More Than a Few Tough Things (3)

In my second post in this series I took on my colleague Steve Pearlstein‘s argument that “universities” should engage in less research, more teaching. In this final post in the series, I want to take up his argument about general education.

Cheaper, better general education. The reform of general education is something I’ve had a lot to say about in this blog over the years, for example: 20062008; and 2008; and again in 2008; and 2010, just to highlight a few of my more agitated posts. So, I agree with Pearlstein that it’s time to take an axe to general education requirements at many universities (not all, just many, and especially mine). But where I have a problem with his argument is when he says the following:

“A university concerned about cost and quality would restructure general education around a limited number of courses designed specifically for that purpose — classes that tackle big, interesting questions from a variety of disciplines. Harvard, with its Humanities 10 seminars, and the University of Maryland, with its I-Series, have recently taken steps in that direction. But this approach will achieve significant savings only if the courses are designed to use new technology that allows large numbers of students to take them at the same time.”

This statement betrays a belief in the efficacy of teaching complex knowledge to large numbers of students at the same time and in the value of efficiency through technology. For a century now, ever since what was once known as the “Harvard system” (large lecture/small recitation) began to invade college campuses, university general education curricula have been built on the delivery of content to masses of lower level undergraduate students (in the classic Course X 101 lecture hall). The application of technology to this delivery system is just a different way to do the same thing — sever the connection between teacher and learner.

A teacher on a screen or as the hidden hand behind an algorithm is no more connected to a learner than is the “sage on the stage” in a lecture hall seating 100, 500, or 800. And I challenge you to find a study run by a cognitive scientist (as opposed to an educational or disciplinary researcher) that demonstrates that the learning outcomes from such disconnected learning exceed those one obtains in a smaller classroom where real connections between teacher and learner are the norm and collaborative learning is the standard. Such studies may exist. And if they do, I’d love to read them.

The real problem is one that Pearlstein doesn’t acknowledge, namely that in today’s challenging fiscal environment in public higher education, fraught with legislative disinvestment, spiraling discount rates, and other financial pressures he doesn’t acknowledge (especially growing amounts of deferred maintenance) general education is all about the money. At today’s enrollment driven public college or university, what really matters is butts in seats. If you can’t filled the seats, there is no money. That’s true at the department level, but also at the institutional level.

In fact, Pearlstein’s suggestion is in line with the tried and true approach to this budget model, namely, let’s find a way to let “large numbers of students to take [their general education courses] at the same time.”

Why? Because if we don’t, our budget model will break. Plain and simple.

Thus, I’m not impressed by Pearlstein’s notion of creating something new and cost efficient that would be somehow different. I don’t want cost efficient general education. I want quality general education where students actually learn a subject — something quite different from “great talks by one or more professors and outside experts [combined] with video clips, animation, quizzes, games and interactive exercises — then supplementing that online material with weekly in-person sessions for discussions, problem solving or other forms of “active learning.”

Who, by the way will hold those “in-person” sessions if 800 students are taking the class? And more to the point, who will staff the ““labs” open day and night that use tutors and interactive software to provide individualized instruction in math and writing until the desired competency is achieved.”

Oh, wait. He must mean graduate students…

And so we are back to the economics of the thing. You can’t have “in-person sessions” for large numbers of students and late night labs for large numbers of students unless you are paying graduate students near-starvation wages. It just doesn’t work. Sorry.

A better solution is to rethink the very notion of how we deliver general education altogether.  As  Matt Reed wrote in his response to Pearlstein’s argument in Inside Higher Ed:

Cheaper, better general education? We have an entire sector for that, too. Research universities are called “research universities” for a reason. If you want a place that values teaching, community colleges are everywhere. For that matter, so are the former teachers’ colleges that form the backbone of most four-year public systems. If you don’t like the economics of the research university sector — and there are good reasons not to — you have alternatives.

The Ernst & Young study of Australian higher education speaks to this exact issue and I have to say, I’m sympathetic to their argument that we need to rethink public higher education as  a sector, not just university by university (our default).

What would that look like in Virginia where I work?

We have two large well-endowed and well-funded flagship universities: the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. We should just admit that those two universities are, and will continue to be the big kids on the block, offering a broad range of graduate programs and research across their campuses. The other three doctoral universities in our “system” (Virginia isn’t really a system like Wisconsin or Indiana or Texas) should become, in the words of the E&Y report, “niche dominators.”

George Mason, where I work, might dominate the niche(s) most closely connected to Washington, D.C. — policy, security, human rights, etc. Virginia Commonwealth University already dominates the niches of health care and the arts. Old Dominion University might end up dominating niches related to defense (given the Norfolk naval station close by), maritime and/or ecological research, or whatever makes sense for them. To get to these dominating positions in our niches, the three institutions in this sector would then also engage in cost shifting by radically downsizing, or yes, eliminating, their investment in graduate programs in any discipline outside their niches, and pour that money into undergraduate education.

And were I the king of Virginia, I would also shift a significant amount of the resources currently devoted to undergraduate general education — especially every penny spent on a course seating more than 100 students — to the community college system. As Matt Reed points out, community colleges, by and large, do an excellent job in those first two years of the college curriculum — so why not throw bad money after good and give it to them?

Don’t believe me when I say they do a good job? A student who enrolls at George Mason University after completing an AA degree from a community college is more likely to graduate from our university than one who enrolls with us as a freshman. So, who’s doing a better job when it comes to general education?

Of course, everything I’ve written in this series flies in the face of both generally accepted practice in American higher education, and our common desire to be more like University X or Y who I likely see as being more of a “real university” than the one where I work.

I guess it’s probably a good thing I won’t ever be king of Virginia.