Friday, July 24, 2009

Naked Teaching

Alex Reid and Tim Burke have both commented on this Chronicle article about SMU's proposal to remove computers from the classroom.  Both Reid and Burke have pointed out that removing computers does not guarantee that teaching will automatically improve.  Burke notes that teachers who use PowerPoint as a crutch used to use notes or transparencies and will likely simply revert back to those pre-computer methods.  Burke outlines some suggestions for what makes lectures better.  But Reid raises the issue of what to do with a hundred or several hundred students when you're not lecturing.  The article itself notes that "Lively interactions are what teaching is all about."  I can tell you that in my spring class with 40 students, managing those lively interactions was quite challenging.  How, then, do you do that with hundreds?  There are no answers in the article itself, though it gives examples of interactive discussion occuring in several classes.  There is no mention of how large those classes are.  Reid suggests that the delivery of college courses will need to change.  The article mentions the pressure on colleges to do more within the classroom since lectures are now either freely available or available at a lower cost (for college credit) online.  Why would someone want to pay thousands of dollars for something they can get for free?  Lectures, then, and especially bad ones, are no longer always a cost-effective and certainly not a learning-effective way to deliver instruction.  Could a place like UC-Davis, where my colleague Leslie Madsen-Brooks works and where there are classes as large as 700 students, afford to break those large classes up?  Would it make sense to have such a large class watch the professor deliver her lecture via a video podcast and then be broken up into smaller chunks to meet with TAs to discuss the material, work on problem sets, or do some other activity?  There are costs involved in the production of the video and then there are the costs of the labor to handle the smaller sections.  Are there ways that this method saves money?  Lower facilities costs?  Better retention rates?  Justification for higher tuition?

This issue makes me think, too, of Dean Dad's occasional suggestion that we should decouple class time from class credit.  What if a student can breeze through a first year biology class in half the time? What if another student needs a year to cover the same material?  Can colleges accommodate that and if they do, what are the costs?  While the technology that allows this kind of time compression creeps me out a little bit when applied to younger students, it seems perfectly logical at the college level, especially in courses where there's already a huge distance between faculty and student.  Being able to check in with a tutor or a TA from time-to-time while working through the material on your own strikes me as better than the current lecture system.  There are actually many possibilities, facilitated in some cases by technology.  The problem is at least two-fold.  One, none of the options are likely to both improve instruction and reduce costs (many seem more expensive).  Two, change within the ivory tower is extraordinarily slow.  There are so many competing interests and in places where large lectures are the norm, the students' best interests are often last on the list.  But I do think that students and parents are starting to ask, "What am I paying for?" when they see that they're getting material that is easily accessible for free or at a much lower cost.  Hopefully that pressure for change will reach the podium of the lecture halls.

Cross-posted at Emerging Technologies Consulting.