There are intriguing hypotheses about how to transform classroom-based higher education delivery out there, e.g., the model from Vance Fried recently highlighted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). If we become willing to invest time and technology in front of instructional delivery, there’s much more to do - and gain.
As noted in a recent Economist article, Vance Fried proposed a hypothetical college that costs far less to operate than existing institutions. (His 2008 version is titled “The $7,376 'Ivies',” which gives the punch line.) To lower costs with same or better quality, he makes a number of suggestions (from the AEI article, p.7):
1. Eliminate or separately fund research and public service.
2. Optimize class size with appropriate teaching technique and technology.
3. Eliminate or consolidate low enrollment programs.
4. Eliminate administrator bloat.
5. Downsize or eliminate student life if your primary market is commuter students.
Some of these are tough to swallow for many conventional institutions, but he's focused on making teaching right-sized, while minimizing distractions. Faculty salary costs are the largest cost item for instruction in most settings, so changing the teaching model to make efficient and effective use of skilled (and expensive) faculty time is key for learning and economics.
- He doesn’t cut faculty compensation below average – indeed, he runs a bit above average.
- He gives faculty time to prepare – he assumes faculty need two hours of preparation time for every hour in the class, on average. (This becomes 12 credit hours taught per semester for full-time teaching.)
- He doesn’t shy away from large numerical class sizes generally (50 or more, depending on the instructional task) – but for very specific cases with the potential for very high impact on skills or understanding (“when the student’s work product is highly customized, for example a communications class, mentoring seminar, field project, or a senior paper.”), he goes for very small class sizes (5 - 10 students)
- He gives more guidance to faculty on what, exactly, the best instructional design needs to be to maximize learning: “The key is how well the course is designed and delivered, not how big the class is.” E.g., using a high proportion of well-structured student-student interactions in larger classes to drive minds to engage deeply with topics, not watch “Instructor TV.”
Some of the best individual faculty and colleges already use many of these techniques – they can be made to work.
However, there are even more ways to alter the instructional model to improve delivery once you become willing to invest a bit more ahead of instructional events, and apply technology in ways consistent with learning science. Consider:
- Use well-designed media outside the class to replace most pure lecture/information instructional events. We’re starting to do this within our Kaplan Higher Education Campus network, recognizing that half the available lecturers will be below average (has to be that way!), so why not make very good media instead? This has several advantages over conventional faculty-delivered lectures:
- Learners can replay sections they didn’t understand, or return to sections they need refreshers on;
- It’s easier to improve and know that all students are getting the improved version;
- We can pilot changes to the media and watch learning performance and satisfaction measures to see if the change should be rolled out;
- We can add instructional activities into the media itself to engage students with the materials, and let them ensure they understand what is intended before class.
- Related to the above, move away from “canned” textbooks, and instead invest in more customized instructional materials that take into account learner strengths and backgrounds while driving to the same objectives. E.g., database driven materials can draw examples from areas familiar to each student, rather than forcing all students into the same box.
- Use data flow from adaptive pre-class activities to make suggestions to faculty about how to create subgroups in the class for activities. We’re experimenting with this at Kaplan as well – an adaptive homework engine for SAT test prep suggests groupings to the tutor for the next classroom session based on mastery so far for each topic.
- Augment classroom activity with technology (e.g., clickers) to speed up and make more visible how things are going, to let students and faculty quickly adapt their precious class-time accordingly. Over time, gather “best practices” based on evidence and class characteristics, and, based on the data flow in-class, offer instructors prioritized lists of possible activities to do next.
- Invest in techniques from cognitive science (e.g., cognitive task analysis) to more objectively understand what key conscious and unconscious skills and decisions the best working experts use (where you can objectively identify such experts). Use these results to streamline instruction and focus practice on integrating the key concepts and applications revealed. Areas in health care and the military are beginning to see major (25%+) reductions in training time by doing this analysis up-front, and major reductions in errors in first-year job performance as a result.
Are some of these a bit Buck Rogers? Sure. Are they expensive? Some yes – especially when you start building out adaptive activities for students, which immediately means a multiplication of (expensive) development costs as you make more than one activity for each hard objective.
But investing up front to lower costs and improve quality is a hallmark of most industries over the last several hundred years. Industries routinely spend tens of millions of dollars up front on prototypes, production tooling, research, pilots, training development, and more – and then deliver new benefits to users by rolling out consistent solutions that become very affordable when delivered at scale.
Of course, there are always (smaller) markets for the more expensive hand-built components and experiences done “the old fashioned way” – but shouldn’t education begin investing a lot more up-front to try for increasing quality and lower costs at scale?