Monday, June 14, 2010

iCollege U?

Knowing that I am interested in how higher education is perceived by those outside academia, and in particular the depiction of higher education in the media, a friend sent me a link to a video of an interview on The Daily Show. In this episode from last week, the governor of Minnesota had this to say about what we need to change about how the government spends taxpayers' money:

For example, higher education.. Do you really think in 20 years, somebody's going to put on their backpack, drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?

No, of course not! In 20 years we will all have personal jet-packs so we can fly from the suburbs to our classes and jobs!

Actually, no one said that. In fact, Jon Stewart said, Isn't that was college is supposed to be?

Governor: Yeah, partly. Partly.

(various jokes about how college is supposed to be boring or students will just party and never want to graduate)

The governor continued: Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says "Show up at 9:00 on Wednesday morning for Econ 101"? Can't I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it, from wherever I want, and instead of paying thousands of dollars, pay $199 for iCollege...

There followed a somewhat incoherent and disjointed discussion involving public vs. private options, the governor's repetition of his statement that there is a "one-size-fits-all" system run by a bureaucracy, and his wish that we could "put the consumer in charge".

This is strange on so many levels. I think it would be great if a college education were much less expensive and easily accessible to all (without massive student loans), but somehow I don't think this governor is proposing to increase state funding for his university to allow for tuition decreases.

But let me be more systematic so that I don't drone on and on like I do in my Science 101 lectures. Here is a list of the things I don't like about this grim depiction of the travails of 21st century college students:
  • the emphasis on the (implied unreasonable) physical effort and time involved in attending a class. Even if we expunge from our minds the vision of an otherwise able-bodied student lying on the couch in the rec room of their parents' suburban home, unwilling to do more than push a few buttons on some awesome later generation of iPhone, and instead imagine someone with work/family commitments that make commuting to a campus difficult, does Governor Pawlenty think that even today there are no other options for that student?
  • the gratuitous insult that implies that instructors "drone" to passive audiences, making it not worth the effort to attend a course in person. You can't even fast forward when someone is speaking to you in person, in real time!
  • the implication that it is obnoxious for a university to expect that a student will show up at a particular time and place for a class. I have heard that some companies expect their employees to do this as well, but maybe that's just a vicious rumor.
  • one-size-fits-all? Where does that come from? What does that even mean in this context, especially in a statement that implies that, in the future, no one will physically want to travel to a campus to take classes? There are many options in higher education today, not just public vs. private, but also within public university systems, and even within a single university. There are online courses and other forms of distance learning, there are large classes and small classes, there are lectures and seminars and independent study programs. There are day classes, night classes, and summer classes. There are typically multiple sections of intro classes. All of these are potentially quite interactive, including the online courses, providing students with a wide range of options.
  • Put the consumer in charge of what? That's a buzz phrase -- let's empower the people (who will pay lower taxes), not the big institutions (that suck up all our tax money and give nothing back)!
Public universities should provide high-quality education to students, and should keep costs to students and taxpayers as low as possible. There should be constant efforts to improve teaching and the overall educational experience for students. Some of that push to improve comes from the needs and demands of the "consumer", so if that is what it means to put the consumer in charge, I can agree with that. If it means that states can squeeze the budgets of universities because consumers don't want to pay more for a course than they do for an iPhone, then I start to disagree.

And I don't agree that there is a monolithic University bureaucracy that has only one idea about how to educate its students.

All that aside, I do hope that the governors of our states realize that there is more to a university than how it lectures to undergraduates, important though that part of a university certainly is. I hope they realize that the research and teaching missions of a university are intertwined, that there are real people teaching those courses (only some of whom drone), that there are discoveries and innovations resulting from the efforts of those people (including some students), that some courses do require physical participation by real 3D students and professors in real time, and that perhaps businesses and other organizations seeking to hire graduates of our great institutions of higher education will prefer that their new employees are willing and able to haul their keisters into work at a specified time and place.

41 comments:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

So all those downloaded lectures are supposed to be more interactive than an actual classroom experience with a real live professor... how?

You're right on on every last one of your points on this, FSP.

Alex said...

I think that strong arguments can be made for different modes of content delivery besides showing up to a classroom. However, college is about more than just content delivery. It's also a formative experience. Whether that formative experience is via group projects in professional programs, residential campus life (if your income and life permit), student organizations (commuters and residents alike can benefit from the social and professional development), or whatever, there's a big benefit to face time. Yes, I know smart people who have learned useful things in online programs, but I'm not about to declare the death of in-person education yet.

Also, I think that non-academic enthusiasts for online teaching under-estimate the work involved: I've thought about doing an online course, but the reason I haven't is not a lack of respect for the task, but rather an abundance of respect: I think a good online course would be really, really, really hard for me to prep, especially since I am not a naturally visual or tech-savvy person. Diagrams on the board are one thing to prepare, and I can supplement them with discussion to make the in-class experience interactive. Preparing interactive graphical presentations are quite another thing. Even evaluating materials prepared by others, collecting the appropriate ones, packaging them into modules, and building other course materials around them is quite another. This is a very, very big job if done well. It will take time to perfect. It will take IT help. It will probably take a lot of discussion and mentoring from others who have done it.

Yes, in theory it reaches a point where you can scale it up and serve lots and lots of students, but given how much time and effort goes into getting it right and updating it, I'm skeptical that the savings are significant unless you have a really big cohort or are willing to go a while without significant updates or improvements.

I could do this if I had a team behind me. Or I could do it if I had few/no other duties (instruction, research, or service). I can't do this on my own and do it well if I have a bunch of other duties. Indeed, it's worth noting that commercial providers of online instructional materials (whether we're talking online universities or publishers of online homework systems or whatever else) have large teams that spend a lot of time on this. They don't say to 1 person "OK, prepare a class in 10 weeks, on your own, while doing a bunch of other things too."

Mark N. said...

"I think it would be great if a college education were much less expensive and easily accessible to all (without massive student loans), but somehow I don't think this governor is proposing to increase state funding for his university to allow for tuition decreases." :

Just because the governor is in favour of some particular end, does he therefore have to support every possible means of achieving it?

"the emphasis on the (implied unreasonable) physical effort and time involved in attending a class." :

What exactly would you define as an "unreasonable" amount of physical effort and time? Anyway, lets suppose, for the sake of argument, that the current amount of physical effort and time is "reasonable" for all students, whatever that means. Does that mean that efforts should not be made to improve the situation? Should students be forced to just buck up and deal with it, even though there may be ways to significantly increase their time? (time that could be used for entertainment, additional studying, working, playing with their kids, etc...)

"the gratuitous insult ":

Boo hoo! At least in my experience, most professors are terrible teachers, and the ONLY reason to attend is to get required readings and know what material the course is covering. Even with a good professor, I have often thought I would be much better off with just the textbook, or a video of the professor giving the lecture (in either case, if you get lost, or if you want to ponder a point, you can just replay/pause/stop reading. Also, EVERY word is recorded and you can refer back to it - no information is lost through note-taking).

"I have heard that some companies expect their employees to do this as well, but maybe that's just a vicious rumor." :

The difference here is that the student is not an employee, she is a consumer. The professor is the employee, the university is the firm producing the product. Like in any other industry, if there is a better option for the consumer, they should be allowed to take it! Imagine a grocery store insisting it's consumers shop between 9-10am. They would go out of business, because the consumer can (and should) go elsewhere to receive service at times that are more convenient for them. Similarly, for students, if there are better options, they should take them, and we should allow the creation of these kinds of options.

The sense of entitlement emanating from your post is disturbing. Lets not forget that the purpose of a University is not to provide cushy jobs for academics. The purpose is to satisfy the consumers, namely, the students who demand a quality education and the general public that benefits from quality research.

Anonymous said...

The idealogical shift that seems to have happened in the last ~10 years or so is from the idea that college/learning is the student's JOB (this is certainly what I was taught by my parents) to the idea that college/learning is a PRODUCT that a student consumes. The implications are pretty weird once you make this switch.

Professors become customer support representatives (rather than authority figures)

Students become customers (and the customer is always right, even about how that C- really should be a B!).

Learning is purchased in small easy to digest parcels utterly separate from the rest of a student's life (what's this rubbish about learning by immersion anyway?).

And, indeed, travel to college becomes that annoying drive to get to the mall - wouldn't you rather order on college.amazon.com?

Anonymous said...

The governor's comments are wrong on so many levels. Does he really want his doctor who is performing surgery on him or the engineer who helps design the bridge he drives over everyday to have been educated on an iPad? Something tells me no. He's just spouting rhetoric that he thinks "ordinary, hard-working, tax-paying Americans" want to hear. Let's all hope that the average American values the importance of a REAL college education!

Anonymous said...

In the UK the same arguments are being trotted out by politicians who think that distance learning will make things cheaper for tax payers and better for students too.

I just can't believe this. Surely one of the major benefits of the most elite institutions is the small class sizes and getting to actually spend time with a professor, at least in a small group if not one to one. What's more, most of these politicians know this because most of them went to the elite institutions and benefitted from it.

You can bet that these politicians' children will not be studying at distance insitutions.

Emily said...

I completely agree, and, as an undergraduate currently attending a state school, I would like to add that the governor's comments were not only insulting to the professors, but also to the students! It seems that he is taking the stereotypical view of the late 80s and 90s generation and assuming that all kids 22 and younger are lazy and entitled when some of us actually want to go to class and get an education.

BSW said...

An interesting post on an interesting topic. The 'Onorable Guv'ner seems to have had a good conversation with a really smart aide who had good ideas on improving education with the Web. What came out of Pawlenty's mouth was...I guess a half-remembered, garbled account of that conversation. I say that there are fossil-like remnants of good ideas in what he said, but the actual ideas seem to have scurried away.

Unfortunately, as you nicely outline, he managed to get plenty of University bashing in there. I just want to pick out a couple things and try to nuance them a little.

Some things that had to be aggregated in the 20th century don't need to be now. That online lecture on inorganic solubility rules done by Professor Studebaker at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople is excellent, and freely available. I can consequently spend my precious 50 minutes with the students getting them to construct the principles behind solubility, and we can develop Hard Soft Acid Base theory. Their assessment will when be on both whether they can figure out the solubility of salts from the original lecture and list, and whether they can use their new theory to predict new solubilities.

There are three things we do in education:

1. Content delivery (silver chloride is insoluble)

2. Teach students to systematize knowledge (let's build a theory so that this is a pattern of solubilities, not a list to memorize)

3. Teach students to practice science (Here's data we all have access to. Let's use it as a mini-community to share ideas and construct knowledge together in the order scientists do--from data to theory, not vice versa).

A returning student trying to learn a new area only needs Mission 1. Mission 1 can be in part outsourced to the Internet. Missions 2 and 3 cannot.

Most people think that what Universities do is Mission 1, and they ignore Missions 2 and 3. This is partly our fault. Dewey's "Factory Model" of education explicitly made content delivery in the big lecture hall the core of the University education. We need to start sending the message that we're about something else, both because that function is becoming less valuable and more redundant with the Net, while the other two are, if anything, gaining in value.

So how do we do it? All the R1 profs I know would love to teach students in small groups, to teach them higher levels of thinking, to get them to work together more, and to spend more time on training them to be thinkers and scientists rather than buckets of data, but that's not possible with 250 students (or, at least, it's very hard).

I think it means re-imagining the role of the Professor and the Grad Student TA. It means that Profs, who already do an amazing job of teaching their grad students to be great researchers, will need to be much more active mentors in making them into great teachers, and becoming enablers and coordinators of Grad Student classroom educators. It means Grad Students will need to start thinking about their PhD process as development as teacher-scholars, and that "TA-ing" will become not a distraction from their "real job", but part of the core of the PhD experience.

Needless to say, this means large shifts in funding structure.

Anonymous said...

Tim Pawlenty may well be the Republican candidate for President in 2012. Keep his comments in mind.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I went to the University of Minnesota for my PhD and never felt it was one-size-fits-all. I was more than willing to commute an hour on the bus to get to class - because class and research were worthwhile! I'm certain I would not have gotten the job I have today if my degree were from iCollege instead of UMN.

Isn't this governor thinking about the presidency? Interesting strategy. Although I likely wouldn't vote for him anyway, so perhaps my opinion of his strategy isn't supposed to be favorable...

Luis said...

Dear, dear FSP: Please consider that one of the very large problems with having Econ 101 at 9:00 AM is that people with jobs can't attend.

I've lived in two states with first-rate state universities and, in both, have been deeply frustrated by the unavailability of a university education to a person with an eight-to-five job (in one case, for me; in another, for my wife). The sarcasm cut deeper whenever I recalled that my eight-to-five included paying the taxes that partially support the university -- all too partially, I know, but there it is.

I wound up paying (borrowing) $55,000 so I could get a Master's at night from a private university. I still would not have been able to do even that if my employer had not been flexible, because many of the classes were only offered in the 4-7 PM slot. I was privileged. I was lucky. I eventually got into the Ph.D. program of my choice.

Now my wife is the bringer-of-bacon, and SHE can hardly take classes at our current state university. When she does, a lot of peripheral services that are available to traditional students simply roll up the sidewalks at 5:00 PM, and so become unavailable to her even though she pays (we pay) full tuition for those classes.

It fries me to think that classes are generally not available to the people who want them the most and are willing to work the hardest -- but very available to any drunken moron whose parents will pay for him to sit in the classes I teach and text to his broheims the whole time.

I know this was not your point, but I wanted to get this in there. Thanks for maintaining such a fantastic blog.

Buttered Toast Master said...

When I was a student at a small liberal arts college, I woke up every morning eager to attend my expensive small classes. I always asked questions, and sometimes even disagreed with the professor during IN CLASS discussion. There was real back and forth, making the education more valuable.

There is a big difference between "Good Will Hunting's" education for $1.50 in library fees and what you get for $150,000 at Harvard. Real people learn MORE by real interaction, no matter how smart they are to begin with. Telecommuting and online courses have their place, but prestigious colleges and universities will still be valuable hotbeds of ideas, where people interact in real time. (And students' commute by walking across the quad. Not everything is better when done by automobile and computer.)

John V said...

As opposed to most FSP posts, this one takes just one side of the argument.

Since WWII, the number of profs has soared, the cost of tuition has soared, and the basic coursework in an undergraduate degree has stayed fairly steady. The big private schools have stockpiled multi-billion dollar endowments while enjoying preferred tax status.

We can see the trends for other information purveyors in the last decade - bookstores, TV, and libraries, generally due to convenient electronic short-cuts.

The idea that students have no choice but take great pains to attend large lectures from people hired nearly entirely for their research prowess, and governors are ignorant for targeting universities to allow tax savings seems naive to me. UC has a total budget of $20B, for example, while the whole State government budget is $120B. Change is inevitable.

To adapt to the changing landscape, we profs need to have our eyes open. We particularly need to ignore the senior scientists (like me) who simply hope the current system lasts until we can retire in comfort.

Anonymous said...

Mark N gives a good explanation of what Anonymous 7:02 is talking about. I've heard several of Pawlenty's talks about this (I am a Minnesotan). He, and people like Mark N, really do believe that a college education is just the memorization of some content. Ok, maybe you have to think about the content a little bit and work some problems, but it sounds like they're always problems with a right answer that can be graded and returned electronically. It is a product to be consumed. Professors, being terrible lecturers concerned only with research, play essentially no role in the transmittal of this knowledge and should be cut out as cost-increasing middlemen.

I want him to see how successfully 18 year olds who need to learn college algebra learn it from the computer.

Distance education is useful and can be done well, especially when it still allows a discussion with one's peers and teachers about the material that is more than just a one- or even two-way download. To Pawlenty, discussion is irrelevant to learning because it's just a bunch of facts. Going physically to college is a chance for people to meet and deal with people unlike themselves, and learn to communicate with them, live with them, eat with them -- it's one of the only places in our lives we have to leave the bubble we or our parents create. I think that is really good. It's a time to explore career options, for some; also one of these wishy-washy feel-good things that really costs too much to continue. And besides these less-tangible benefits, what I keep coming back to is this: if it was so easy to simply learn chemistry or math or history from some download, why don't we have the most educated population anywhere simply due to the existence of MIT open courseware and Stanford lectures online? At the very least, since I habitually send my students links to three multivariable textbooks online and various resources with examples and interactive graphing, NO ONE with internet access has an excuse for not knowing multivariable calculus. Yet somehow my students find it "hard" and ask me a lot of questions...

Bottom line: Pawlenty wants to cut costs and the way he wants to do it is to get rid of people and their associated health-care costs. He does want to be president!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post! I was quite shocked at these statements as well. I get the sense that the governor does not actually realize what a university is and does.

John V said...

At the risk of repeating myself, the point of view that (1) Gov Pawlenty is ignorant and mistaken, and (2) we can obviously justify our current state and federal support, is the kind of hubris that costs us dearly in this public debate.

Weighing shrinking government spending between universities, police, highways, jobs programs, hospitals, and welfare does not clearly favor the universities.

There are several points of view that can be defended here.

Lsquared said...

Hmm... I teach an online course that is similar to an in person course. The students tell me the online course is much more difficult, and if their schedule allowed for it, they would take it in person. If college is about learning stuff, and not rubber stamping a grade/degree, I don't think in person courses are going to go away any time soon.

FrauTech said...

Wait, what students are driving to school 30 minutes from the suburbs? Most students I know (traditional) live five minutes from campus max. It's the non-traditional students who are already making the sacrifices who drive 30 minutes from the suburbs. And the fact that they are choosing that education instead of University of Phoenix means it's better or doing it's job or in fact the "consumer" has chosen.

Mark N- I get where you're coming from but have you actually tried to take a class in the model you're proposing? I've had the same feelings about some of my classes. Wondering why I'm even bothering going when the professor is so terrible and I pretty much need to teach myself from the book anyways. But you know what happens when I stop going? I fail the class. I've had professors do podcasts, and whether I've attended the class or not it's just not the same thing. I'm not sure what you studied but it didn't work for me (engineering). There is an advantage to at least thinking about the class for a forced 3-4 hours a week, even if your lecturer is terrible. And on the other hand I've had really awesome lecturers, in humanities and in engineering. And it's been almost a joy to go to class. And I still have to be clocked in for nine hours every day so I know when I'm looking forward to class that much it really is worth it.

My employer is very picky about where you got your degree from because they know it matters. So are the local competitors. Naturally university of phoenix does not offer an online engineering program, but a local company would rather have a software engineer from a decent local private or public college versus someone with a degree from an online diploma mill. There are reasons for this.

Luis- if college was easy, everyone would do it. Unfortunately those of us who are non-traditional students at some point in our lives made decisions that would leave us there. Is it annoying there are very few evening classes and none of the offices are open in the evening? Yes. But as my university probably has 99.9% traditional students I can understand how it's not cost efficient for them to work things around MY schedule. I've had my angry days like you where I think about how hard I work and how my income tax dollars are going to support this college that's not making a reasonable effort to accomodate me. But you know what? You have got to get over it. Life isn't fair. And you can't blame the university for ignoring non-traditional students when that makes the most economic sense for them, and therefore spending less of your hard earned income tax dollars. I'm sure if you compare the choices you made to those that got an easy online degree in another ten years you will be very happy you made the extra effort and the sacrifice. That's how we know that model of public education is still very much worth it- because people like you and me are still choosing it.

Eilat said...

Who exactly does Mr. Pawlenty think will be teaching these classes? I suppose the author of "Economy for Dummies" can be hired. Come to think of it, why not scrap college entirely. I can learn Econ 101 from a "for Dummies" book (or an "Idiots Guide" -- the market is competitive!). No tests, no hassle! And no one has to verify that I understood or learned or absorbed anything.
I have even seen such a book on quantum physics. Hilarious!

On a more serious note, though, the thought that the expertise and deep knowledge provided by professors can be easily substituted by an iPad app is insulting, short sighted, and IGNORANT.

Anonymous said...

The governor presented the extreme point of view that it's a waste of time and money for students to go to campus, and that universities present only one mode of instruction. The post presents the point of view that some aspects of the depiction of boring instructors and lack of choice about course scheduling/content are obnoxious and incorrect. I think you have to read between the lines quite a lot to see in the post a sense of entitlement, a lack of understanding that working students have a difficult time, or a call for universities to remain exactly as they are.

Eilat said...

Here is one example of an iCollege graduate: We recently hired a handiman who told me that his "hobby" is physics. Never learned it in college or anything so bothersome. He had a grand unified theory all worked out. He told me all about it: all you need is an ether!

I asked him if he ever tried publishing his ideas. "Oh, these people expect you to have studied this stuff in college," was his response.

I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

I also went to the U of minn for my graduate studies. I would be happy to vote for Pawlenty for president if he put a good post-tenure review in place and let go of the many underperforming professors at the university (including my old adviser), I estimate they could put about 30 million into the budget if they do this.

Anonymous said...

I think there is one important point that's missing here, by going to lectures you are almost guaranteed that what you learned are the most up to date and fresh-out-of-the-oven so to speak. In the hardest modules I took for catalytical syntheses for my chemistry degree, it was pretty much recently discovered stuff that my prof were dishing out every lecture. In addition, if it wasn't for the 'laborious' lectures that we take c. 3/4 years we probably wouldn't have developed the skills needed for when we go to conferences and stuff. How often do you think you will get to hear the same talk twice, especially when it sometimes are about a loosely-connected but highly useful subject!

SamanthaScientist said...

Let's not forget that professors and universities are not only about teaching students, they are also about *evaluating* students. A few other commenters have touched on this point. Sure, students can go learn calculus on the internet and put a line on their resume that they can do calculus like a mo-fo, but do we just want to trust them on that? This discussion reminds me of the line in "Good Will Hunting" where Will makes fun of the Harvard guy for paying a half million dollars for an education he could've gotten for $1.99 at the public library.

And, as has been mentioned, the community and networking developed during college is perhaps just as important as the classroom education. The stats for getting a job definitely support the whole "it's who you know" adage. Not that you get hired by your buddies, but that people like to hire people who come with a recommendation they can trust.

True, online courses are a different beast from simply teaching yourself from a book or the internet. An online course does have exams and means of evaluating the student. And I think it's wonderful that these courses have become available for people who may need a more flexible learning environment because they're working and/or dealing with family commitments. But, I don't think you can replace the learning community and networking opportunities available at a real, physical college campus.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Students don't automatically prefer online courses; some, in fact, realize that they're getting less in this format:

http://www.thecurrentonline.com/2.14134/i-could-have-gone-to-the-university-of-phoenix-1.1960634

Pawlenty may or may not be ignorant of what actually goes on in a university classroom; I don't know. What seems more likely is that he is counting on his constituents not knowing, and using a strawman (cushy jobs, checked out, coasting, boring) to construct a scapegoat for the state's budget problems.

rareflwr41 said...

Teaching is so important and teaching well is incredibly difficult. The Governor's comments speak to a national sentiment that undermines the teaching profession. I doubt that FemaleScienceProfessor doesn't recognize that there is definite room for improvement in the Educational system, but she does make a valid point that the end goal of education isn't about making everything easy and stress free for the student. The Governor supports an Educational philosophy where (i) all students learn the same, (ii) no interaction is necessary for education and (iii) teachers do the majority of the work for their students. Most educational researchers would vehemently argue against points (i) and (ii). Regarding (iii), Teaching at a college level is already incredibly demanding of the research professor - who in many cases bends over backwards to assist students.

I'm currently preparing to teach my first class as a 3rd year graduate student after being a teaching assistant for 4 lab based classes at the graduate/undergraduate level and mentoring youth/developing classroom activities at elementary and high school levels. I completely and wholeheartedly agree with FSP on all of her points regarding how disturbing the Governor's philosophy on Education are.

John V said...

I notice a lot of arguments here about the value of personal classroom education by state-of-the-art researchers completely devoid of any cost estimate.

Also, posts ignoring the fact that the highest paid of the faculty spend precious little if any of their time in classrooms with the undergraduates, which are often left to the grad TAs with little formal teaching training.

We can sometimes justify our comfortable, job-for-life positions, but these posts are not making a good case to me.

Erin said...

With response to FrauTech:

University of Minnesota is primarily a commuter campus, there are not enough dorms or residences around the campus to support the student population. As a graduate student at UMN, I'd also say there is one side of campus that no single female would want to live on due to rampant crime issues.

In order to live off my crappy grad student pay (when I was there, I'm currently dissertating in absentia), I lived a good half hour to 45 minute commute away from school when I had to walk a mile to the light rail, then deal with the light rail and then wait for a bus to get to campus (because otherwise the light rail to school walk would take me through the unsafe part of town). I know most of the undergrads in our dept traveled about an hour- they're take an express bus from Burnsville (the south side of the cities) into downtown and then to campus. Other "hip" and thus affordable places to live in the Twin Cities include Uptown in Minneapolis (a min 20 minute bus ride to the U) or Grand Ave in Saint Paul which involves multiple bus transfers. In part people live far away because a) it's cheaper b) the university has cheap bus passes thanks to fees all students are charged and c) most of the residences around the campus aren't legal for more than 3 non related people to live in (so the 5 bedroom houses? Illegal for 5 unrelated people to live in).

Admittedly the Institute of Technology is planning on pissing away a couple million dollars as part of their "rebranding" into the College of Science and Engineering, so UMN does piss away money on completely stupid stuff at times. I'd have more respect for Pawlenty if he could have directly addressed that as ways the university needs to learn to save money and pull their heads out of their respective rectal cavities.

Anonymous said...

FrauTech - In Minneapolis/St Paul you don't have to live too far away to have a 30 minute commute (ugh, Traffic). Many students at Univ MN live on campus but many do not...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

JohnV, even if you were correct about research-focused profs (something that, even in the upper echelons, doesn't hold true across all disciplines), your hypothetical "highest-paid professors" are a tiny minority of the professors out there. Constructing broad-reaching public policy based on the exception, rather than the rule, is not smart.

And "cost" can be measured in many ways, and always must be weighed against benefits.

Again, I call strawman on Pawlenty's statements.

adagger said...

I've seen this speculation before, that internet resources are going to replace brick-and-mortar educations any day now. It's absurd. Public libraries have been around for ages, open courseware has been available for several years now, and very few people dedicate the time and effort to learning the equivalent of an undergraduate degree from those resources.

I think that classroom interaction is important for many of the reasons that have already been listed in the post and comments, but that is not the only reason people pay to be taught things they could learn for free from the internet.

Without outside evaluation, it can be difficult to judge one's own grasp of a body of material, and more importantly, you may well have mastered that material but I have no proof of that. Grades serve as a certification of sorts that you've understood this subject quite well and at least muddled through that one. And people tend to learn more when they are being evaluated, which is why many graduate programs feature a qualifying exam that is supposed to force the students to synthesize the important knowledge of their field.

On a similar note, earning a diploma is shorthand for completing x number of courses, but also indicates a somewhat coherent course of study -- i.e., you have had to see most of the basic material in your major field, take math and writing and history courses, maybe study a foreign language, etc etc.

This structured approach to education -- you need to take xyz courses to get a degree in chemistry, you need to write abc papers due on such and so dates to pass your lit class, etc -- also makes it easier to work your way through such a large body of knowledge. (I've heard several times that science grad students should avoid taking non-required courses unless they don't have the discipline to learn the material in question on their own, implying that one of the main points of the courses is to organize things for you.)

And of course, as long as a diploma from MIT has more cachet than the claim to have studied the same material from their OpenCourseWare site, there will be a market for at least the very selective degree programs.

Pre Post Doc said...

Ahhh, "the student is the customer" ol' chestnut. I've heard it before.

Truthfully, the community is the customer. The product is the education, which is different to the course material. That's why we don't let the students grade themselves.

The fact that the students are paying for the education is an oddity (go socialism!) but it does not make them the customer.

Anonymous said...

personally, i learn by interaction; either with interested people or with the responsibility of the job. i'm afraid traditional classes bore me silly. during my years as a student i found two and only two professors who could hold my interest by talking.
later i worked 40 years in medicine, same principle applied. interested collegues and patients one the one hand, checking things out theoretically as a dialogue with responsiblity for each and every patient, for systematic primary prevention programs, for public health aspects, for my own further aducation. plus.
downloads are not interactive.
presidential candidates seem interactive, but are not, i'm afraid.

Mark N. said...

I'm a little bit curious why so many people on this discussion board are so hostile to the prospect of any kind of significant change in higher education.

Many of you seem to be arguing against the straw man that university professors should be eliminated and there should be no interaction between student and teacher. I honestly have not heard any of this governors arguments, but I doubt he is taking an extreme position like that. At the very least, that is not the position I'm taking.

It just seems that many things that go on in a university could be done in a much more efficient and effective way, particularly in the undergraduate education arena. I'm sure there are plenty of possible models, but one I have thought about a lot is the following: no lectures, (or video lectures, if possible) combined with a textbook and readings, of course there could be assigments/tests as necessary. In addition to this, the professor can be contacted through email and holds office hours, along with a couple of TAs.

This allows for interaction between student and teacher. It seems like there could also be ways of introducing student groups so students can communicate with each other about the material. Have some imagination people! None of this implies that the education would be about rote memorization, and none of it implies that "all students learn the same".

I agree that this would probably not work for ALL undergraduate courses. However, this would have been a much better model for any of the courses I took as an undergraduate (Upper level Math/Econ, Statistics, Computer Science). I recognize that there is more to a university than undergraduate education, including research, training researchers and teaching advanced courses that are on the frontier of knowledge in a particular field. I agree that the model that I'm talking about could probably not be applied in these areas.

I personally think that changes are inevitable in this area. Some better option for students will come along, and they will take it. The benefits will be so great that no deeply entrenched special interests (including I think many people in this comments section) will be able to stop it. Ice men were put out of business because the refrigerator was so much better for consumers. Same thing happened with cassette tapes and buggy whips, and personally I think the same thing will happen for undergraduate education.

Mark N. said...

Also I would like to add that STUDENTS would not want to go to a university that gave everyone perfect grades all the time. How much do you think their degree from that institution would be worth? Students want credibility. They WANT to signal their abilities to employers.

And 1:03 Anonymous: Saying "the community is the customer" is a great way of saying that university institutions are accountable to no one. If the community is the customer, lets ask the community what she thinks of the state of higher education.

Jube said...

For what it's worth, I have had experience with both traditional university, community college and online coursework. I completed a master's degree from a large state university. Years (and husband and 2 children) later, I am switching careers and getting a nursing degree.

Because I had a baby in the middle of this grand adventure, I took a few prerequisites online. I find online classes to be next to useless. Both courses I took followed the "read a few chapters, take an exam" format. Frankly, I could have taken the online exams by using the textbook's index and looking up keywords. Until and unless online courses can mimic the question/answer and practical application you get from a traditional course, a degree from an online university is essentially a degree in being able to look things up. I can't imagine actually learning a complicated subject like calculus, engineering or medicine in the online format I've experienced. Perhaps universities do have to change, but first they have to find a model that actually works as well as a traditional one.

rallain said...

I know I am late to this discussion - but in terms of online classes, I think that the college experience is more than the sum of the classes.

I explain that in a little more detail here:
College is like uranium

Anonymous said...

"Since WWII, the number of profs has soared, the cost of tuition has soared, and the basic coursework in an undergraduate degree has stayed fairly steady. ."
First, actual numbers will show that support staff, student resources, and above all administrations have exploded. The number of tenure/tenure-track professors per student has decreased.
Second, the other actual research that has been done is about the burden of payment. Under Reagan education went from a shared public good (consumer being the public, democracy, larger tax base etc.) to the student purchasing a private good. This ideological shift means students must pay for their own educations. Basically, the boomer climbed up the education ladder and then pulled it up after them.

AnthroBabe said...

FSP, another great post. If I never hear another Administrator say "students are consumers" it will be too early!

As an Asst Prof (in, well, you can see my name above) I have experience in teaching both online and in person classes. I like the in person ones so much better as I can gauge student's learning in real time. Online, students tend to hide behind their supposed anonymity and opinions. You would not believe some of the emails I get in my online courses! I realize, of course, that these courses are great for students on the run, who have family and work obligations, and can't get to the campus. Fine. We have a supported minor online! But to be a major, you need to take in person classes. Why? Part of college is socialization with the community, with other students, and with me, as well as with the literature and ways of doing research in our discipline! Additionally, evolution is a tricky subject and I prefer to handle it in person rather than online. Of course the university system will change, but we need to figure out what is important about the college experience. Costs AND benefits.

Anonymous said...

You must read Michael Berube on this. It is extremely funny and on target:

http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/comments/special_announcement/

Mark N. said...

It doesn't matter whether you think of the student as a consumer or a worker. Lets suppose they are workers. The same arguments I've made above still hold. Should workers not be seek out better opportunities from employers should they arise? Is it undesirable that construction workers take jobs where they digs ditches with heavy machinery instead of with shovels? Is it undesirable that construction companies who insist on using shovels instead of heavy machinery have been weeded out through competition?