University Economics and the End of Large Classes

I’ve been stalled on a draft of this piece for some time, but Amy Bruckman’s recent post provided the catalyst I needed to finish it up. She hypothesizes that “the future of universities is excelling at everything a MOOC is not.” Clearly universities can excel at activities that require students to be near each other and near professors, such as lab classes, motivating students by getting in their faces, and providing an environment for all of the extracurricular activities that make college such a great place to spend four or five years. A small set of universities such as Harvard also excels as an input filter and as a networking playground for the elite.

MOOCs—done right—should be able to improve upon the big lecture courses that all freshmen and sophomores suffer through at research universities. Even if MOOCs don’t produce better learning (they will be awesome for math and CS and physics, probably not so much for history or English) they are at least very cheap. So Bruckman is basically painting an idyllic picture where the students escape from the big lecture classes and also receive an improved amount of individual attention from instructors. From the professors’ side, we get to do the part of the teaching job that we enjoy and are good at: interacting with smaller groups of students via discussions, team work, and lab work.

But this vision has a problem: the big lecture classes bring in a huge amount of tuition relative to the costs of running them, whereas small classes taught by well-paid professors are not at all economical. See my previous post on this topic and consider that my department chair recently reminded the faculty about a long-standing (but apparently as-yet unenforced) policy that any undergraduate class with fewer than 15 students is subject to cancellation. Part of the problem is that R1 universities have evolved a system where professors have light teaching loads. For example, each year I am required to teach one big class, one medium class, and one small class; this is typical for a CS professor at a research school. In the small class, and probably in the medium class, I’m confident that I can do a much better job than a MOOC, but this is probably not the case for the large class. When I started teaching I didn’t mind the big classes and was in fact happy about the opportunity to reach lots of students at once. For various reasons, I’ve soured on these classes.

The point is that if large lecture classes are replaced by MOOCs, universities face a revenue collapse that will force a major restructuring. This could result, for example, in people like me being asked to cover a larger fraction of our salaries from grants. That is, the university could save money by covering only 50% or 25% of our salaries instead of the current standard arrangement where it pays 75%. Another possibility is that many professors are let go while others face much larger teaching loads. According to my university’s regulations, “A faculty member with tenure may be terminated or given a renewal contract with a substantially reduced status because of financial exigency”—which is what would happen following a revenue collapse. I think all universities have an analogous clause. Either of these changes would represent a major turn for the worse in American academic research. A third possibility is that universities will charge students to take credit hours obtained through a MOOC and count them towards a degree. This seems doubtful to work in the long run, but I’m guessing it is precisely what most of the universities allying with Coursera are hoping to do.

Some small college classes are extremely good and can even change people’s lives. These can’t be replaced using any foreseeable technology. On the other hand, large classes need to go. I loathed them as a student and despise them as an instructor. It’s very difficult to do a good job as a teacher, and in practice some significant fraction of the students students slips through without any reasonable mastery of the material. Combined with high tuition, this is a bad combination. The questions are: How to fix these classes and how to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

14 thoughts on “University Economics and the End of Large Classes”

  1. I find hatred for large classes confusing and irritating. Some large classes are annoying and others are great. MIT (my undergrad institution) had many large classes that were taught wonderfully. Watch Walter Lewin’s physics lectures and just try to tell me that large classes “need to go.”

    Perhaps MIT and other rich universities are anomalies but it seems way more likely that every institution has variance.

    And there were other large classes that were taught badly, and those I took and skipped lecture, or sat in lecture and passed notes with friends. Freedom to check out, and take from the class what *you* want or need, is a wonderful freedom that large classes offer the student. I mean god forbid that some students might prefer large lectures for reasons of their own!!!

    I get bugged about the point of a class being “reasonable mastery of the material.” This confuses your goals, which are myopic because you’re an expert, with the student’s. (1) What could “reasonable mastery of physics” possibly mean? (2) What could “reasonable mastery of poetry” possibly mean? (3) In how many subjects did you keep whatever “reasonable mastery” you had for more than 3 months?

    Lecture classes have many points but two of them are spectacle and exposure to fields of knowledge. You sow the ground and in some students something grows. The rest of them at least will remember a phrase or where to look something up later.

    What exactly is “medium” and what is “large”? I’m teaching a class with ~160 at the moment (40 of those extension students). Medium or large?

    Now, if you’re teaching a large class on autopilot because that’s easier for you, using fucking PowerPoint and ancient problem sets someone else made, you’re doing it wrong.

  2. I see a future where undergraduate degrees are cheaper for most people, but graduate schools remain expensive and bring in a larger share of the revenues. You’ll still have the occasional “expensive undergraduate degree” for those who are eager to pay. Most people will just get a dirt cheap undergraduate degree though.

  3. I think that what things are going to look like will be very dependent on what answers are found to a pair of questions:

    1) What is the ideal fraction of our population to get the kind of higher education (i.e. post public school) that you need the “other than MOOC” institutions for?
    2) And why do the “other than MOOC” institutions even exist?

    Anything that *Everyone* should learn should be covered by public schools (or the like), so it’s not to teach that (and thus less then 100% should go to them). Is it research and dissemination of information? If so, why do it as a school? Is it to improve the lifetime earnings of it’s students (and for some people it probably costs someone more than it earns the student)? If so then they aren’t charities, so why not fund it purely from tuition? Let someone else (scholarships) decide how to gamble on who to send to collage. Is it to generate the best long term, society wide economic ROI?

    If I were take a wild a** guess; I expect there will be 1) a number of tuition funded private schools with a significantly increased cost/credit, 2) a number of publicly funded schools with much lower tuition but (compared to now) more restrictive entrance requirements and 3) an expanded system of technically focused community-collage and/or MOOC institutions. There might also be rise in the number of quasi governmental non-academic research institutions or academic research institutions with *no* undergraduate programs at all.

  4. Don’t discount the cleverness of universities (shambling though they look) in survival and obtaining cash, or the certification aspect of degrees. There’s probably a crisis coming, but I bet it takes longer than it ought to, to get here.

  5. I’d like more elaboration on the Scared Straight lecturing style … “motivating students by getting in their faces”

  6. Hi Eddie, I’m tickled to have irritated you!

    Perhaps I did a poor job articulating why large classes have to go. Let’s take your example of the brilliant MIT physics class. The problem obviously isn’t the brilliant lectures. One problem is that the “wonderful freedom that large classes offer the student” is an expensive freedom available to a very small number of people who get into MIT and can afford to pay for it, or who can get it paid for them.

    Also I’m guessing that at least some subset of classes in physics, math, and CS–whether taught by Walter Lewin or by someone else–will be improved through better integration with computer support such as a programming IDE or a symbolic math package. The MOOC setting seems the most natural place to do this but of course it could be done in a regular course too, even a big lecture course, but there you lose the ability to hit pause and work something out before continuing. I’m starting to think that is pretty important.

    Perhaps related, I’ve long wanted to go through the Feynman lectures while sitting at a machine running Mathematica. Undoubtedly this would be a massive amount of work but something like it would have greatly improved the physics classes I took where lecture, lab, and homework did not feel particularly well integrated.

    Re. “reasonable mastery,” obviously this is with respect to what is being taught, as opposed to being about physics or poetry as a whole. At the minimum, someone with reasonable mastery in one course will be prepared for subsequent courses on the same topic. Of course mastery should also correspond to some set of ideas that are understood and skills that are attained. Aren’t you being kind of pissy with me here?

    I left out the numbers corresponding to medium and large since I couldn’t remember or find the actual cutoffs that apply to my specific situation. But I’m guessing anything more than 60 would be large and more than 20 would be medium. Maybe 25 or 30.

    Anyway, overall I’m pretty sure that our surface argument here is a reflection of different experiences and different approaches to teaching and learning. I never took a big lecture course that compared favorably with reading a good book. Maybe if I’d taken physics under Feynman or your guy, I’d feel differently. But anyway most people don’t get to do that. Perhaps also, I am less appreciative of the performance aspect of lectures. You have been involved in theater, yes? The sort of one-sidedness that you experience at a play is awkward for me. For me, the life-changing classes were only the small ones centered around interaction.

  7. Hi Vivek, I like your article, but I think it’ll play out in a more complex way than you let on. Of course I don’t know the details.

    WRT rising tuition, there are a lot of things going on. States are providing less support. It’s possible that tuition is funding the research mission to an increased extent, but I don’t know how to figure that out for sure. Administration never becomes less bloated.

    There must be even more things happening behind the tuition increases, but I don’t know how to tease out the details. Maybe they don’t matter.

    Then there’s this kind of thing:

    It’s a pretty sad, fascinating article.

  8. The reason for cost increase for higher education in the US is well researched: Here is a report

    This report led The Economist Schumpeter columnist to write “Declining by degree: Will America’s universities go the way of its car companies?”

    Regarding large classes, Clayton Christensen puts it well: “Online learning is frequently disparaged because it is often asynchronous, and it is often done at a distance. This is a smokescreen. Distance learning was alive and well in 1970 when Clayton Christensen was seated with 200 other students in the 45th row of the massive Joseph Smith Auditorium at Brigham Young University in History 170, a general education course that he had to take for his social studies requirement. The teacher was never aware of Clay’s presence or absence because everything was “distance” beyond the fifth row. And the process was asynchronous: Clay was asleep while the teacher was lecturing and
    the teacher was asleep when Clay was reading the textbook. Asynchronous, distance learning is nothing new.”

    From the report Disrupting College (Innosight Institute)

  9. Hi Phil, I think student motivation is a major problem for the current generation of MOOCs, which are pretty awesome for a small fraction of mature and very highly motivated students who also happen to have good net access and who interact well online. But that isn’t everyone. Being in a real class is a strong forcing function that can help people stay motivated through difficult material.

    To some extent, the MOOCs’ low completion rates are a good thing since it means lots of people are trying things out. But it’s not all good.

    In-person classes are different for lots of reasons. People don’t want to fail since it would disappoint parents and teachers, and perhaps make them look bad in front of their peers. Students are sort of forced to see the material at certain times each week and this gives them a chance to overcome procrastination and other blocking factors.

    Also, lots of teachers (including me, at least when I’m sufficiently on top of things) will find students who, for example, attend the tests but don’t do homework, of vice versa, and try to figure out what’s going on. Sometimes a student needs a pep talk, sometimes there’s a real problem that can be mitigated, etc. Scared straight is a funny analogy but maybe not the one I’m looking for.

  10. Can you spell out the revenue collapse more specifically? Students at major universities do not pay per class. They pay tuition and then they take however many classes their major requires.

    Why wouldn’t it be revenue neutral to keep tuition the same, replace the large classes by more automated mechanisms, and increase the number of small classes? Revenue would be the same, students would spend more time in small classes than they currently do, and professors would spend more time in small classes than they currently do.

  11. Hi Lex, at least at my university, students do pay per class (per credit hour really, but it amounts to the same thing).

    My guess is that students will call bullshit when asked to pay tuition to turn a free MOOC grade into credit towards a degree. But maybe not.

  12. Re: “Aren’t you being kind of pissy with me here?” Never 🙂 But no, I’m not JUST being pissy. I think you are extrapolating from your personal experience (“I hate learning from large lectures and I don’t like teaching them either”) to an untenable conclusion (“all large lectures must, should, and will die”). That bugs me.

    Large lectures offer students the freedom I mentioned regardless of where they’re taught or how much money they cost.

    I agree with you about good books, but only part way. I’ve never read a technical book that could compare with a Walter Lewin lecture. And I’ve never seen a Walter Lewin lecture that could compare with a good technical book. They just are different forms, and some people will be inspired by one more than the other, or learn more from one than the other, or need one more than the other at one or another time in their life.

    I’d be shocked if a MOOC ever compared with a good technical book. And vice versa.

    My point on reasonable mastery is just that skills atrophy. The set of classes whose skills I still remember and use is way smaller than the set of classes I took. Yet, since I believe in education, I have to believe that the point of education is something else.

  13. Hi Eddie, ok, you’re right — large classes don’t need to completely die. But they’re still the wrong place for students to spend the vast majority of their first few years in college.

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