Disruptiness in higher ed vs. deep tweaking

Matt Yglesias on Twitter: No subsidies and few regulations, so yoga classes will soon be replaced by streaming video. #nottrue.

Sara Goldrick-Rab: Technology breaks the iron triangle between access, quality, and costs — it makes it more possible to offer a high-quality lower cost accessible education. I’m on-board with that and it may be one thing that sets me apart from most other professors…. I’ve long wondered why I teach today in approximately the same way my colleagues did a half-century ago. Why stand in front of classrooms of 30-50 undergraduates several times a week, rather than meeting with 300 of them twice a month and the rest of the time online? Some will inevitably say that will produce lower-quality instruction but they have nothing to point to– studies of blended learning are strongly suggestive of positive impacts.

From bubble talk to disruption chatter, a good bit of rhetoric on higher education these days focuses on the Academic Rapture coming October 21, when the Good Folks will rise up to Heaven and have prepaid gift Chronicle of Higher Ed subscriptions while everyone else stays on Earth writing multiple-choice exam questions and sitting in endless faculty meetings while the Earth crumbles and the Anti-Christ forces all students to read Talcott Parsons and Hayden White. (For those who have not read Parsons or White, first imagine having your brain matter extruded from your ears gram by gram while listening to William Shatner’s singing. Then imagine that’s the feeling of relief you’ll get from having stopped reading Parsons and White, and you just about have it.)

Well, maybe not quite the Academic Rapture, but it’s sometimes hard to distinguish academic millennarianism from eschatological millennarianism.

Other writers have taken on the problems with the asset-bubble metaphor, most recently in Monday’s Inside Higher Ed column by Robert Archibald and David Feldman. Earlier this year, I commented on the Clayton Christensen disruption claim, but I want to return to the central question of change because of Sara Goldrick-Rab’s blog post June 10 (quoted above). I think Goldrick-Rab has a fundamental misunderstanding of technology and teaching in higher education, but not because available technology doesn’t matter. Rather, as Jon Becker might say, the utopian arguments of revolution are swamped by the details of use (“affordances” in design-speak). Larry Cuban’s explanation of why lectures persist is not inherent conservatism but the flexibility of lecturing, which faculty and K-12 teachers can tweak to serve their ends. I am a little more cynical, having pointed out (along with others) that iTunes and Khan Academy propagate the lecture model far more than undermine the stereotypical images of higher education classes. Lecture-capture is simply an extension, a technology for making lecturing easier and allowing me to bore far more students at a distance without my university’s having to hire tech support to videotape the class. If this is the act of “breaking the iron triangle” that Goldrick-Rab claims it is, I will be surprised. It promises a nasty sort of tradeoff, allowing the “higher productivity” of letting community colleges cheaply simulate the alienating environment of sitting in a 700-person lecture hall watching a Big Name at Harvard spout off, except that it’s the Sort of Big Name at WestEast Community College, or NorthSouth State U.

As many colleagues around the country and globe can attest, neither distance learning nor blended courses promise the great “productivity gains” Goldrick-Rab assumes in terms of cost, because there is always time involved in having real, emotion-laden and dramatic contact between faculty and students and among students. At most, at least in that realm, instructional technology can allow one to shift resources around by time, location, and availability. That is no mean feat, but it is the change in human relationships in a class that is the core of it, not the existence of specific technology. The common term here is course-redesign, and while it promises improved results at similar or lower costs, the technology is less important than how the details of a course fit together, including the use of faculty and staff time. Carol Twigg is the primary representative of this course-redesign argument, and I’ve never read anything from her that suggests it’s an easily-reproducible model of change, the way that we’re used to hearing in the K-12 education reform narratives. In each case she describes in public, there is a careful planning process to figure out how best to use everyone’s limited time. It is less revolution than an intensive version of classroom tweaking. Maybe intensity is not the right word: depth is better. Carol Twigg advocates deep tweaking.

As the first studies of e-textbook use come out, we’re beginning to see why deep tweaking is likely to be a more successful model of change than Clayton Christensen’s assumption of technological disruption: e-books are becoming very popular for romance-novel readers, but a high proportion of current students do not want to use electronic textbooks. Until you can drag a device somewhere and highlight passages of text for later study, e-book texts are going to be student-unfriendly. And probably after that, too. A number of students in my summer class told me this week they hate electronic reserves because they face the choice of reading the file on their laptop or paying the cost of printing everything out. The ideology of easy disruption is no match for the reality of college students. Or, to paraphrase Thomas Huxley, this is the great tragedy of Ed Tech: the slaying of a beautiful design by an ugly affordance.

So what type of deep tweaking is possible? I’m not going to go all Tyack-Cuban last chapter on you (where Tyack and Cuban talk about jiggling classroom walls as the right level of tinkering), largely because this is far from my area of knowledge. Oh, yes, I’m trying to tweak my own teaching using some technology bits, but just because I have a blog is no reason to think that my experiments in the last few semesters are worthy of description just yet.

5 responses to “Disruptiness in higher ed vs. deep tweaking”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    A lot of this reminds me of the explosion of youth-oriented services that marked the collapse of apprenticeship in Jacksonian America. The Lyceum, Mechanics Halls and Mechanics Libraries, Apprentice Libraries, the lecture circuit that Ralph Waldo Emerson and others used to earn a living — all this arose to meet the thirst for knowledge, for learning blocked by failing social institutions. And it was all aimed at youth, with a characteristic flourish, heralded “as symbols of the rising progressive spirit of the age.”

    But it wasn’t until the apprentices themselves gained the right to manage them (Boston, 1828) that things changed, with the introduction of public lecture series, scientific demonstrations, and debates. Eventually, one of their members even became the mayor of Boston.

  2. Sara Goldrick-Rab

    Dear Sherman,

    It’s nice to see we disagree on something. 🙂

    No, I don’t see technology as a panacea, and I definitely recognize both the upfront costs involved (and the costs of updating over time) as well as the continued personal investment. Moreover, perhaps I ought not to have used the term “productivity” since the more accurate phrase for what I think would occur is enhanced cost-effectiveness. In other words, I think we can make a bigger impact for more students at (at least) a slightly lower cost.

    Frankly I think the current approach to university teaching is highly overrated and misrepresented by those who assume that students are engaged and learning despite a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. I think engaging faculty are the exception rather than the rule. I’d love to be proven otherwise– after all I only have personal experience at 4 universities over the last 15 years to draw on.

    As you know, I’m all for faculty having plenty of rights to decide what and how to teach, but one thing that technology brings when it’s done well is a set of tools that instructors can use to both communicate and evaluate effectively. How many professors right now in traditional classrooms are receiving daily feedback on how their students are understanding their lessons? My guess is very few–they don’t know how to solicit it without the standard tests and papers, and as a result they lose students they might’ve saved. There is nothing BUT flexibility provided to instructors when given good tools to get student feedback!

    No, I’m not arguing for a move to solely online learning– or even mostly online learning. And no, I’m not thinking Carol Twigg in particular. But I have in the past 2 years had the chance to experience some examples of extremely high quality instruction from folks like Candace Thille at Carnegie Mellon (http://oli.web.cmu.edu/openlearning/initiative/71/157). This is nothing like “lecture capture” — far from it. Indeed, because universities have resisted a move to ANY online learning the result is professors sneaking away for research trips and teaching via Skype! You don’t think we’d get more out of them if they felt they could teach and have their research too– by gaining more flexibility about where they teach from? An hour teaching may be an hour teaching but an hour spent teaching nearer one’s research site or conference might be a more productive one. I don’t care if you call it “deep tweaking” instead of disruptive innovation or whatever– the fact is that you will inevitably bend the iron triangle by increasing either quality or access while quite possibly decreasing costs in the long haul.

    Finally, this: I am reading the tea leaves– if we want to save public higher education we faculty had better start adopting the pieces of instructional activity used by institutions that have stronger incentives than we do to keep costs down. We don’t like their profit motives but it doesn’t mean they haven’t figured out stuff we can use. We have to — at minimum– improve our rates of success, and hopefully do even more by improving outcomes and diminishing costs. Sorta sad to say but…resistance is futile.


    1. CCPhysicist

      If you THINK you can increase the cost-effectiveness of your instruction, why not try it and find out? Put in place some outcome measures for an existing class, then see if you can maintain the same quality with 10 times as many students and no slave labor (low-paid adjuncts). That is, assuming your students are actually engaged and learning at present, unlike everyone else’s students, based on the preponderance of the evidence.

      BTW, the problem isn’t with students who are disengaged and not learning, it is with students who are disengaged, not learning, and still passing.

  3. Glen S. McGhee

    “BTW, the problem isn’t with students who are disengaged and not learning, it is with students who are disengaged, not learning, and still passing.”

    Cute! And, sadly, very true.

    Ray and Mickelson have forced me to reconsider student disengagement as a result of high school students that ARE intelligent observers of what is going on around them — so much so, that I find it surprising when they are engaged. They (Soc of Ed 1993/66:1-12) pointed out the reality of poor job prospects has had an overall negative impact on motivation, discipline, etc., for non-college-bound youth stuck in school.

    The recession, apparently, is producing a cross-over of this kind of disengagement *to* recent college grads. See Joe Light, “Many Graduates Delay Job Searches,” WSJ 6/4-5/2011 A4.