The End of Western Civilization as We Know It (cont’d)

In yesterday’s post I argued that it was time for American colleges and universities to take seriously the idea that we ought to start giving away our general education curriculum via various online content delivery systems. There are three principle objections I can think of to why giving away the general education curriculum is a bad idea.

The first objection has to do with learning. What kind of real learning would take place in a free, online content delivery system? In tomorrow’s post I’ll go into detail as to what such a free educational content delivery system might look like, but for now, let me deal with the objection that students might not be learning much through such a system.

In the 19th century instruction at American colleges and universities almost universally took place in small classes or in individual tutorials with professors. Toward the end of the century, a new system arose where “lecture” courses, especially introductory courses, got larger and larger. Concerned that students in these larger lecture halls weren’t receiving sufficient direct instruction, many institutions adopted what some called the “Harvard system” which blended the larger lecture with the discussion section run by a graduate student or junior professor. And an economic model was born.

Unfortunately for slightly more than 100 years worth of students attending those lectures, there is virtually no evidence that lecturing is an effective method of teaching–that is if we assume that the goal of teaching is to promote learning. Learning may take place in those discussion sections, but very little takes place in those lecture halls. Quite the contrary, actually.

Cognitive researchers will tell you that the vast majority of what goes in via the students’ ears exits their brains within 30 minutes, and that a substantial fraction of what remained is gone by the end of the day. We retain only tiny amounts of information acquired through listening to a lecture. Thus, it may make us feel better to note that our students listened to a lecture on the Renaissance, or Kafka, constitutional government, or whatever, but the object of general education is not to make us feel better–it is for them to learn something.

Viewed from the business side of the house, however, those large lectures with discussion sections are very cost effective. In fact, on many campuses around the United States they make it possible to have junior and senior level courses with small enrollments–courses where there is lots of evidence that real learning is happening.

Thus, for just over a century we’ve been charging students for courses where they haven’t actually learned very much. For this reason alone we probably ought to stop charging them.

But this leads to a second big objection to launching a free economy in higher education. What would happen to our budgets? At a place like George Mason, the thought is almost too horrible to contemplate.

As it turns out, lots of companies are making money in the free economy. In his Wired essay, Chris Anderson offers half a dozen different ways to make money in the free economy and in a subsequent post, I’ll offer suggestions for how universities like mine can actually make money (or at least break even) in the free economy.

And the final objection is reputational. What value would potential students assign to a George Mason University education if the first 40 credits of that education were free? For decades, private institutions of higher education have lived off of the idea that the higher your price, the better you are perceived in the marketplace. Public institutions like mine have looked on in a combination of envy and horror as private tuitions have gone stratospheric.

But if we offered 40 credits for free–if we were giving it away–how good could it be?

I submit that this worry is so 20th century.

Before the Internet introduced us to the free economy, I think we would have been right to worry about public perceptions of our quality based on price. But not any more. I think that now the prospect of a college education where one pays for only 80 credits would be more than a little appealing to the average American family. Especially now that graduate education seems more and more to be a necessary further expense.

And George Mason is, after all, a state funded institution, providing a lower cost education to the people of our state (plus a growing number of out of state students). If we can advance our mission at two-thirds of the cost to the students, then aren’t we doing just the sort of public service we were chartered to do?

Because this post has gone on plenty long, I’ll stop here. Tomorrow I will offer up several possible educational delivery options in which I’ll explain how we might actually promote learning in the general education curriculum. I’ll try to wind this series up the following day with some suggestions on how to make free work as an economic model in higher education.

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  1. Pingback: On the New Dawn of methodology, and other digital-booster claims « The Vapour Trail

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