Gresham’s Law and the Academy

How the bad drives out the good.

January 13, 2019

Gresham’s law – that bad money drives out good – also applies to the academy: Low-quality instruction increasingly threatens high-quality teaching.

In recent years, the language of innovation has been leveraged to undercut the essence of a high-quality education: a rich relationship between a knowledgeable, highly trained instructor and individual students. In the name of access, affordability, and personalized adaptive learning, new educational models are spreading that place academic rigor and quality standards in jeopardy.

Take the universe of online learning. Examples of high-quality online learning certainly exist. Synchronous models range from Minerva-like small seminars, where an instructor can monitor and interact with all students simultaneously to mega-courses with 1,500 or more students, that involve a constant stream of activities: hangouts, polling, surveys, pop-up quizzes, debates, and interviews.

Asynchronous models include classes that combine digital courseware – with advanced interactives, sophisticated simulations, rich multimedia, frequent checks for understanding, and problem- and project-based assessments – and substantive interaction with faculty and classmates.  

But much online learning consists of little more than digitized lectures, PowerPoint slides, and discussion boards with little instructor presence, or, even worse, so-called “self-paced, self-directed” models, that involve students reviewing a string of existing websites and taking a test. Many of these low-quality courses replace faculty with so-called course mentors or coaches, many of whom have no specialized expertise or advanced disciplinary training.

The fact is that high-quality online education is expensive, even at scale. High-quality education cannot be reduced to a check box and a template. Despite savings on facilities, such courses involve substantial expenditures on software, technology, instructional design, course production, student support services, and instructional staffing. High-quality courses, with a wealth of instructional resources and tools and safeguards for academic integrity, are anything but cash cows.

The erosion of traditional standards of quality can be seen in other areas as well: For example, in the willingness of a growing number of institutions to offer courses designed and taught by for-profit firms Yale's summer school is partnering with Flatiron School to offer a web development boot camp for two Yale credits). Or in competency-based models with very expansive awards of academic credit for prior learning, which too often do not involve rigorous testing or close alignment between the earlier experience and academic expectations. Or in disaggregated instructional staffing models that standardize courses and replace faculty with underqualified academic coaches.

It was just over twenty years that Clayton M. Christensen first advanced his theory of disruptive innovation in which lower-priced, lower-quality alternatives gradually undercut an existing market. In contrast to what Christensen envisioned, it is not outsiders, intrepid entrepreneurs, or start-ups that are disrupting the academy, but, rather, an unholy alliance of established institutions and their for-profit partners, which include online program managers and their a la carte counterparts and data analytics firms. Such partnerships save on start-up costs, to be sure, but their services come at a steep price: onerous, long-term contracts that are difficult to break, loss of control of student data, and, perhaps most important of all, the failure to build up internal capacity in areas crucial to the future of higher education.

The pressure to accept and embrace debased and degraded models of higher education is intense. Those who resist these innovations can expect to be dismiss as ostriches with their heads in the sand, or as Luddites or simply as self-serving and self-interested.

Genuine problems do exist that need to be addressed. Institutions must find ways to contain costs without compromising quality or rigor and better serve the increasing numbers of non-traditional students who cannot come to campus regularly. We must also figure out how to counteract the increasing stratification of high education along multiple fault lines: of resources, enrollment selectivity, student preparation, instructional and support spending. In addition, institutions need to provide a higher education that is more skills-based, outcomes-focused, and career-aligned.

But we must avoid falling into a trap of treating a low-quality education as somehow equivalent to more traditional approaches. Do not let correspondence courses for the digital age masquerade as a real education.

Faculty have a moral obligation to fight against the academic version of Gresham’s law.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming Higher Ed Next: Advancing Access, Affordability, and Achievement.

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