The New York Times, in “Who Gets to Graduate” (May 15, 2014 Magazine), writes about University of Texas students who did poorly in a 500-person lectured-based chemistry class but were able to master the material when it was taught in a more collaborative manner. The article is ostensibly about race/class issues, but I think mostly what it shows is that 500-person lectures are useless and colleges haven’t noticed until now because (a) they don’t measure or care what students learn, and (b) the elite colleges admit a huge number of students who are so bright and motivated that they can teach themselves everything from textbooks, Wikipedia, and problem sets.
[Note that MIT has had a similar program for freshman, albeit self-selected, called Experimental Study Group, founded in 1969.]
Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts there is the Olin College of Engineering, which addresses a lot of the problems with standard approaches that I wrote about in “What’s wrong with the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum.” Olin has been enormously successful pedagogically, with one friend of mine saying “I’ll hire at least 95 percent of the Olin graduates whom I interview [for his software company], but only 5 percent of the MIT graduates.”
Yesterday, however, the Boston Globe poured some cold water on the Olin College torch with “Losses soar at acclaimed Olin College”. It seems that the traditional way of teaching (i.e., by giving “live videos” rather than actually teaching) is more profitable than working shoulder-to-shoulder with students. (See also: the response from Olin.)
I’m saddened by this, but based on my one business interaction with the Olin College administrators, I can’t say that I am completely surprised. Back in 1999 I ran an open-source software company that had a contract with the MIT Sloan School. We were delivering to Sloan a system for coordinating on-campus learning (see this document regarding an early version). Per the terms of the contract, the software developed for MIT would be rolled back into our open-source toolkit and, in fact, the system eventually grew into the .LRN system that currently supports hundreds of thousands of students worldwide.
As soon as I heard about Olin I contacted the president of the new school: “I’m a huge fan of project-based education. That’s how I try to do everything at MIT. We have a contract with MIT Sloan and they are paying for most of the learning management stuff. We want the software to work well for other colleges as well, so we’re willing to offer you a 100 percent free IT system to run your school. I will dedicate two MIT graduate programmers to build whatever extra features that you need beyond Sloan’s requirements. We’ll run it on our servers so that you don’t have to buy anything or hire sysadmins and dbadmins. Or you can run it on your servers and we have a good relationship with Oracle so we can probably get you a free license. Our existing customers are Siemens, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and the World Bank. We’ve delivered all of our projects to them in much less time than there is between now and when your first class of students shows up.”
How did this guy respond to having nearly his entire server-side IT budget eliminated? He bounced the offer over to his Chief Technology Officer who said “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re planning to spend millions of dollars on servers, software, and services from Microsoft.”
Presumably Microsoft did a great job for Olin, but I was surprised that what the (ridiculously rich) MIT Sloan school was gladly paying for these guys didn’t want to take for free.
To end on a hopeful note, the new Cornell Tech school in Manhattan uses a project-based approach to learning, though for graduate students only.