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    A blog about education, higher ed, teaching, and trying to re-imagine how we provide education.


Enough with Efficiency

Why higher education, particularly in the humanities, will, by definition, never be efficient, or at least efficient enough. 

June 17, 2012

On Friday, two seemingly related pieces appeared here on IHE: the piece on the National Research Council’s ten recommendations and the piece on how MOOCs may one day lead to actual college credit. We see these stories daily now, and it is no longer limited to the pages of publications devoted to higher education; we are seeing stories all over the mainstream-media (ok, the Internet) about the higher education bubble, what colleges and universities need to do to survive, etc, etc, etc.

I say seemingly related, because if you pay attention to what the two articles were saying, they are going in completely opposite direction. The NRC was pushing greater “efficiency and return-on-investment,” certainly not a new or particularly innovative recommendation. And I’m not saying that higher education can’t be more effective; poor graduate rates (among other things) tell me that we can and should be doing better. I’m not sure that “efficiency” is really the answer, and the MOOC story shows exactly why.

The story of receiving credit for MOOCs was actually recommending the exact opposite, in that the company was recommending portfolio evaluations in order to evaluate whether or not a student deserves to earn college credit for prior (or self-acquired) knowledge. The description of the process the student would have to go through in order to prove their knowledge, not to mention the evaluation process the portfolio would be subjected to. All for three (or maybe six) credits. It’s great pedagogy (if done properly) but really, really inefficient, for both the people offering it and the student doing it, if we are going by current understandings of the word “efficient.”

This process they are creating and defending might be cheaper (and, note I say might), but it carries an enormous costs of both time and effort. Not that this is a bad thing at all. In fact, this is the kind of pedagogical exercise I wish I could do with my own students but can’t because of limits on my time and limits on how I am supposed to evaluate my students. That for-profit start-ups are pushing a holistic form of evaluating a student’s knowledge and skills, not to mention embracing the variety of ways a student can acquire that knowledge and skill, and higher education is being pushed increasingly towards standardization requires such a degree of cognitive dissonance…

But it gets worse. I must have missed this op-ed in Forbes from May 29 because I was on my Big Adventure, but contributor Peter Cohan literally writes that To Boost Post-College Prospects, Cut Humanities Departments. He starts by stating (vague, unsubstantiated) numbers showing that humanities graduates can’t get jobs, but then insists that individual university departments be able to be self-sustaining, implying that humanities departments are the equivalent of university welfare cases. Never mind that it’s often the humanities courses that sustain the more expensive programs (see, that’s how you back up your statements in a blog post).

I’m tired of writing over and over about how important the humanities are more generally (there’s a whole blog devoted to it; ok, more than one, share them in the comments). We can’t seem to make the argument artfully or convincingly enough to people who only care about the bottom line and worship at the alter of efficiency. So perhaps it’s time for some uncomfortable truths about the humanities and education in general: it’s hard, it’s complex, it’s long, it takes time, and it’s difficult to measure. In fact, measuring is perhaps the most inefficient part of education, at least if you want to do it well. The humanities can’t be easily quantifiable in bubble tests and simplistic rubrics, let along machine grading. And when we do manage to do that, we remove the very thing that makes the humanities valuable, trivializing it and making it easier to attack. It also doesn’t have the same built-in scores or milestones that other difficult and labor-intensive tasks provide: improving a score, a time, playing a more difficult piece, hitting a higher note. No, we can’t predict if and when something will click, nor can we predict what it will be.

If this sounds like a cop-out, I don’t mean it to be. But I do mean it to be a push-back with some hard truths. We need better ways to evaluate, and we need to do better communicating what it is we do. But communicating it accurately and honestly means keeping the complexities, the problems, the challenges, and, therefore, the great joys and rewards that confronting these realities can bring. And finally, we can say, I can be efficient or I can be a good scholar, a good teacher, but I can’t be both at once. The more we “simplify” the more we risk being viewed as simplistic. If we do that, they (whoever they happen to be), win.


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