

Marty Nemko said...

I focus on the hundreds of thousands of students every year who are admitted to taxpayer-funded "four-year" colleges who are receiving terrible value for the time and money. (And of course so does the taxpayer.) I focus on this segment because, as with most of what I write, I try to focus on what's important and underreported. The mainstream media--ever anti-corporate--spares no ink in calling for-profit institutions to account. Also, I've been a consultant to the presidents of 15 so-called non-profits (mainly state universities) and so I know very well what goes on behind its ivy.