A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Business, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on May 22, 2013
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Academic institutions are expected to undergo rigorous assessment as part of their accreditation process. Roughly put, this process is supposed to show that the institution is doing what an academic institution is supposed to do. Having served on numerous committees relating to SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), I can attest that the process is rather extensive and generates massive amounts of paper.  However, there have been proposals to change this process.

Here in Florida,  the Florida Accredited Courses and Tests Initiative, was proposed. If it, or something like it, were to become a reality, the accreditation process would radically change.  One main change would be that rather than having accreditation at the institutional level, individual courses would be accredited. Within this broad change is also a more specific change: “any individual, institution, entity or organization” could create an accredited class. Thus, I could create my own course (and so could you) and get it accredited. Companies looking to make money could also do the same thing.

One reasonable argument for this initiative is based on the claim that the existing institutional model looks at the institution as a whole rather than examining every single course. Because of this, a properly accredited university could have some classes that are lacking in rigor and quality.

While this argument has appeal (and everyone in academics knows about crappy classes at accredited schools), one obvious reply is that institutions are required to engage in assessment at all levels. As the facilitator for Philosophy & Religion at FAMU, I have to complete a detailed assessment of the program and  courses each academic year. Every 7 years the unit goes through a complete year long review, featuring an outside consultant who is an expert in philosophy and/or religion. I also serve on committees that are focused on insuring quality and rigor in individual classes. This is all required. Thus, the idea that individual classes are free from supervision is in error.

It could be countered that there should still be review of  each class individually to ensure that there is rigor and quality. On the one hand, I do agree with this. After all, I do exactly that every year. On the other hand, there is the practical concern with  having every single class subject to individual review in terms of the costs in resources and time. The obvious question is whether such resources needed to do this  properly would be better used in another capacity and whether or not such micro-managing would have positive results that could not be provided by the current system. This, of course, lays aside the concern about academic freedom: impositions of “rigor” and “quality” might be used to suppress certain ideas.

Interestingly, the plan that has been proposed does not seem to involve the rigorous examination of individual classes for rigor and quality. As it stands, the proposal is that the head of Florida’s public school system and the chancellor of the state university system would handle the certification process.

One obvious concern, which echoes one talking point against Obamacare, is that it would really remove the decision making regarding college curriculum from faculty and schools and place it in the hands of two political appointees. That is, a bureaucrat would come between students and their education.

From the standpoint of well-connected vendors, this would be an ideal situation. Rather that having their “educational products” subject to evaluation by educational professional and subject to a rigorous accreditation environment, they would simply need to lobby these two appointees to certify their courses.

On the one hand, this could be a gold mine for me. I am comfortable with technology, have crafted online classes and I have that PhD  that companies probably want to stick on their education product. Although I lack political connections, I could conceivable create MikeED and make far better money selling online classes than I do actually teaching classes for real.

On the other hand, there is the serious concern that such academic products would be lacking in quality and that students would be overcharged and exploited. After all, with all their defects public schools are dedicated to education rather than profit. While the profit motivation can lead to good results, there is the concern that those who are motivated by profit will be more concerned about profit to the detriment of education. After all, the for-profit schools have shown a dismal record in terms of cost, quality and job-placement.

The second major aspect to the proposal is to create statewide tests for K-12 and college undergraduates. These tests, which would be run by contractors rather than institutions, would allow students to get college credit by taking a test rather than a course.

The idea of students getting credit from taking a test is not new: Advanced Placement, ​International Baccalaureate and College Level Examination Program, and CLEP all provide students with this option. However, under the current system it is up to the schools to decide whether they accept the credit or not. Under the proposed system, public schools in Florida would have to accept the credits. These tests would, presumably, be online.

On the one hand, this does have some appeal. In the ideal, well-prepared or talented students could save time and money by taking a test rather than a class.  After all, if a student has already mastered the skills of English 101, it would certainly be  a waster of her time to be forced to take the class just because it is required. Because of this, I do favor the idea of well-designed tests that would allow students to do just this sort of thing.

On the other hand, there are the obvious worries. One is the likelihood of corruption in such a system. A second is that students will be able to pass such tests without actually learning the skills and knowledge that such courses are supposed to provide. That is, a student could just prep to pass the specific test rather than any learning the subject.  To be fair, a student could do the same sort of thing in a traditional class and pass without learning. However, the course setting would seem far more likely to impart skills and knowledge.

I do expect and even hope that technology will change and improve education. I also favor education reform: college is too expensive and there are numerous defects in the existing system. However, this proposal seems to be obviously focused on allowing certain folks to turn the public education system into a source of profits. My own worry echoes that of a Republican law maker: this proposal would seem to ring the dinner bell for scam artists.

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Posted in Business, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 9, 2013

MOOC Crib (Photo credit: snowpup5)

Thanks to games like World of Warcraft, many people are familiar with MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games). However, people are probably somewhat less familiar with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

While MOOCs vary considerably, the name provides their basic features. First, they are massive (or potentially so). This means that such a course can support an indefinite number of students. This is in obvious contrast to the traditional classroom which is limited by the size of the room and even with the now traditional online classes which are typically limited in size because they are taught by one (or a few) teachers.

Second, they are open. This is in contrast with the traditional closed course which is available only to students registered at a specific school. Currently, the MOOCs are operating on a free model as well—that is, students do not pay to take such classes. However, the monetization of MOOCs is certainly inevitable.

Third, they are online. This also typically involves a high degree of automation for the course. In most cases, a MOOC is pre-packaged course without interaction with an actual teacher.

Finally, they are courses—that is, they are aimed at teaching people something. The best known MOOCs, those offered by Coursera, are college classes. However, they could be classes at any level. Currently MOOCs do not provide college credit, but there are plans to change this—most likely as part of the monetization process.

Obviously, MOOCs do have some clear positive features. Since they are massive, they can support a large number of students, thus making the courses more widely available. Since they are open, the classes are available to anyone who can access a computer, thus making them available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford college classes.

As might be imagined, I find these aspects of MOOCs very appealing and consistent with my own view of broad education. After all, I have made my work on fallacies freely available for almost two decades and I have various (admittedly lame) educational videos on YouTube. However, as a professor I have some concerns about the future of MOOCs.

As noted above, it is a matter of time before MOOCs are monetized. In general, I have no problem with this—after all, I work for money and sell books via Amazon. Heck, I’d probably get involved with a reputable MOOC service. My main concern, then, is not that MOOCs will go from open to being monetized. Rather, my concern is what impact they could have on the quality of education.

Having been in education for a while, I am well aware of the business-model push to minimize costs in education. Before the web, there was (and still is) a push to have classes as large as possible—in my case, I am paid the same whether my class is a mere 35 students or a ridiculous 75 students. The web merely allows this to be taken to an even greater extreme, since it is not limited by the size of a physical classroom. With truly massive online courses, a single professor could supply an education product to thousands of students. There are, of course, some obvious concerns here. One is the workload of a professor responsible for a massive class. Another is the quality of education in such a diluted learning environment, even if the main professor is supported by graduate students or staff.

Of course, greater savings can be had by eliminating the professor entirely. That is, the class can (as MOOCs typically are now) be a pre-packaged learning product that the students click through, without any actual teacher. While a professor or other professional would be needed to design and create the course content and assessment material, this could be done once (like a book) and updated from time to time. Thus, rather than paying a professor for each semester, a professor could be paid to put himself (and others) out of a teaching job.  No doubt, some star professors (like star authors) would make good money off the courses they created. However, it would probably not be very good for most faculty.

Naturally, if the MOOC is for credit, there would be a need to grade the work of the students. Much of this can be done, obviously enough, by the use of software. True/false tests and their ilk can easily be graded automatically. Papers, lab reports and so on would still require a human grader. However, just as graduate students are currently used as grading machines, they could be employed (at vastly lower pay than professors) to grade such work. Others could also be hired solely as graders, perhaps paid like migrant farmers in terms of the volume of their work—so much per page graded, perhaps. Outsourcing would also be an obvious approach here—just as students talk to a person in India for support for their software, their papers would be graded there as well, perhaps by the same person.

This would be a dream come true for some: the arrival of the industrial revolution in education in which the labor of a person (the professor) is replaced by a vastly more efficient mechanized (or rather computerized) education machine. Students simply pay their money, log in and click their way to a degree at minimal cost to the university or college. At long last the knowledge factory would be a true factory.

For those who would profit from such a system, it obviously has incredible appeal. A college could now operate like a true business, largely unburdened by costly and often troublesome professors. It could also be advantageous for students: they might pay significantly less for their education and be able to complete it faster than they could via the traditional means of education (or even via normal online classes).

There is, however, a point of great concern: would a MOOC be an adequate substitute for the traditional class or even the traditional online class? That is, would students have the same quality of education?

Honesty compels me to admit that when it comes to classes that are traditionally taught as massive lectures there would probably be little difference. In fact, a well done MOOC might actually be superior to the education acquired by sitting in a lecture hall with 800 other students, watching a professor up on stage. As such, such massive service classes could be reasonably replaced by MOOCs.

Obviously, some classes would not work as pure MOOCs, such as classes that require actual lab work, dissections or other such things that require a physical presence. Of course, a college could simply have labs run by low paid staff members with everything else being done via the MOOC.

However, there seem to be many classes that would lose a great deal of educational quality without the sort of interaction that having an actual teacher would provide. To use an obvious analogy, while clicking about on a web site to diagnose an illness can be a good start, at some point a person should probably see an actual doctor.  Likewise, clicking through an automated class can be a good start, but at some point one should probably interact with an actual educator.

Of course, there is still the question of whether or not having the real thing (a doctor or professor) is worth the price. This is a matter that should be seriously considered. Of course, if we take the approach of replacing people whenever they can be replaced by automation, at some point we would replace everyone—even the administrators, shareholders and students.  But perhaps the ultimate dream is to have a completely automated system: machines teaching machines and money automatically multiplied in automated banks with no humans left in the process at all. More seriously, the challenge, then, is deciding when the automation is not worth the price.

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