Tidbits, Resources, and Discussion for ELI Faculty

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Here's something to make us all shudder

Debbie Naquin (ENG, LO) pointed me to the following short article from yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education:


There are many of these sorts of changes afoot in higher education--all kinds of ways to vastly reduce faculty time spent teaching. (Another example you might not all be aware of is the Virginia Tech Math Emporium, where students spend much of the time they would normally spend in math class working problems at a computer in a gymnasium, and calling a tutor over for one-on-one help when needed.) In some cases, folks who advocate these types of changes suggest that student learning is just as good either way and that the models that take up less faculty time leave faculty more time to do other work (committee work, research and publishing, advising, etc.). Others, I suspect, are concerned more with money, either with saving it or with making it (as in the case of StraighterLine).

I find myself torn about these kinds of projects. Of course, as a teacher, I believe that teachers and their ongoing interactions with students make a difference--just working through the materials independently and seeking a few hours of tutoring is not the same learning, even if it is difficult to quantify, or even articulate, what the teacher adds to the equation. (This is not even to mention the value of interaction with other students, which we seek in ELI courses but which I presume is not a part of the courses offered through StraighterLine.) Teachers also add the creativity and uniqueness we bring to conveying our disciplines, and that is certainly lost in a service like StraighterLine, where all the teaching products are off-the-shelf textbook-made learning tools.

At the same time, some of these sorts of projects really have shown equal levels of student learning, and if our central goal is to teach students certain skills, then does it matter how we taught it to them? And, although I just insinuated that learning objects and materials made by textbook companies are not as good as what we as teachers produce, their development is often guided by much research on learning and cognition, and they are often very high-tech and engaging--surely better than some of the things individual teachers produce.

What do you think? And do you expect that we'll see more of these sorts of products in the future?


Don Gregory said...

It seems to me that this is just the latest version of the old concern that "teachers will be replaced by computers," which I first heard more than 50 years ago. Not to minimize the ever-changing role of teachers, and the need to keep up our standards and our flexibility simultaneously, but I'm not concerned that this sort of program is a serious threat. My son made extensive use of the Math Emporium during his years at Virginia Tech, and it was a tremendous help. It did not, in any way, replace or lessen the key role played by the excellent math professors he had there.

Laura said...

Hmmm, after reading Jennifer's comments and the article and comments there, I too, like Jennifer, have mixed feelings about this. One of the comments attached to the article asked: "Where is the teaching?" With all I've read over recent years about focus on LEARNING and the LEARNER, perhaps it's not such a bad idea to put learning back into the hands and responsibility of the learner through these more independent approaches to learning. For some learners, this may be a more effective way to learn. For others, it would not be. I'm not so sure that our own online learning courses are that far off from what StraighterLine is doing. To what degree do ELI faculty interact with their students? I know that I put the course materials together and then "let them at it". I will give feedback when needed and e-mail and phone contact for students who don't progress in a timely manner. The difference between this and StraighterLine's approach is that I will offer feedback and be proactive when needed while it seems that StraighterLine learners are the ones who need to make the first move if they need help. But some students need very little coaching from their professor and do quite well more or less on their own. These do tend to be the ones who contribute well to the online discussions with peers and that is one thing we have going that StraighterLine does not seem to provide.

Jennifer Lerner said...

You're certainly right, Laura, that there are some ELI courses where faculty do not practively contact their students, and these would be much like what StraighterLine provides. On the other hand, that is not a best practice, and we are trying to be sure that all our courses involve significant faculty-student interaction, as well as student-student interaction. Although the self-paced, self-driven model works for some students, there are many more who need more structure and guidance in order to succeed--not to mention that interaction, when designed correctly, greatly enhances learning, regardless of whether or not a student passes a course.

Don--my brother-in-law who just graduated from Tech also used the Math Emporium a good deal (as he majored in Computer Science and Math), and I think he shares your son's view. It's really all about how these changes are put into place. One of the great benefits fo the Math Emporium is how it increases students' time on task, helping ensure that they spend enough time working on problems (or whatever learning activity) to really learn the material. I actually think the Math Emporium model is excellent (at least for certain subjects), but I see the StraighterLine program as quite different (even though I mentioned them both myself in the post!).