Friday, May 08, 2020

Remote learning

What would a university look like in a time of social distancing, but with high tech? Or better, since the current era of social distancing is not sustainable for very much longer, remote learning?

The first question is: What is the purpose of the university? From history, and from observation:

  1. Providing bodies of specialized knowledge, a set of skills, ways of thinking, and (although these are pretty well obsolete by now) breadth of understanding and a baseline body of cultural knowledge.
  2. Verification/credentialing--the student did learn this, and was very good/ok/mediocre
  3. The "University Experience"
  4. Job training (engineers, lawyers, teachers, etc)
  5. Teaching proper social attitudes
  6. Research (and apprenticeship for aspiring researchers)
  7. Helping students make social connections into society or future employment
  8. Providing an opportunity to find a mate (The University doesn't do matchmaking, but that's where a lot of selection happens.)

Ignore C, E, F, G, and H for this exercise. (You'd think that the internet would allow an inexpensive equivalent of the "Grand Tour," but it seems not to happen much.)
With few exceptions, research is hands-on. Even IceCube, despite being super-remote from the physical detector, works better when people can communicate with fewer barriers. One of the communication tools is the "Don't bother me, I'm in the zone" vibe which you can read from a quiet peek through the office door--but when you're in the zone you don't pay attention to distractions like changing your Slack(*) setting. I'm not sure how you can do poultry nutrition research without actually spooning out the feed.

Job training for engineers and teachers in particular is hands-on. (True, teachers have--or did when my wife got her degree--a lot of theory mush to get through, but class management needs to be practiced.) We used to have "reading for the law," and I think law might lend itself to remote learning.

Lab courses: I despise "simulation" experiments, and demonstrations are all very well but not a substitute for practicing slapping a scope on a circuit and trying to find the problem. If nothing else, it drives home the role of measurement error and how much you can control this with care.

Verification and credentialling I don't see as very difficult problems to solve. Oral exams are still possible, and test validation seems readily do-able. It's harder to exclude ringers, of course.

The second question is: What are teachers supposed to do?

For example, if you could get a video series of Shakespeare explaining his plays, a lot of lectures would never have to be given again. You'd maybe have Q&A breakouts after showing each video. The mass learning lectures can be "one and done"--and I don't see any good reason why such things couldn't be subsidized to be free for the general good. Let anyone who wants to learn, learn. The value-added is in the interactive part--answering questions.

I think that for the liberal arts this brings us close to the "Oxford Model" of education. A student is associated with a tutor. The tutor assigns readings (or viewings) and after a week or so the student presents and defends a paper written about the readings. Sometimes there might be several students at the same time, but only if they all interact with each other; there are not necessarily any classes as such. (I've heard Oxford has abandoned the model in favor of the American class-based model.)

STEM is harder. I think math classes, once you get out of the big lectures, could be fairly interactive--though maybe cameras should be pointed at the pad of paper instead of the student's face. Engineering I mentioned--design is all very well, but unless you're "bending tin" I doubt that you'll be very grounded. Do I have to talk about medicine?

The more I think of it, the more it seems as though something like Oxford is likely. After creating a lecture once, the teacher doesn't have to spend time doing that in the future--watching that is the student's reponsibility--and so has more time to spend interacting with small groups of students.

If a teacher can handle a maximum of 3 students during a single hour subsession, and has perhaps 5 hours per day of time he can usefully spend with students, that's 75 student-hours per week. For 3 meeting/week, that's only 25 students per class. That's pretty low, especially if you have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be paid for. Simply counting teacher salary, with 4 quarters, that's $1000/course.

I guess that number has to be doubled, at least. And then, if you have 44,411 students each taking 3 courses per quarter, the university will need 6660 teachers; 2 1/2 times what we have.

If you change the numbers to 1 meeting per week, the numbers start to add up better. Whether this works well or not is something for study. Somebody has probably done that already--I know that group discussion sessions are popular tools (and they're cheaper).

Of course, if the student isn't very motivated, remote learning isn't going to educate them in very much. I'm not sure that's the university's responsibility.

(*) Web-based Slack changes the tab's icon when your name is mentioned in a conversation in one of the channels you connect to. I assume it wouldn't be hard to set, for each channel you want, a set of key words which would also flag an "alert." This would be the online equivalent of hearing somebody down the hall talking about something that might need your attention.

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