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Should College Lecture Clases Be Replaced by Software?

By Marty Nemko

Ralph Wolff, Executive Director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges likes to convene “blue sky” meetings. That’s a loftier (pardon the pun) way to describe a brainstorming session. He urges, “Sky’s the limit. Think big. Think breakthrough. Think unconventional.”

Here’s an unconventional alternative to the traditional lecture course that could be called, DiversiSections. It’s a very specific type of online course that would be disseminated nationwide.

It dovetails with MIT’s making all its syllabi available nationwide, the recommendations in a new book, Disrupting Class, by Harvard professor Clayton Christenson, and with Carol Twigg’s work at the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT). Their research and a priori arguments suggest that DiversiSections would be particularly beneficial for diverse student bodies and for students who don’t do well in lecture-centric courses.

What is a DiversiSection and how might one be developed?

Let’s take for example, the course, Introduction to Biology.

A panel of experts in the evaluation of biology instruction would select 15 outstanding educators who teach Introduction to Biology. The 15 would divide “Introduction to Biology” into 15 modules, with each educator choosing to create and deliver the lecture section of two modules, so there would be two versions of each module. Instead of having just one lecturer, the student would be exposed to 15, hence the moniker, DiversiSection.

Each professor, for his or her two modules, would develop:
— mini-lectures punctuated by demonstrations
— student-immersive simulations
— remedial and enrichment supplementation
— quizzes
— sample reading list, assignments, and exams. Each institution’s academic department or an individual professor could use those or develop their own to better align the course with the professor’s or department’s preferences.

Experts in online education and in the technology of its implementation would be available for the professors to call on in developing their modules.

During DiversiSection classes, a person would be available online to answer questions in real-time.

N.B: Discussion/seminar sections of those courses would remain in-person, as in a traditional course.

The development of DiversiSections could be funded by government, higher education consortia, the private sector, or public-private partnerships.

Advantages of DiversiSections

DiversiSections would enable every student at any college — from the best- to the worst-funded — to receive, in a single course:
— exposure to 15 of the nation’s finest instructors.
— to see demonstrations that are too expensive or too dangerous to create on each campus
— to participate in immersive simulations that also are too complicated or expensive to develop by an individual campus
— true individualization: students could proceed through the modules at their own pace, replaying material, consulting remedial or enrichment material, and/or “attending” the second professor’s version of the module

NCAT’s model isn’t as specific as DiversiSections but is much more similar to it than to traditional lecture sections. Research on it, reported on the NCAT website, found that:

• Of the 30 institutions that participated, 25 measured significant increases in student learning in the “redesigned” course when compared to the traditional course while the other five showed learning equivalent to traditional formats.
• Of the 24 institutions that measured student retention, 18 showed significant increases in course completion.
• All 30 institutions were able to reduce instructional costs, on average by 37 percent, with a range of 20 percent to 77 percent. [This is for a course developed by and for one institution only, so it is much more expensive than the national one proposed in this post.]
• The redesign strategies, while effective for all students, have a positive impact on traditionally underserved students (minority students, low-income students, and adult students).

DiversiSections thus would seem to provide a more effective and less expensive approach than the status quo: a nationful of live sages on the stage (ranging from terrific to terrible) lecturing to auditoria of students or to students watching the lecture on TV.

Disadvantages of DiversiSections

If widely adopted, DiversiSections, contrary to its name, would bring considerable uniformity of instruction across the nation. After all, while the course was taught by 15 professors, each module would be taught by just two instructors, and most students would “attend” just one module. Such uniformity brings benefits, for example, that professors of advanced biology courses, would have a good idea of what students who had taken Intro to Biology had learned , even if a student had taken it at another institution. But uniformity, of course, also brings disadvantages, especially with topics on which there are multiple defensible perspectives. The problem could be somewhat mitigated by creating multiple versions of a DiversiSection, using different teams of 15 instructors.

Some students might learn better from one average live instructor than even from 15 top professors online. Then again, many students don’t learn much from live lecturers … even if the student does show up for class. And the data I’ve presented above suggests that, on average, students learn more from DiversiSection-like classes. Too, with traditional instruction, average students and especially those with poor high-school records grow frighteningly little for all the years and money they’re spending on college. (See the data cited in my article, "America's Most Overrated Product: A Bachelor's Degree." One option is, where possible, to offer both a traditional and a DiversiSection version of a course.

DiversiSections could cost many faculty members their jobs. An institution, however, could elect to redirect the instructors’ efforts. For example, according to NCAT, the institutions that participated in its Program in Course Redesign have:
• Left the savings in the department that achieved them for continuous improvement projects or for additional course redesigns.
• Provided a greater range of offerings at the second-year, upper-division or graduate levels.
• Left the savings in the departments to reduce teaching load and/or provide greater time for research.
• Improve training of part-time faculty.

Developing DiversiSections would be costly, but that cost would be amortized across all institutions that used it, so that, if the courses were widely adopted, the per-student cost would end up much lower than of traditional lecture classes.

Think back to all the lecture classes you've taken, and the amount you remember from them. Don't you think that DiversiSections offer a wiser alternative?

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