Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Real Mission of Higher Education: Learning or Customer Satisfaction?

There's a lot of talk these days in higher education about a "revolution" or a "coming avalanche" of change. Many of these predictions are based around the allegedly radical transformative power of technology, with particularly emphasis on MOOCs.

Some institutions have begun to adopt the MOOC model not as a substitute for their classrooms, but as a supplement - a sort of internet-delivered textbook for a tech generation that would rather watch a video on a screen than read a traditional text. A part of the argument for doing so has a certain appeal: why not expose our students to the best lecturers from the best institutions (Harvard, MIT, etc.)?

While this logic makes a lot of faculty nervous, it's a natural extension of something we've been doing for decades: measuring "teaching performance" largely on the basis of student evaluations. Professors who are better lecturers - more dynamic, energetic, and engaging - always score well on these, and are therefore regarded in our annual and P&T evaluation systems as "better teachers". I suspect that what bothers may faculty about MOOCs is that they don't want to compete with faculty from Harvard and MIT who, we fear, are better lecturers than we are.

But it turns out that "best lecturer" may not be a particularly useful thing if what we're interested in is actual student learning. A fascinating study has come out suggesting that the dynamism and charisma of the lecturer may not in fact have any impact on whether students actually learn the material. As one Harvard professor (not directly involved in the study) put it:

"The hard work has to be done by the learner -- there's not much the instructor can do to make the neuroconnections necessary for learning."

What this suggests is that what we have valued for many years now - "dynamism" in the classroom - isn't really related to our stated mission (student learning). Instead, what we've been measuring is customer satisfaction - are the students happy? And since you tend to get what you measure, we have gotten pretty good at keeping our students happy with their experience in college. Hopefully they learn something on the way as well, but we're not really tracking that as much - especially across the "broad skills" like critical thinking that we talk a lot about.

I've written before (here and here) about how we don't do a good job of measuring what we really should be, and about how I am less and less convinced that what I do in the classroom is really the right approach. This latest study is another step down that road. I think we (or, at least, I) need to fundamentally rethink how students learn, and adopt classroom models that may be very different from what we've done in the past. This is almost certainly going to be hard work - but then, we didn't get into this business because we want to produce satisfied customers. We want to help people learn.

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