07 February 2014

If Not Restoration, a Glorious Revolution?

Education as process looks, argues Matt Reed, too much like the desire to return to a Golden Age of Education.  In "Restoration," in Inside Higher Ed, Reed describes a memorable professorial "incarnation of Mr. Magoo" for whom "classes were lectures, history was royals, and stories were laugh-out-loud funny."

The moral of Reed's story: (1) the days of his Professor Magoo were also a period of educational elitism that we do well to put behind us and (2) "the vision of giving students time away from the pressing concerns of day-to-day economics, and for letting them wander a bit intellectually until something clicks" represents nostalgia and misdirected energy:
The necessary -- urgent -- discussion should be around developing a sustainable model that manages both to be cognizant of very real economic needs and effective at maintaining -- and improving -- the best of the past. I’m guessing that technology will help, though the form it takes is still very much up for grabs. Competency-based education holds promise, though there, too, we’re in the early stages of the learning curve. Maybe it’s something else. The future is just sitting there, waiting for passionate and thoughtful people to shape it.
He's right, but the future isn't "just sitting there"--it's taking a shape already that's being determined by the economic pressures Reed mentions and in many ways it's recapping the worst of the past that Reed describes.

Good teaching is, and will continue to be, labor-intensive, whether it's done online or face-to-face, and at the moment the "sustainability" of teaching is maintained through exploitative labor practices.

Meanwhile, evidence mounts about the role that human interaction plays in getting anyone to learn anything.  The dream of a lecture-based course that requires only one professor but can expand infinitely to include as many tuition-paying students as needed remains elusive for all but those teaching already highly motivated and capable students.  Even though she teaches a MOOC herself, Margaret Soltan joins forces with Fredrik deBoer to argue that effective teaching involves a complex human relationship that does not takes shape easily online.

These beliefs about the importance of interaction to learning are supported by on effort to shape the future of education:
the first pilot of Teachers College's College Educational Quality project, which aims to ultimately create alternative, less quantifiable measures of educational quality than standardized tests, surveys and other performance metrics,
As the researcher, Corbin Campbell, observes "with a federal ratings system looming, it’ll be essential to have some kind of metric that actually measures the educational process, rather than just job and salary outcomes."

So what have we learned?
...shorter and smaller classes scored higher on academic rigor and teaching quality than longer and bigger ones. And despite an apparent lack of student participation, courses with class activities and discussion scored statistically significantly higher on academic rigor and teaching quality, as did courses where students asked questions.
That's what academic rigor looks like: class discussions and activities, courses where students ask questions.  Not Mr. Magoo's witty lectures (though I can attest that nothing prompts an impulse to lecture like Charles II--the stories are that good and they make students laugh).

Good teaching matters, but the market currently is driven by concerns that consistently and blithely ignores that fact.  If, as many assert (see the guy from the ACE in this PBS news segment), the money isn't there to pay the professors who actually do much of the teaching livable salaries, it certainly isn't there to create new teaching-only tenure streams.

Adam Grant's suggestions for changing the R1 environment for promotion and tenure reflect a misapprehension of what good teaching entails (it's not just delivering knowledge produced by someone else) and of the differing institutional roles that research plays in different disciplines (professors in STEM fields might well garner enough outside grant money to fund full-time research-only positions, but researchers in the humanities generally will not).  Still, he's onto something: higher education (particularly in the humanities) needs a new model of the relationship between research and
teaching, and perhaps a definition of its own (one not borrowed from the sciences) of what research is.

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