Monday, March 3, 2014

Homeline college

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed supports the idea of "Home College," essentially home-schooling for higher education:

As a matter of economics, why not consider the option of hiring a single professor to teach a first-year curriculum to a small number of students? At the level of the individual student, it may make sense to some families. Rather than spend $50,000 for a year of college at a selective private institution, one could hire a single Ivy League-trained individual with a doctorate and qualifications in multiple fields for, say, two-thirds the price (far more than an adjunct professor would make for teaching five courses at an average of $2,700 per course).
The idea becomes more attractive with multiple students. A half-dozen families (or the students themselves) could pool resources to hire a single professor, who would provide all six students with a tailored first-year liberal-arts education (leaving aside laboratory science) at a cost much lower than six private-college tuitions, and at the level of a real salary for a good sole-proprietor professor.
The entire article is short and thought-provoking. I thought it a neat idea but was disappointed that the author presented the idea as an alternative to MOOCs. Much better to have a hybrid: the professor (or tutor, or whatever title we're using) can help the student to make effective use of the vast educational content available for free online. This would potentially be better than students trying to navigate an online education with little or no actual human interaction, and also better than students having to rely on a single professor with "expertise in multiple fields."

Such an education could even be preferable to a traditional one, in a sense (in addition to the lower cost). The smaller the scale of the educational experience, the less feasible it is for students to float through it as passive observers. I suspect that one reason for the highly publicized failure rates in MOOCs is that success in such a course requires a kind of initiative on the student's part that some students are unwilling or unable to exercise. I can easily imagine a student at a large state university who shows up for lectures, fulfills course requirements, and passes courses without distinction; but who would never get around to viewing video lectures or otherwise engaging in the content of a MOOC when given a lot of flexibility regarding when these activities can be done. This raises an interesting and potentially controversial question of whether such students should even be in college, not to mention what a college education is supposed to be. In any event, I don't think it's a bad thing to force students to choose how much they really want to learn. These choices, whether conscious or de facto, are more noticeable at a small university (like my own) than at a large one, and would be stark indeed in a home-schooling setting. This confrontation--"Why are you here, anyway?"--can only be constructive.

I wonder how much of the criticism of MOOCs is really about the medium itself and how much is about the specifics of their implementation. I think that we still have much to figure out about how to use technology in learning most effectively, and to what extent we can use technology to overcome barriers of time and distance. As things stand currently, it seems at least possible for a properly motivated student to obtain a fine education through Coursera, EdX, et al. A professor acting as a guide to the student could add a lot of value to the online resources.

Recently I was toying with the idea of creating a startup along those lines: basically a mentoring service for students seeking an online education. Given some means of getting students through a set of material, the other necessary part would be a mechanism for certifying students' mastery of subject matter. Some kind of credible, widely accepted standardized testing to certify learning would really open the floodgates on educational alternatives. I think that such a thing would be feasible for at least some fields. The Chronicle article acknowledges that "accreditation is key" and notes that "A licensed home-college professor may very well be more qualified than a university department chair to demonstrate student learning." On the other hand, it would be very important not to rely solely on the professor/tutor/mentor's say-so, as this would create some undesirable incentives on the professor/tutor/mentor's part, especially in the midst of competition for students.

On top of the challenges of getting students through one university course's worth of material, there is the question of what curriculum students will follow. I can imagine a future in which this is largely up to the students themselves. Various educational providers could offer suggestions, and employers or providers of graduate study could impose whatever requirements they want on applicants. Based on all of that, students would put together their own educational portfolio, consisting of whatever courses they deem most valuable. I would hope that at least some students would still want to experience the liberal arts in all their glory, and I can imagine why some might. Or perhaps curriculum design is best left to the educational provider, whether that is a traditional university, a professor/tutor/mentor, or something else (this is the part I have thought about the least).

Unquestionably, higher education is in for some changes. I don't know if anyone knows how best to ensure that we have an educational system that meets our objectives (or if we can even agree on what those objectives are). For the more specific question of how the learning actually happens, we definitely have some viable alternatives to the traditional model. It doesn't hurt to consider different options for structuring the educational experience and for making use of all of the resources available to us.

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