Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bigger Classes, Better Outcomes?

In so many ways, Arizona seems like a test case for a future America governed by corporate values. One example: a proposed 2013 budget continues a trend toward the widgetization of higher education. Anne Ryman writes in the Arizona Republic that, for about $15 billion, Governor Jan Brewer hopes to invest in "technology and capital improvements aimed at improving academic results and decreasing per-student costs for large classes or classes with high failure rates." Cutting costs and reducing failure: Rather than designing better lesson plans, Arizona appears to be designing better factories.

Well, maybe not better factories, but certainly bigger ones. How big? Some of Arizona's "mega classes" enroll 1,200 students. This means more clickers to facilitate anonymous answers, more computers to process learning modules, more projectors to display PowerPoint slides, and more T.A.s to fill the gaps. None of these additions are, themselves, bad things. Indeed, I should emphasize that access to enthusiastic, dedicated teaching associates can be a wonderful part of an undergraduate's education. Yet I'm troubled by a trend that seems to deprofessionalize professors.

Arizona's large-classroom model represents a future in which student learning is facilitated less by individual professors and more through artificial measures and "outcomes." Fewer students will experience the kind of one-on-one consultation, tutelage, and apprenticeship that inspires wisdom and character. This is not to say that every student faces a future of large lecture halls. Indeed, I'm certain that wealthy lawmakers, administrators, and consultants will keep writing paychecks to expensive private schools, ensuring that their children enjoy direct access to professors.

Public colleges and universities, though, risk becoming widget factories, especially as the design and implementation of Next-Big-Thing "learning systems" becomes increasingly big business.

So, should we fight this future? Should we cry out for a nostalgically romantic model of cloistered education in which every classroom resembles a scene out of Dead Poets Society? Oh, God, I hope not. [As one Simpsons episode reminds us, that film "ruined a generation of teachers."] Neither the large lecture class nor the small seminar are ideally suited in every case. Many subjects benefit from hybrid approaches that leverage intelligent-agent software, small group interaction, and a mix of personalized and mediated instruction. Heck, sometimes the large lecture can work pretty well. We may yet learn something from Arizona.

Even so, I fear the future of higher education when professors are transformed into content delivery specialists, when we are so plugged into each new learning management fad dreamed up by multimillion dollar consultants that we become stripped of our intellectual autonomy - and our role as bulwark against administrative arrogance. And no matter how many pupils get crammed into a lecture hall, each student remains a singular self striving to learn. Education, no matter how convoluted an operation we concoct out of this business, is ultimately a personal encounter. Without a professor, that encounter might as well take place at the DMV.

For too long, colleges and universities have been encouraged to learn from corporations, to cut the fat and secure the bottom line. In Arizona that means increasingly large classrooms and ever more pressure to cut the number of tenured faculty. It's a future spreading across the nation. But as we consider the disconnect between corporate and non-corporate America - in terms of outcomes, yes, but also in terms of ethics and values - we must ask ourselves: Is this the future we want?

Learn more: Bigger Arizona college class sizes a growing trend: http://bit.ly/ITNjB0

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Is anyone else frustrated by the fact that the recent interest in student learning outcomes is not translating into more funding for teaching-oriented schools? - KM