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Electric Pickup Trucks, Online Learning and the Large Lecture Class

What we have in common with the auto industry.

October 19, 2020
 
 

In the video "The Electric Pickup Truck War Is Here," Bloomberg describes the dilemma that large automakers face. Pickup trucks are the products that keep Ford, GM and, to a lesser extent, Fiat Chrysler afloat.

The Ford F-150 is not only the best-selling automobile in the U.S., selling almost 900,00 units in 2019, it is also among the company's most profitable vehicles. Some analysts estimate that Ford makes $10,000 for every F-150 it sells, and the vehicle generates 90 percent of Ford's profits.

Automakers' dilemma is how much they should invest in electric trucks or continue to focus on their highly profitable gasoline-powered truck offerings.

There is little doubt within or outside the auto industry that electric vehicles are the future. Trucks are the perfect platform to lead the transition from gas to electricity. The high average price of trucks, which has now reached $50,000, gives automakers more room to absorb batteries' costs. The size of trucks allows for bigger batteries, hence increasing the driving range. With many fewer moving parts than gas-powered vehicles, the simplicity of electric cars should make them more reliable. And electric vehicles excel at tasks that require plenty of low-end torque, such as pulling trailers.

Over the next couple of years, we will see many new electric trucks come to the market. The most well-known is Tesla's Cybertruck, which is joined by start-up truck maker Rivian. GM is coming out with the Hummer EV, and Ford and GM are also working on fully electric versions of their pickups. (Among other brands, such as Bollinger, Nikola and Lordstown).

How do electric trucks relate to higher ed?

I've come to think of the large face-to-face lecture course as the Ford F-150 of higher ed.

As an industry, we are addicted to the economics of the big lecture. There is no higher profit margin educational strategy than cramming as many students as possible in a room with a professor and a bunch of teaching assistants. An even greater margin can be achieved if that professor is a low-paid adjunct or other non-tenure-track instructor.

Just as the traditional gasoline pickup truck gets poor mileage and has a dubious safety design (due to its body-on-frame construction), large lecture courses are poorly optimized for long-term learning.

Like truck buyers, many students (and many professors) like the large lecture class. All too often, large lecture courses are designed around an information transmission and high-stakes testing model. Many students have learned to excel as passive recipients of information and takers of tests.

Some large lecture classes are highly engaging, taught by gifted and inspiring lecturers. However, there is little evidence that even the best large lecture courses are optimal for deep learning.

Online education is the electric car of higher ed.

Eventually, large lecture courses will be replaced by deep and immersive online learning experiences. These online courses will be designed to support all student learning rather than weed out some proportion of students with high-stakes exams.

For foundational courses, a highly resourced online course that is richly staffed by a critical mass of coaches and tutors and opportunities for peer support will be the gold standard of the future.

Colleges and universities know that investing in and continuously improving high-quality foundational online courses is the way to go. Students are most often diverted from their intended majors, particularly in STEM fields, during the foundational course sequences. There is wide variation in the quality of introductory online courses.

The question is, will colleges and universities take the leap to kill their own highest-ROI educational offering, the large lecture class? Deep, immersive and high-quality online courses are expensive to create and costly to continuously update and improve.

Like electric vehicles, the replacement of large lecture courses with quality online offerings is the future.

Colleges and universities can invest in making this transition now or stand back and watch other, more forward-looking institutions pass them by.

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