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Growing up in western New York, I learned to drive on snow.  Since I didn’t come from money, I learned to drive small cars on snow.  

Small cars are relatively light, and the snow and ice around Rochester could be impressive. A small car braking on black ice is pretty much a hockey puck.  So to survive, I had to learn the counterintuitive truth that Northern drivers learn early: when you start to skid, turn in the direction of the skid. You get control back much more quickly that way.  If you refuse to acknowledge the skid, or fight it, you lose control completely and crash.  

Correcting for climate, I was reminded of that when reading the latest from San Jose State.

Apparently, San Jose State University has contracted with Udacity to run credit-bearing basic algebra classes -- both developmental and college-level -- at a cost to students of $150.  

Some folks are already manning the battle stations.  My favorite, from the vice president of the San Jose State faculty union chapter:

“My personal opinion is that it’s not by accident that this is being announced at a time when most faculty are not on campus, but I have no evidence for that,” said Preston Rudy, a sociology professor at San Jose State who serves as vice president of the chapter. (emphasis added)

It has to be sinister. It just has to! What other explanation could there possibly be?

And that’s where the conversation should start.  What other explanation could there be?  What’s the appeal?  

Cathy Davidson claimed earlier this week that “if we (profs) can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.”  Her point was that it’s no longer plausible to argue that face-to-face instruction is clearly the only possible way to convey information.  If the best instruction that a college can offer is a sage on a stage lecturing to 300 freshmen, whom that sage will then duck afterwards to get back to writing, then it’s hard to argue that a video presentation would be markedly worse.  If anything, it may be better; at least with a video, you can play back parts you missed the first time.  And the cost advantage is not to be ignored, particularly when tuition and student loan burdens are the highest they have ever been, even after inflation.

Davidson is gracious enough not to say so, but the dirty little secret we all know is that the massive lecture was only ever an economic expedient; it was never a particularly effective way to teach.  Replacing one economic expedient with another, more effective one hardly constitutes an outrage.  

The limits of the traditional approach are particularly clear when we look at student pass rates in developmental and lower-level classes.  Nationally, there’s nothing unusual about a 50 percent fail rate for a developmental math class.  Early MOOCs have had even worse attrition rates, but that’s hardly an apples-to-apples comparison; most enrollees in the first wave of MOOCs had nothing at stake.  Motivation matters.  San Jose already ran its “circuits and electronics” course as a blended MOOC, and found that pass rates were actually higher than in the traditional class.  Whether the same will be true on the “lower” end of the curriculum isn’t obvious, but it isn’t preposterous, either.  And if it turns out to be higher, I’d like to hear the argument against it.

And here’s where I remembered what it felt like doing my first donut on an icy hill in Mom’s Ford Escort in 1985.  

If you read the earlier paragraph carefully, you’ll notice the word “blended.”  Students in the blended class did better than students in the traditional class.  They also did better than students in pure MOOCs.  

To the extent that results matter -- as opposed to tradition, politics, Luddism, or technophilia -- it looks like we get the best results when we turn into the skid.  When faculty use MOOCs as resources, rather than attack them as threats, students thrive.  MOOCs could offer one way to ‘flip the classroom,’ to move exposition outside so the people inside could focus on understanding, applying, and questioning.  They can free up faculty to work with students on the more interesting (and idiosyncratic) process of helping students internalize knowledge, come to grips with it, and sometimes even attack it.  

In a sense, I’m suggesting using MOOCs in ways similar to the ways professors have long used books.  They can be wonderful outside-of-class-time resources for introducing new material.  (They can also be wonderful in-class resources for closely guided analysis.)  But unlike books, they come with real-time data analytics, so they can be refined as they go.  And they’re a hell of a lot cheaper for students, which is no small thing.

TechCrunch opined yesterday that San Jose State’s move “spells the end of higher education as we know it.”  I suspect that higher education will outlast TechCrunch.  But the teaching side of higher education will only thrive if it’s able to turn into the skid and use the new resources to its advantage.  This is not the time to jam the brakes.  If we do, we’ll crash, and be replaced -- rightly -- by Davidson’s screens.  This is the time to use some unexpected momentum to get back on the track we should have been on in the first place.

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