PENCILS DOWN

The college lecture is dying. Good riddance.

This is the first in The Vanishing University, a four-part series exploring the tech-driven future of higher education in America. Here are parts two and three.

Right now, this very morning, thousands of young adults in the United States are scrambling through the same minor hell. They’ve woken up to the very last in a series of half-futile phone alarms. Made, and likely abandoned, an attempt to shower. Skidded wet-haired and flustered into a cavernous lecture hall, flickering fluorescent, stuffed full with hundreds of teenagers yawning and jostling one another for space.

An inevitable five minutes late, they’re barely able to squeeze into seats amid a sea of elbows and protruding laptops. Then, a bespeckled professor strolls up to a podium, clears her throat, and begins droning away to a PowerPoint presentation that only a third of the kids will remember in a week’s time.

This is all going away.

Later this year, Jon Meer and Steve Wiggins, two economics professors at Texas A&M University, will begin their annual introductory microeconomics lecture to several thousand students—and this time around, they’ll teach it all without lifting a finger.

Students taking the Meer and Wiggins class, which is mandatory for the hundreds of business and economics majors at the school, will not physically attend a single session. Meer—an ardent lover of teaching, who started this project out of frustration about lecture courses’ sheer inefficiency—has already drawn up and pre-recorded all the lessons, engineered an interactive video platform, prepared all the homework and reading materials, and uploaded everything digitally, painstakingly mapping every last moment of the semester out before it actually starts. (The course was trialled last year at A&M on a smaller scale. Historically, it has been taught to about 300 students at a time physically present in a lecture hall.)

Meer writes equations and concepts onto a transparent whiteboard—which the camera later flips—a method that allows him to stay engaged and face-to-face with students.

Now that the prep is all out of the way, he can refocus on individual students who’re genuinely interested in a deeper pursuit of economics. Meet with them. Speak to them. Inspire them. As far as he is concerned, the traditional lecture setting in a massive hall is dead. “I missed talking to smart kids,” Meer explains. Now he has the time to do that.

“Principles of Microeconomics” marks one of the first times that a university is moving a key lecture online without offering another choice. And Texas A&M is a hell of a place to test this out—a juggernaut of a university, publicly funded to the tune of $1.5 billion annually and educating some 66,000 a year.

‘Diagnosis, not an autopsy’

A powerful lure exists to idea of the college lecture. For many parents and teachers, it’s a picture-perfect paragon of learning—energy buzzing, students congregating in the same room, bandying ideas about—and socialization is arguably one of the biggest benefits to a college education. If students don’t leave their dorm rooms to attend class, perhaps it could isolate a generation that some worry already live too much of their time online. “There’s definitely something that will be lost.” 

Another advantage of in-person lectures is that students are privy to other’s questions and viewpoints. Critics might argue that more online learning means they have fewer opportunities for exposure to different perspectives, for engrossing themselves in thoughtful debate.

“Do I think [this new course] is better than 30 students and the Socratic method, Dead Poets Society-style? Probably not,” Meer admits. But, he counters, given the fact that A&M has to educate 50,000 undergrads, 3,000 of which need to take the microeconomics class for their major, “it’s still vastly superior to delivering a lecture to 300 students at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning.”

With the help of A&M’s instructional designers, as well as support from the education giant Pearson, Meer and Wiggins’ 2,000 students this fall will receive online segments, quizzes, problem sets, virtual study groups, forums—arguably much more interaction than you’d ever find from an ordinary in-person course. In a traditional lecture, attendance dwindles with each passing week. Students tune out. They start sending texts and browsing dessert recipes on Pinterest.

Interactive online courses like Meer and Wiggins’ continuously force attention back onto the actual material. Students using the digital platform are required to watch short videos and then immediately answer questions testing their attentiveness—they can’t skip too far ahead and “binge-learn” the entire semester at once, nor can they lag behind until finals week without the system flashing warnings at them. The course also issues automatic notifications—to both the instructor and the student—if scores dip too low, showing that someone’s clearly not understanding the subject.

Imagine this as the parental controls of a premier television package, only overwhelmingly more customized, advanced, intelligent.

Meer puts it this way: For the first time, “we can do a diagnosis for kids—and not an autopsy.”

If you went to a big school, you know exactly what it’s like to have to fight to get into a class. The arcane absurdity of outdated enrollment lotteries. Economics students at A&M used to face that problem, sometimes having to delay graduation thanks to oversubscribed classes—and once in, there was also no guarantee they’d absorb the tricky material. Online learning removes physical limitations, so thousands of students can have the “spots” previously reserved for dozens. It allows students to go back to lessons, again and again, to rewind and to pick up all the points they didn’t get the first time around.

Though it hasn’t all been plain sailing; sources at A&M say that parents have already pushed back on paying tuition, only to have their kids sit in their dorm rooms (also paid for by them) on campus to watch the class online. And students—as one might expect—aren’t entirely convinced. “There’s definitely something that will be lost,” says Patrick Sweeney, a graduate student in A&M’s economics program who says he has raised concerns about the online class to several faculty members. “I’ve done quite a few job interviews, and one of the things I notice a lot of companies value is the soft skills. Do you have the ability to interact with people and have a good conversation? Having online classes will hurt that. You could take the class online in your pajamas and never interact with students or the professor.”

“I could see where [the online strategy] could be beneficial in terms of logistics as many people have to take that course,” says Michael Cuong, an econ major in the class of 2018, who took the physical version of the class as a freshman. “But I get easily distracted so I wouldn’t pay attention. Being in a classroom setting provides an environment for where I am prepared to be engaged, instead of being at home where I tend to relax.”

But the field is pushing forward all at once. With recent improvements in technology have come vast upgrades to online learning. More teachers are now using “blended-learning” models, hybrid systems of teaching that involve both a physical component (instruction in the classroom) and digital ones (online forum discussions, for instance, or weekly student blog posts in response to the required reading).

More students, more learning—more data

On the instructor end, benefits to online lectures are wilder yet: Deanna Raineri, who is in charge of university partnerships and teaching at Coursera, the world’s biggest online learning platform with 24 million registered users, points out that digital classes equal instant, overwhelmingly detailed feedback, the way online retailers like Amazon amass critical information on their customers.

“We generate so much data. We use that data to really move the field of learning forward,” she says. “It used to take [educators] years to test different pedagogical models and figure out what works better. Now we can just get that data, because we have so many learners.”

Infinitely easier is the task of preparing digital materials compared to print ones—which are also costly for students. Tim Bozik, president of global product at Pearson, sees a not-too-distant future of education that exists on the cloud: textbooks, resources, tests, all of it. A cheaper, streamlined subscription model of learning. “A large lecture is not an effective education experience,” he says, repeating the thoughts of Meer and hundreds more.

Of course subjects are, by many shades, easier to teach online than others. “If you look at the trajectory of online learning, some of the courses that were the first go online, it was math, computer science, physics. The ones that have struggled are in humanities and language areas. The technology is coming now, but it’s been much slower,” Raineri says.

Most believe there’s a time to go before brick-and-mortar universities can justly offer online-only classes to young adults as part of a regular program and have it be just as rigorous, interesting, and worth the money. With tuition price mind-bogglingly higher than ever, it seems even more outrageous that families must pay tens of thousands of dollars for online classes and no access to a real-life professor.

Yet online classes have the potential to bring students closer to their teachers than ever.

Most professors don’t enjoy teaching gigantic introductory classes. They’d rather spend their time on their research. They outsource most of their teaching work and student interaction to their graduate students. Online classes shatter that monotony: One day, a single super-star professor from a top college may teach the same introductory lecture all over the country. Meanwhile local professors teach could teach in-person seminars on niche topics better matching their research interest and passions.

Texas A&M is a large university with thousands of economics students, where professors don’t have time or resources for small, thoughtful seminars. Meer hopes moving large introductory lectures online will free up resources to start an honors section, more teaching-intensive: “We are replacing quite a few teaching spots.” Like most technology, online learning has the potential to be disruptive—in the most negative, chaotic sense of the word. But what we get in exchange for the chaos may be an industry-altering improvement, and education is one of America’s fields that’s most sorely in need.

Online education in its utopian form—effective, immersive, engaging, yet cheap to produce and able to reach audiences of millions—has too many advantages to discount. A university, however prestigious or well-staffed, can only physically educate so many students at a time. That university on the internet? It’s an entire multiverse of unexplored possibility.

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