Higher Education

a straighterline to higher education hell

Both IHE and Kairosnews offer reports on the on-demand online services from StraighterLine. I first wrote on this about a year ago in response to an article in the Chronicle.  Of course it is just one instantiation of the general threat of information networks to institutions that operate on the premise of information scarcity and economies of scale that no longer apply.

Universities have taught FYC and general education courses on the cheap in order to cover the costs of more expensive parts of the university. Arguably, students benefit from those more expensive parts when they enter their majors and/or go to grad school. As such, potentially you could see a variable pricing schedule in higher education where universities price general education courses in competition with the rest of the marketplace and then charge more for upper-division courses. The net costs might remain the same. However, I'm not sure that higher education really wants to get into that kind of pricing war.

And I don't think that FYC catches the worst of this by the way. I mean, I don't see the lecture model of education surviving the next decade. It makes no sense to pay someone to give the same lecture over and over when you can pay someone once to do it on video. And since most lecture courses are introductory, the videos will not need to be refreshed that often (depending on the discipline, I guess).

Even when one gets beyond the general education lecture hall, lectures will still become unnecessary. True, an upper-division undergrad or grad course may call upon faculty specialized knowledge, but it is not the knowledge alone that make faculty valuable. It is the opportunity students have to interact with faculty. It is human interaction, whether FTF or online, that is labor intensive. The opportunity to work individually or in small groups with faculty or participate in a class small enough to allow for discussion: this is where the value lies in higher education.

I think we all know this, but it is a difficult value to capture in quantitative assessment.

It is our tendency to look at traditional higher education and imagine it as a near-optimal system (don't ask me why). But really you could look at it as a highly inefficient attempt to address technological-communication and information-management hurdles.

  • We have to drag you all here and lecture to you b/c we don't have a more efficient means of distributing information.
  • We have to create courses with preset meeting times and credits b/c the management costs of a more variable system are too high.
  • We need standardized curricula so that we can reduce costs.

So if you were to build a higher education system from the ground up, keeping for the moment disciplinary specializations (the question of discipline is a different matter), the one thing you'd want to retain from the current system is the opportunity for students to interact with faculty-scholars. You can dump the rest of it. The rest is really just there for accounting and management purposes. From that perspective you can see that an enterprise like StraighterLIne gets it completely backwards. They dump the one thing of value.

For example, one could imagine an English undergraduate program where one could find a repository of educational media dealing with subjects across the discipline which would serve as points of reference for the curriculum. Then you would have faculty who would announce various projects, perhaps developed in collaboration with interested students. Students would enlist in the project, work with faculty, and produce work. There could be student publications and conferences. Eventually there could be a portfolio review, culminating exam, and so on. Obviously the system would need to be a little more complex than that. There would be some introductory projects that would need to be taught that would serve as pre-reqs. Some projects that might serve the purpose of general education. And one would look to faculty to provide a certain level of interaction for students.

The point is that it is not difficult to imagine this level of mass customization and social networking today. And it is exactly the kind of thing that a university faculty can provide that cannot be automated. Are such ventures costly? Maybe. But I think this is where we must make our argument.