The Physical College

In a New York Times opinion piece today, Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education lays out ‘urgent needs’ for American colleges and universities–but completely ignores the physical changes that would be necessary for successfully meeting those needs.

Selingo’s ‘needs’:

  1. Improve usage of technology in the classroom;
  2. Offer more online instruction;
  3. Make ‘academics’ the top priority;
  4. Cut back on the quest for ‘research’ status;
  5. Make sure all courses a student takes count for the degree.
The last three I agree with completely. The first two? Well, they are laden with assumptions that I am not sure I can accept. They are built upon current visions of the structures of education, structures that center on the traditional classroom and sage-on-the-stage extension into the digital world (what is a Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, without the concept of the lecture?). Second, they assume that technology in the classroom and online instruction are two different things, assuming the classroom walls as barriers.
In “Good-Bye, Teacher,” Fred Keller describes a much more flexible system, one not bound by traditional concepts of the classroom:

[On Tuesday] John receives… instructions and some words of advice from his professor…. He is… advised that, in addition to the regular classroom hours on Tuesday and Thursday, readiness tests may be taken on Saturday forenoons and Wednesday afternoons of each week – periods in which he can catch up with, or move ahead of, the rest of the class.

He then receives his first assignment [with] “study questions”, about 30 in number. He is told to seek out the answers to these questions in his reading, so as to prepare himself for the questions he will be asked in his readiness tests. He is free to study wherever he pleases, but he is strongly encouraged to use the study hail for at least part of the time. Conditions for work are optimal there, with other students doing the same thing and with an assistant or proctor on hand to clarify a confusing passage or a difficult concept….

On Thursday, John… decided to finish his study in the classroom, where he cannot but feel that the instructor really expects him. An assistant is in charge, about half the class is there, and some late registrants are reading the course description…. 

On the following Tuesday, he appears in study hall again, ready for testing… He reports to the assistant, who sends him… to the testing room…. .The test is composed of 10 fill-in questions and one short-answer essay question…. 

[John’s student proctor] runs through John’s answers quickly, checking two of them as incorrect and placing a question mark after his answer to the essay question. Then she asks him why he answered these three as he did. His replies show two misinterpretations of the question and one failure in written expression. A restatement of the fill-in questions and some probing with respect to the essay leads Anne to write an O.K. alongside each challenged answer….

As he leaves the room, John notices the announcement of a 20-mm lecture by his instructor, for all students who have passed Unit 3 by the following Friday, and he resolves that he will be there.

Rather than a structure bound by walls and hours, Keller’s flexible suite of need-determined rooms can make for a learning environment that can make use of our new technologies indeed–and without removing what is so important in fact-to-face instruction (face-to-face not just with instructors, but with fellow students).

If we are going to improve education, we can’t just imagine technology as the way, the answer. We also need to re-examine our very ideas of “classroom,” of “meeting,” and of process (and more). What I would like to see is a jettisoning  of the formula of place-bound and time-based empires presided over by solo teachers. A suite including a small lecture hall (for lectures, films, performances, etc.), a seminar room, a technology center, a laboratory, a lounge (set up for comfortable reading and talking), and study space that can be used by individuals, pairs, or small groups. Oh, and offices for the faculty and for student proctors, offices physically open to all. Within each suite, flexible schedules could be created by the group (say, five members, each from different but related departments) allowing for oversight and involvement.

A suite of this nature could become a locus for learning, a real learning community, with faculty put together because students taking the course from one would likely be taking one from another. It would extend outward through digital devices connecting students with each other, with proctors, with instructors, and with events taking place in the suite.

We can’t improve the use of technology in the classroom until we improve our idea of the classroom. We can’t create really effective online instruction until we can connect it to the classroom. Until we re-envision the classroom itself, the meeting of Selingo’s first two points will ultimately prove to be nothing more than additional smoke and mirrors. Without changes to the structures of the physical college, the virtual college will never have the anchor is needs for real stability and success.

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