Texting the course

Here’s a phenomenon I hope doesn’t catch on: I recently talked in an airport departure lounge with a student (studying at another university) who told me that his entire knowledge for the forthcoming exams came from mobile phone texts that his girlfriend, who was apparently a more conscientious attender of classes, had sent him summarising the syllabus. He had attended no lectures or tutorials. He had read no books. He had her texts. I hope, really hope, that he was pulling my leg, but I fear he wasn’t. He had, it seemed, the ultimate ‘textbook’, and he was quite confident that he could pass. I never even got to asking him how he had handled essays and assignments, that question occurred to me too late.

But the extreme nature of this particular study technique perhaps illustrates a broader issue. The conventional textbook sold for an outrageous price by a small band of publishers is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that. In one interesting development, an American community college now runs a course that uses only open source material, and the students therefore do not need to buy anything. The college calculates that this saves each student $2,000 per annum.

For many lecturers the textbook was a comforting prop, providing them with course materials that needed no assembling. For students, such books were often profoundly anti-intellectual, suggesting to them (even where that was not the authors’ intention) that there is a ‘correct’ answer to every question, even highly theoretical ones. However, it is important that what replaces them is not just smartly digital, but is also part of a genuine introduction to real scholarship. I suspect that the post-textbook course materials handed out or made available on online learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle are often unimaginative and as prescriptive as the old textbooks – though of course there are also many examples of genuinely good practice.

New technology has freed the universities and colleges from the clutches of publishing cartels. But that must lead to something more profound than a narrow range of online materials; or your girlfriend’s mobile phone texts.

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34 Comments on “Texting the course”

  1. V.H Says:

    You don’t think you met a bit of a wag and got a proper and well deserved leg pulling. Is it not a bit like telling a expert rose grower you prune using the county council hedging machine.
    You know there is a distinct likelihood she had recorded the lecture on HD video from her ‘phone’. And what with that and the course content up in a cloud the chances are he had more than enough to get good marks.

    On the wider issue. Do you not find the sifting of data is the problem on the web, rather than the availability. Another issue for those that try to learn from the web is that courses are modular but unconnected to other courses in the same field. There isn’t any one base from where you can launch. And while this is an aspect of study at a physical place of teaching there is no need to replicate this on the web.


  2. Are we not restricting imagination by suggesting that we know best how students should learn. However, this may indicate that we are not properly assessing the learning outcomes specified in the subject – if we worry that a student who manages to pass the exams has not really learned as he or she should.

  3. MunchkinMan Says:

    Sounds like the death knell for lazy academics who do not inspire genuine students who have more sense than to sit under their waffle. To re-phrase an excerpt of your initial post: ‘The conventional university education sold for an outrageous price (not necessarily and solely financial) by a small band of academics is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that.’ Knowledge is not the preserve of academics and more than it is the preserve of textbooks. As I said before, one definition of ‘academic’ is ‘of no pratctical relevance’.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I have always deeply disliked that particular negative connotation that the term ‘academic’ has in the Anglo-Saxon cultural-linguistic context, (much rarer elsewhere), so typical of a traditional anti-intellectual stance..

      As for the question of textbooks we are at a transitional stage, in this article e-texbooks are discussed as a valuable alternative http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-the-Textbook-as-We/125044/

      or you have the Open Course Library example: http://www.good.is/posts/in-washington-state-the-end-of-200-textbooks-is-here/

      Obviously the medium, and the business model related to it, are important however we should not lose sight of the fact that what counts most is how critically challenging for the student the content is

    • James Fryar Says:

      I would argue that, while you’re entitled to your opinion, the reality is completely at odds with it. I actually decided to test it out over a few years of lectures – I gave the students a topic to research (Newton’s third law) using the web, and then to answer two questions.

      Everyone knows Newton’s 3rd law – to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The point of the experiment was to show students the importance of attending lectures and to demonstrate a key factor – you can go on the web or read a book on a specific topic but if you lack experience then you have no way of judging that content, of evaluating the importance of one page versus the next, or of seeing how it might relate to other areas.

      What I found was the following. Most students read enough to be satisfied that they could repeat the definition and felt, through their research, they understood the concepts behind Newton’s 3rd law. In the three years I ran the test, virtually no one presented the 3rd law in its original form (in terms of momentum rather than forces). Very few of the students, after several weeks of research could answer the two questions I posed:

      1. If a donkey exerts a force on a cart, and the cart exerts an equal and opposite force on the donkey (according to N3L) how does a donkey ever manage to pull a cart?

      2. If I push on a wall, the wall pushes back on me with an equal and opposite force (according to N3L). How does a wall ‘know’ how much force I’m applying, and how does an object lacking muscles or bones or a brain to control it all, produce that force?

      So I completely disagree. Fashionable though it may be, there is no substitute in education for someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, who can respond to questions, and who can remember the difficulties they had in the comprehension of ideas.


      • How about someone who knows what they are talking about on the web? Maybe Salman Khan?


          • Yes, anyone who proposes change will have critics from vested interests. An interesting thing about the Khan Academy and this discussion is that it started out in Mathematics. After completing first year mathematics in the school of engineering in UCD in 1975 I never went to a mathematics lecture ever again. It was my favourite subject but the teaching was appalling. I got the notes of others and studied them at my own pace and had no trouble with the subject. I had assumed that this had changed but recently had the opportunity to speak to some students who told me that they still have lecturers who have no idea how to teach. And we wonder why students don’t go to class. Hey, here’s another good story. A polish lecturer in UCD was fired a number of years ago for falsifying his qualifications (economics, I think). I met a student in a pub who said that he taught him and he was his best lecturer. isn’t that a good one. Quality assurance in higher education – ha ha!

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            Brian,
            to draw conclusions about the status of Quality assurance in HE, as you do below, from stories told in a pub is ill-advised and not academically sound, even in a blog comment..


          • Hi Anna. I’m 29 years in higher education – I have some other sources too. And there does not seem to be any data refuting this. Perhaps it is not in our interest to collect this data.

        • James Fryar Says:

          Well, the point I was making is that the students having their course notes sent to them by text message or are left to ‘research’ material themselves without guidance are having a very different educational experience to those who are in lectures. Now, I’m all for using the web and technology if it benefits pedagogy and the students themselves in terms of skills but there’s an awful lot of wishy-washy crap out there (I put my notes on moodle and now have a ‘blended learning solution’), a huge number of gimmicks (come to our college, we’ll give you an ipad, but your course books are still in the library on paper), and things being implemented with great fanfare (or at least a gushing article on the university homepage) without the evaluation being particularly well thought out. Ultimately, although we sometimes like to think it, our students aren’t dumb. For all the Khan’s or whatever out there, students will sift through their options and pick colleges they think are good. In my mind, let there be competition … I suspect the best and brightest are still going to pick universities with reputations and established names. And it forces us to keep evaluating how we teach students and whether we can do things better.


          • Yes, there are lots of different ways for students to learn. And authorities judgements on what is best for them are generally poorly informed and/or biased because of their vested interests. Let the students decide for themselves.

          • V.H Says:

            Is there not a danger of mixing up needs. That which is good for the lecturer need not necessarily provide good for the student/customer/client/whomever.
            If we were to continue with educating a very small cohort then the Oxbridge system would do nicely ta very much. But since WW2 we know we need wider access ergo the vast expansion.
            Now though, there are new requirements which the existing systems either cannot or won’t respond (a bit like Oxford refusing to expand in any meaningful way). It’s not as if the on-line courses are creating a product and the need with it much as with Apple products. The true question is how to measure them. Remembering there is absolutely no darn point pegging them to the lecturehall anymore than expecting the same education where you have one to one tutorials with someone who can provide active direction and the lecturehall only.

  4. Eddie Says:

    This is no surprise at all. Many students attend lectures taking “turns”. This is happening for a number of years now, though very less in STEM courses ( Computer Science /IT courses excepted) where the attendance to lectures is essential even to understand the lecture notes; complex chemical reactions or mathematical analyses need help provided in the lecture and tutorial classes. If this VC checks his own university, he will find out that this practice is prevalent there too. Of course the HODs, and academics there will deny this! When UK university agents go to distant places like Asia, and urge students there to apply to their universities saying that they have 20 hours part-time work permission per week, they indirectly encourage this situation as these students take“turns” to attend lectures- one or two of them attend lectures and the rest keep away from lecture classes working; they later receive through their phones the abridged lecture material as they work many times more than 20 hours per week. I have seen some non-EU students “attending universities” as far away as in Scotland, using this technique, and working happily in London!

    • Eddie Says:

      Just to add to the above. A few months ago, in THE there was a discussion thread on whether attendance have to be monitored for non-EU students as well as home students. Whilst academics were arguing that it was not necessary at all, a few non-EU students agreeing with this posted their experiences of how they receive their brief lecture material to their iPhones from friends whilst working hundreds of miles away from their universities. One student when challenged by an academic who had the temerity to ask him how he could simply get away with this, replied that he passed all his exams, did his coursework and of course his university needs his £15K tuition fee!

  5. Eddie Says:

    @Brian Mulligan I can corroborate what you are saying, down sitting in London, and surrounded by a plethora of universities-3 RG universities,, 4 Group94 universities/colleges of London universities, and more than 6 post92 universities , quite a few private not-for- profit colleges etc.. etc.. As for Khan type of academies or even Mooc approach, there was a thread in THE a few months ago, where there were posts mostly by scared academics who were rubbishing any other way of learning except sitting in their lecture classes which mostly did not deliver what students wanted ( you underestimate students at your peril!), just like here. Let us come back in 3/4 years time to see how the HE landscape has changed.


    • @Eddie. Your final comment is on the button. I’m getting tired of people rubbishing new approaches. I don’t know how they will turn out. Some seem useless to me (twitter and second life), but I could be wrong. Others seem promising (mobile, MOOCs). Let’s wait and see. However, 3/4 years may be too short as there are many vested interests involved. To win out over the incumbent vested interests the new idea needs to be way better than the previous. But when it finally breaks, all hell will break loose. That’s why terms like “avalanche” and “tsunami” are being used. I have to say that I feel a little guilty about this, but I have 9 years left to retirement and this should break within that period and I am looking forward to watching those vested interests as the system rapidly changes and disproves them. It could be absolutely spectacular. Wohoo!


      • Regarding MOOCs, Brian – I have yet to see something that might serve as a business model for MOOCs. So far this is all about technology testing, as far as I can see. But where this will go in the next phase, or even where it could go, is not clear to me.

      • Eddie Says:

        @Brian Mulligan. I am saying 3/4 years for good reasons. There are two universities in the UK, one RG and one Group94 which are piloting MOOC or something similar now, and a few others at least 5/6 of them who are joining this pipeline-I know these institutions but cannot say as I have been involved with one of these pilot schemes.


  6. The business model of MOOCs is mostly based on publicity generation and selling extra services. This is not unlike many Internet business models. What many have not spotted on MOOCs is that once the hype has died down they will be very cheap to deliver and will be much more modest in size (lots to choose from and less curiosity value). Currently they are costing Coursera about $30 k per MOOC, but this could easily be got down to about $5k per MOOC. These will not only help in recruiting full-time students, but also selling support and assessment for accreditation.

    • Eddie Says:

      @Brian Mulligan Please see my response above.

      • Eddie Says:

        In the above “piloting” I meant not like the U of Edin, but serious package s which are courses. They are different from the on-line UG and Masters courses that many universities are offering now.


    • I strongly doubt that, and I’ve done some work on this. I doubt that any institution will, in the long term, recoup any money at all from this. I could be wrong of course, but I suspect that, in 10 years time, there will be no MOOCs at all; the financial model will have failed, and will have left one or two insolvent institutions in its wake.

      And by the way, a MOOC delivered for $5k will not be worth the effort for the customer. Speaking as a director of an elearning company, I would point out that online programmes that are any good at all are rather expensive.


      • “A MOOC delivered for $5k will not be worth the effort”? This is one myth that I am enjoying seeing destroyed right now. eLearning companies, many of which emerged from the multi-media in the nineties (Skillsoft, Smartforce etc) have been producing impersonal “click next to continue” content at great cost for a while now with modest success. The biggest threat to these companies now is probably OER (Open Educational Resources) Contrast with the success of the Khan Academy. Youtube has been demolishing the high production values of TV companies with really good home-made comedy, drama and music. Saman Khan is the highest profile of many Youtube educational producers active on that medium (including an electronics lecturer from DCU with a very large worldwide audience). What Salman Khan has proved, and which has annoyed many in education and particularly in online learning, is that “simple” goes a long way and represents the best bang for the buck around. For the last 10 years, live online learning has been slowly coming to the fore both in online distance learning from higher educational institutions as well as corporate training. It is less slick but much more engaging for participants and much cheaper to produce. There are a lot of people who have put a lot of effort into sophisticated pedagogical design and multi-media techniques in the last 20 years. It may be very difficult for them to admit that good simple teaching techniques transferred online work almost as well and are much cheaper. But as I suggested previously, let’s wait and see. It’s going to be really interesting.


  7. Don’t agree with that. Such models have made no inroads at all in the business market. It isn’t the technology, it’s the business model.

    • V.H Says:

      The market cap for Apple 434 billion, Microsoft 237 billion and Google at 268 billion. And that’s just three of them.
      The business model will be in the very losses it will make while generating a level of good will little short of the unbelievable. Good free accessible education, it’s the new Carnegie Library. All that’s needed to make this work is very deep pockets.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      I see what you mean by distinguishing the technology from the business model, however I really think that any discussion cannot but include both. On the issue of the business model the following might be interesting: http://chronicle.com/article/article-content/137433/


      • There is absolutely no doubt that technology-enhanced learning, including courses entirely online, are part of the future. But the idea has taken root in some circles that online provision can be cheaper or even free for the user and still profitable for the provider; and this runs counter to all the available evidence, not to mention common sense. It should be remembered that almost every consortium offering cheaper online education has failed to date, including some blue chip names. And I have yet to meet an employer who is willing to take MOOC certificates as equivalent to a degree.

        I am not suggesting that we be complacent. Everything changes. Always. But not every model is a good model, and those prompting the most hysteria are often least likely to come through. There will be something lasting to emerge from MOOCs. But it won’t be MOOCs.


        • “There will be something lasting to emerge from MOOCs. But it won’t be MOOCs” – I am impressed by the certainty. I wish I could be as sure. My opinion is that MOOCs will survive, but only the large prestigious institutions will attract “massive” numbers – and it will be a promotional activity. However, I can see a role for OOCs also – or open online courses that are not massive – maybe not even that large. I’ll tell you what, I’ll bookmark this and come back to it in 2 years time for a review. It will be interesting to look at our opinions even then.

          • Eddie Says:

            “My opinion is that MOOCs will survive, but only the large prestigious institutions will attract “massive” numbers …” Planned use of MOOCs by quite a few research-intensive top universities in the UK is underway; their research-active academics are given support for developing focused courses based on their research. Yes, we will come back in 2 years and I am confident that we will see a massive difference. I would dismiss the scepticism as being ignorance, as I said we have all seen this before when the first PC emerged in early 1980s..
            I again recall the words of Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz: the VC of Cambridge U in Jan 2013 when he referred to MOOCs.


  8. It could be that the market is expanding so fast that low-cost e-learning is expanding rapidly with no reduction the high-cost sort. However, I really should not speak about the corporate sector as I’m not that familiar with it. Multi-media is doing well in the k-12 market because there are a limited number of topics with an absolutely huge potential market. It does not seem to be doing so well in higher education even though there are a few companies like Straighterline that are making inroads. My bet is that rapidly developed courses that is highly “conversational” will do very well, as people enjoy them so much.

  9. Eddie Says:

    @Brian Mulligan. I am amused by the discussion here by some who are like those in early 1980s who dismissed personal computers as of no consequence ; they argued then they could not see how they fit into any business models at all! The interest now is driven by the corporate sector in conjunction with a few UK universities. The VC of Cambridge U warned the threat posed by MOOCs in Jan 2013 reported in THE (unfortunately THE business model has changed now- talking of business models, THE messed this model up , and the link has disappeared!), and that is good enough for me!!


  10. While I agree that textbooks are often of prohibiting cost, I can’t say I ever spent anywhere near $2000 per year, despite buying all of the required books. Glad I didn’t study that particular subject!

    As for the innovative learning process used by the student you talked to.. I’m sorry to say that I’m not particularly surprised. I graduated from my UG degree just a year ago, and the number of students who try to scrape by in the laziest way possible is astounding. Not only did many not attend lectures – they then tried to actively steal the work of those students who had!

    I remember one event in particular – a group assignment where we used blackboard’s wiki-feature to organise and submit our essay – where, approaching the deadline, several “rival” groups attempted to gain access to our blackboard accounts to copy our work. Makes you wonder why they chose to spend thousands upon thousands of pounds to attend university in the first place!


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