The essence of training is the transfer of skills and abilities. The essence of education is human interaction between someone ignorant and someone expert in a field of knowledge yielding learner’s transformation.
“Professors usually teach 12 hours, and are also expected to devote around 20 hours per week to student contact.”
Stephen Lehmkuhle, Chancellor, University of Minnesota, Rochester
Last week, Free Exchange on The Economist website carried an assessment of online education economics. Marginal costs were discussed. Produce one lecture and sell it to 30 students and the marginal cost is high. Produce the lecture and sell it to 3000 students and the marginal cost is low. A calculus or history course offered hundreds of thousands of times yields an infinitesimally small marginal cost. George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok makes this case clearly on the website Marginal Revolution University.
Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) often record a rock-star expert/lecturer and post him/her in an online course free for learners, and if they pass tests as evidence of successful completion, a mini “degree” is available for a fee.
The History Channel could easily provide a MOOC offering in 20th century history, on JFK for example, that millions could watch as “Edutainment.” If interested, course credit could be secured through assignments and competency testing.
The production values of The History Channel are high. The intellectual content of many of The History Channel shows, call them “posts” so they fit into MOOC parlance, is likely equal to, or better than, similar courses offered at many universities.
In The Hechinger Report, two weeks ago, John Marcus described a Harvard/MIT study suggesting even though completion rates are low, MOOC’s work. And completion is low. Seventeen edX (the joint MOOC effort of Harvard/MIT) courses tallied completion rates of 5%: nothing-to-brag-about results and below most community colleges. However, Isaac Chuang of the MIT faculty said 66% of the 900,000 students in those courses learned something. And it’s MIT: They have the data to prove it. Likewise, so do viewers of The History Channel.
Three weeks ago The Harvard Gazette concurred: the number of completers is low, but student costs besides time are nil and, given the anytime anywhere availability, very attractive.
Office hours may become the distinguishing factor in the educational experience. Intercollegiate athletics is important. Five-star dorms and recreation centers have value. A pretty campus with places to sit on a warm spring day or walk on crunching leaves in the fall all provide context, image, and opportunity, but are devoid of intellectual/educational/entertainment content available elsewhere: Go to a Bears game, the Hilton, Gold’s gym, or a state park.
With disarming regularity, office hours are reduced for ostensibly good reasons: research, scholarly and creative work are central to the university dynamic. However, office hours of effective teachers are at least equal in consequence to other learning activities.
Online dating-like services may develop to allow students, on a pay-per-incident or hourly basis, the opportunity to interact with faculty who have subject matter expertise, professional qualifications, and life experience. An added attractiveness, they could meet at a local coffee shop eliminating the need for state-funded office space for office hours.
At seven universities I’ve never experienced an office-hour requirement above eight hours per week. This is not to say some faculty members don’t spend twice that. They do. Online faculty/student interaction occurs but not with the “rock-star’ teachers.
The top 100 universities won’t suffer. Status of attendance and perceived value will allow those institutions to be unaffected by MOOC’s or other marginal cost reducers. The best MOOC’s come from the same elite institutions that people are willing to pay skyrocketing costs to attend. And at top universities real teachers have real office hours. Is there a marginal cost for an office hour?
Our universities should resist pressure to reduce human contact. The effort should be to increase human contact. Office hours may be the sweetest juice of the educational orange.