Classroom technology is a part of that. On a recent weekday morning, a handful of students work through problems in a developmental math course that looks little like the traditional model. There’s no lecturer or blackboard; software takes students through the material at their own speed, adjusting to their errors. An instructor is available to answer questions — a model that’s proven cheaper and more effective than the traditional class.
Yet what matters most here isn’t the technology in the room. It’s this: Most students have mastered the material and moved on ahead of schedule.
ASU has broken the traditional two-semester model into six pieces, which includes accelerated, seven-and-a-half week versions of some classes. So students who finish these flexible introductory courses don’t have to wait nearly another two months to start a new class; they can pick up a new one immediately, and move more quickly toward a degree.
‘‘We began to say, ‘What are all these sacred cows about time?'’’ Crow says. ‘‘What we’re looking for is intensification by freeing up the clock.’’
Some of these innovations alarm traditionalists who consider education a ‘‘seasoning process’’ that can’t be rushed. But Crow says one goal is to free up faculty resources for upper-division and critical thinking courses where that kind of interaction really matters, and for the other endeavors of a physical university.
He says it would be a ‘‘fatal error’’ to totally unbundle the college degree not just from the institution but from the importance of interacting with human faculty.
The factory model definitely has its advantages: Peer pressure — and paying tuition — incentivize students to stick with classes. By contrast, roughly 90 percent of people who sign up for MOOCs don’t complete them.
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller counters that most MOOC enrollees don’t want or need a whole class, so the courses help solve academia’s problem of wasted time. But she acknowledges that MOOCs can’t do everything.
‘‘If you have the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a great lecturer, 12 people around the table having a discussion, then by all means that is the best educational experience you can have,’’ Koller, a former Stanford computer science professor, told a recent conference of education journalists.
‘‘I'm not trying to substitute that with technology,’’ she said. ‘‘But even at Stanford I can’t make the claim that students spend the majority of their time in classes with less than 20 people.’’
Changes to concepts of academic time could have far-reaching effects, on both costs and classrooms.
More than a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation invented the ‘‘credit hour,’’ which became the basic unit of academic time across education, measuring hours spent in class but not necessarily what students learned. Now, the foundation is reviewing the whole model with an eye possibly toward a more competency-based approach — awarding credit for what students learn, rather than for how long.
The U.S. government is interested, too. In March, the Department of Education approved a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University and signaled other colleges could get federal approval for programs that don’t mark time in traditional credit hours.
For students who want to move through college quickly and more cheaply, ‘‘this has the potential of really changing the cost curve,’’ says Jeffrey Selingo, an editor-at-large at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the new book ‘‘College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students.’’
For others, it could free up time for other important learning experiences, like research with faculty or study abroad.
But change won’t come easily. The credit hour is consistent and measurable. Carnegie admits competency-based learning is hugely complex, and it could end up sticking with the credit hour. When 46 countries in Europe recently integrated their system of academic credit, they stuck with a mostly time-based system.
Meanwhile, similar tectonic shifts may be contemplated with accreditation — another traditional pillar of American higher education that’s been a model for the world, but which technology threatens to transform.
Accreditation, a process essentially run by traditional universities, determines who can award credits and degrees and collect federal financial aid dollars. It offers a quality control other countries envy, but it also limits supply. To education entrepreneurs who can’t give credits or degrees, it’s an innovation-squelching monopoly that keeps them from offering their solutions to the problem of college affordability.Continued...