In my previous two blogs (Feb. 25 and March 4), I discussed some of the issues in our K-12 education that attracted my attention during the AAAS special session meeting in Boston. My focus was on what seems to be a fossilized course subject structure through the grades, that doesn’t allow multidisciplinary topics that relate to our interaction with the physical environment to be addressed. Since most of us become eligible to vote upon finishing high school, it becomes incredibly important that we understand the issues that we are being asked to vote on.
In the US, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 11% between 1990 and 2000. It then increased another 37%, from 15.3 to 21 million between 2000 and 2010. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of 18-24 olds in the country increased from 27.3 to 30.7 million, an increase of 12%. The percentage of students in this age bracket enrolled in college rose from 35% in 2000 to 41% in 2010. Even accounting for the roughly 500,000 young adults that are enrolled in non-degree-granting institutions, for more than half of our 18-24 olds, K-12 classes constitute the final level of their education; one that needs to prepare our children to participate in our collective decision-making.
The recent technological revolution has attempted to contribute to the success of the educational process at all levels. Recently, News Corporation began vying for the public school market. They have announced (New York Times, March 8, 2013) the new Amplify Tablet for K-12 schoolchildren. In addition to tablets and curriculum, Amplify will store students’ data. The capability that most attracted my attention, was, as mentioned in the NY Times piece,
If a child’s attention wanders, a stern ‘eyes on teacher’ prompt pops up. A quiz uses emoticons of smiley and sad faces so teachers can instantly gauge which students understand the lesson and which need help.
Since my wife’s expertise used to be eye tracking in infants, this got my full attention. Teachers, with their crowded classrooms, cannot compete on that level.
The same New York Times issue also covered the other half of the 18-24 population: those that continue their educational experience beyond K-12, to attend college.
Thomas L. Friedman, in an Op-Ed article titled “The Professors’ Big Stage” (New York Times – March 6, 2013) reported on a conference that was organized by MIT and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.” Friedman posed the following question: “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC)?” For perspective, at my school (City University of New York (CUNY)), the tuition for New York State residents is $5,430 for a senior college and $3,900 for community college. For non-residents, the corresponding tuitions are $14,550 for the senior colleges and $7,800 for community colleges.
His key take-away message from the conference was:
Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned.” Because increasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know. And therefore it will not pay for a C+ in chemistry, just because your state college considers that a passing grade and was willing to give you a diploma that says so. We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquire the competency – in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class – and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency.
How he thinks universities should adapt?
Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage” and students taking notes, followed by a superficial assessment, to one in which students are asked and empowered to master more basic material online at their own pace, and the classroom becomes a place where the application of that knowledge can be honed through lab experiments and discussions with the professor. There seemed to be a strong consensus that this “blended model” combining online lectures with a teacher-led classroom experience was the ideal. Last fall, San Jose State used the online lectures and interactive exercises of M.I.T.’s introductory online Circuits and Electronics course. Students would watch the M.I.T. lectures and do the exercises at home, and then come to class, where the first 15 minutes were reserved for questions and answers with the San Jose State professor, and the last 45 were devoted to problem solving and discussion. Preliminary numbers indicate that those passing the class went from nearly 60 percent to about 90 percent. And since this course was the first step to a degree in science and technology, it meant that one-third more students potentially moved on toward a degree and career in that field.
As it happens, the challenges online education presents to the traditional university structure are not restricted to schools with a $50,000 tuition. The primary driving forces are economical, not educational.
As Charles M. Blow observes in the New York Times Op-Ed (March 9, 2013):
As college tuitions rise and state and local funding for higher education falls — along with median household incomes — students are taking on staggering levels of debt. And many can’t find jobs that pay well enough to quickly pay off the debt.
The proposed adaptation mechanism is easily applied to many aspects of life and education. For instance, I am now taking part in my school’s effort to improve classroom instructions through Team Based Learning (TBL). This structure is completely disconnected from economic considerations, and is based instead on observations that students learn better from each other. The changes also emphasize collective problem solving. As with Friedman’s adaptation to MOOC, students read the assigned material on their own, then come to class to work in groups and do almost exactly what Friedman describes. In both cases, as in some other “revolutionary” approaches, the content, and its delivery methods, seem to be secondary, while everything shifts to the broaden students’ opportunities to engage with what they are learning.
In the next blogs I will try to focus how these transitions can be used to expand educational opportunities on all levels, to facilitate addressing complex, interdisciplinary, topics such as Climate Change.