Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century.

New learning technologies prompt a rethinking of traditional course structure

Jay Premack for The Chronicle

"There's not really much need for teachers anymore," since so much material is online, says Dekunle Somade, a senior at the U. of Maryland at College Park.
February 27, 2011

The first question many undergraduates ask professors on the first day of class is whether they really have to show up.

The way they phrase it is a bit more subtle, says Dekunle Somade, a senior at the University of Maryland at College Park. What his fellow students actually ask is: "Will reruns of lectures be available after class, or at least the full set of PowerPoint slides?"

Mr. Somade told me recently that "the general idea is that if I don't have to come to class, I don't want to come to class—and technology is giving students more and more reason not to come."

That leads to a big question: Why even have a traditional college course? Learning outside of this structure engages students more deeply, recent data indicate. Professors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten. In an era when students can easily grab material online, including lectures by gifted speakers in every field, a learning environment that avoids courses completely—or seriously reshapes them—might produce a very effective new form of college.

That was the provocative notion posed here recently by Randy Bass, executive director of Georgetown University's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, during the annual meeting of the Educause Learning Initiative.

He pointed out that much of what students rate as the most valuable part of their learning experience at college these days takes place outside the traditional classroom, citing data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual study based at Indiana University at Bloomington. Four of the eight "high-impact" learning activities identified by survey participants required no classroom time at all: internships, study-abroad programs, senior thesis or other "capstone" projects, or the mundane-sounding "undergraduate research," meaning working with faculty members on original research, much as graduate students do.

Mr. Bass said he has found the same trend during focus groups he's conducted at his institution. "Over and over again we hear students saying, Yes there's one or two courses, one or two professors, that made a difference," he told the audience. "But otherwise, when you say Where did you get your deepest learning? Where did you have your most profound learning experiences at Georgetown? It's always outside the classroom—always outside the formal curriculum."

The message comes at a moment when many college leaders are taking a harder look at the status quo in college instruction. In January a controversial book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), charged that many institutions shortchange students by asking little in traditional courses, and that students respond with small efforts outside the classroom.

Courses won't go away completely, Mr. Bass argues—they do provide a handy framework. But he said he hopes that professors will stop thinking of them as a goal unto themselves and focus more on linking skills conveyed in the classroom to hands-on student activities. In fact, Mr. Bass asserts that such an evolution has already begun, driven by student demand, a better understanding of how students learn, and a new generation of faculty members trying tech-infused teaching methods.

"Like Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense," Mr. Bass said of the traditional college course, "perhaps it is dead, but it doesn't quite know it yet."

The Noncourse Vision

For a glimpse into the course afterlife, consider an experimental media-studies class taught last semester at Baylor University by Gardner Campbell, then director of the institution's Academy for Teaching and Learning. Technically, it was a traditional course, but the professor worked to convince students to think differently about the experience.

At the start of each session, Mr. Campbell gave the 11 students a strange kind of pop quiz. For one thing, it was anonymous, so no grades were given. And rather than ask questions about the content of the homework, he asked students to detail how much time and effort they spent preparing for class. Among the questions: Did you talk to a classmate about the assignment? And how many hours did you spend on the reading?

Each person gave themselves a score from 0 to 10, with 0 reflecting no preparation and 10 representing the most, and Mr. Campbell tallied the average of the students' scores and announced that as the collective intellectual health of the class. His main point: The class discussion only really works when everyone is prepared, since he sees himself as a guide to the group rather than as a guardian of information.

The scores started low—between 4 and 5, meaning the students did far less than the assigned homework. Something happened as the term progressed, though, as students bought into the concept. Last semester, Mr. Campbell says, the students ended at an average of 8. "It's something between a game and a motivational technique," he says of his quiz system.

Mr. Campbell, who just started a job as a professor and education-technology official at Virginia Tech, did not record the lectures—you had to be there to experience them. He did invite students to pass notes in class using Twitter, and he encouraged students to continue to share ideas there after class ended.

He asked each student to create a blog, sharing their ideas and reflections during the term, and he created a "mother blog" that brings together entries from the students. He also asked students to comment on one another's blogs as well as link to blogs both inside and outside the class. "The commenting and linking are crucial," he says, "as those activities are essential parts of being in the real blogosphere."

His hope is that students will continue blogging even though the course has ended. The thing he hopes to hear most from students on the last day of class: "Let's keep this going."

The UnCollege

Some universities have gone even further to challenge the course model. At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, administrators run seven-week immersion projects with no lecture component, in which students work in teams on projects that benefit nonprofit organizations. Mr. Bass, of Georgetown, describes that as a harbinger of things to come. 

 If the core activity at college shifts away from the classroom and into practical activities, do students even need to come to a campus?

Dale Stephens, a 19-year-old freshman at Hendrix College, plans to drop out of school to start what amounts to a social network for students outside the traditional classroom. The group members will trade tips on how to learn enough to get the jobs they're aiming for, with the aid of several mentors. Some mentors are professors at Hendrix, but some come from other colleges.

He calls his effort UnCollege, and the plan is to charge participants $100 per month to gain access to the Web site and a network of mentors. Everything will be self-directed—unstudents will decide what "assignments" they should complete and then evaluate how well they think they've done. Participants are encouraged to post their projects and self-evaluations online to form their "experience transcript."

Mr. Somade, of Maryland, says "there's not really much need for teachers anymore," since so much is online. He made that argument in a recent editorial in the university's student newspaper, The Diamondback: "We no longer need to have personal contact with teachers to absorb much of the material, and you can rest assured universities have taken notice," he wrote. "There is definitely a broader array of options available to students who wish to forgo the commute to class altogether in exchange for online classes that essentially provide the same content that professors regurgitate to students in lecture."

But many college leaders I talked with, even those favoring some unconventional approaches, said they aren't worried about being displaced by any form of collegiate home-schooling.

Colleges themselves will continue to work because they bring smart, motivated students together with experts in a single community, says John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design. Students at the college organize a system of courses each January, called "Quickies," which they teach themselves.

Mr. Maeda argues that the fundamental model of the university isn't broken, but that courses are bound to evolve as new technologies and expectations emerge.

Companies that sell systems that record lectures, meanwhile, insist that the recordings can be used without turning classrooms into ghost towns. In some cases, though, that's because professors in those classes require attendance or give more pop quizzes to keep students in the seats.

Mr. Campbell, of Virginia Tech, argues that moves like making recordings of lectures available to students after class can help drive home the lack of interaction in many classrooms.

"It unmasks the illusion that what we're doing has the meaning we think it has," he said. "We've created this really bad bargain. We'll stand up there and not expect much from students, and they won't complain."

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