Education, Technology, and the future
I just finished listening to the EconTalk Podcast on “The Future of Work“. The podcast featured a panel discussion about technology, work, and the future – absolutely fascinating. What really got my mind spinning was the role of education in this technological future.
After spending a year designing and developing my first MOOC and deeply researching pedagogy, instructional design, and information economics, I have come to a new appreciation for how technology can help education reach larger audiences at drastically lower prices, while simultaneously creating a deeper, richer, more meaningful learning environment that builds objective knowledge about the world. Not only can it be done, but it should be done. In a news story about our MOOC, I was quoted as saying “This MOOC demonstrates that ECU can continue its leadership in distance education and better achieve its mission in these fiscally challenging times.” But in retrospect, it doesn’t matter if these are fiscally challenging times or not. Now that I have glimpsed the future of education, I want to create it.
As a thought experiment, I considered a current MBA course that I teach on Management Information Systems. Currently, three faculty from our department and I team-teach this class, combining our face-to-face and 3-4 online sections into one large class. While our current course design is working well, I can see ways to reduce the number of faculty to 2 and perhaps 1, without sacrificing quality, perhaps even enhancing quality. It would require a combination of flipping the classroom structure, moving lectures to pre-recorded presentations, and doing more classroom activities that support the integration of concepts with structured thinking exercises based on the knowledge they learned in the book and lectures. By moving the exercises to class time, the instructor can quickly identify errors, failures, and biases in thinking and help the students to correct those problems. For the online students, a similar post and review exercise can satisfy similar goals.
I have done something similar in my web development/e-commerce class, with very positive results. So I’m confident that it can be done. This has the potential to halve the cost of instruction – maybe more. The technology and instructional design necessary to support this endeavor does increase, but after it is created, the ongoing costs drop significantly. For quality education though, there does need to be faculty that provide feedback, guidance, and coaching. That will not go away anytime soon.
In essence, this separates the product (course materials) from the service (helping students consume and understand the course materials). At scale, it requires re-thinking the university as primarily a service industry. It may also lead to two tracts for faculty, one track creating the content and another tract helping students consume the content. The former requires that the faculty not only be experts on the materials, but understand how best to present that material and have the skills at doing so. This is not that dissimilar from what the textbook industry does, but web technology now allows for far richer content creation and easier dissemination. The latter tract also requires faculty to know the material (but perhaps not at the highest levels), but be really good at interacting with students, identifying where students are struggling, and have good techniques for managing expectations. Within a team-teaching environment, one faculty member to create the content, updating and enhancing it year after year while another faculty member presents the content and manages the classroom. Working closely, these two team members could create a powerful learning environment that reaches a larger audience at reduced costs.
And while I paint a beautiful picture, there are two realities that make this difficult. First, many professors (myself included) are very opinionated about what should or should not be included in a class, sometimes violently at odds with their colleagues or the creators of classroom materials. So faculty have a hard time separating the creation of the product from the performance of the classroom service. They may also find it hard working collaboratively with their colleagues to find a happy medium. This can be overcome, but the current culture in academia does not support it. The second problem is how to transition to this environment within the current university structure. Dealing fairly with issues like compensation, changing personnel, technological support, and copyright will have to be worked out between administrators and faculty. These will not be easy challenges to overcome.
Regardless of these challenges, the technology and the science of education give us a glimpse of what is to come. If universities want to stay relevant, they must adapt. And the longer I stay in academia, the more I want to be part of this transition to the future. As I have challenged my students to consider, I want to automate my job out of existence and in the process create a new job for myself that I love even better.