The Electric Car and the Large Lecture Class

What can we learn about innovation in higher ed from the electric car?

April 8, 2012

What can we learn about innovation in higher ed from the electric car?

A 3/24/12 NYTimes article The Electric Car, Unplugged by John Broder detailed the depressing reality of the electric car market. Broder writes that,

"….the state of the electric car is dismal, the victim of hyped expectations, technological flops, high costs and a hostile political climate. General Motors has temporarily suspended production of the plug-in electric Chevy Volt because of low sales. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf is struggling in the market. A number of start-up electric vehicle and battery companies have folded. And the federal government has slowed its multibillion-dollar program of support for advanced technology vehicles in the face of market setbacks and heavy political criticism."

This reality check is at odds with the positive story told in the entertaining documentary The Revenge of the Electric Car, made by Chris Paine, who also wrote and directed the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? 

Eventually we might all find a route off the internal combustion engine, gasoline, and our dependence on foreign oil. This transition, however, is not coming nearly as quickly as most of us would want. Transportation based on gasoline is a resilient technology. The electric alternative is hindered by the comparatively high cost and low performance of battery technology.   

In higher ed we have our own carbon based fuel / combustion engine legacy technology equivalent: the large lecture class.

Large lecture classes persist because we have not devised a more efficient or cost effective way to deliver education.  

If every university in the world could afford to transition every single lecture class to an intimate seminar, they would do so.

Very few would argue (although some might) that a lecture format is preferred over a seminar, or that transportation based on gasoline is better for our nation than one based on electricity. We know the advantages of active learning, and understand that the large lecture format makes effective learning difficult. We understand the economic, security, strategic, and environmental costs of dependence on foreign oil for transportation.

What the electric car teaches us is that knowing what the right outcome should be does not guarantee that this outcome will be achieved. Knowledge does not repeal the laws of economics.   

Until the point in which batteries can store a similar amount of energy as a tankful of gas, and do so at a reasonable cost, we will continue to drive gas powered cars. Perhaps we will get "lucky" and the price of oil will double, or a carbon tax that captures the true environmental and defense costs of oil will be instituted.  But until that point, the electric alternative depends on the willingness of early adopters to behave in a non-economically rationale manner. And we need these early adopters to pay for the innovations that it will take to drive down the costs of electric cars for the rest of us.    

The lecture format will continue until we develop technologies and practices that make education as efficient as placing a single instructor in a room with many students.  

Perhaps the "flipped classroom" will be that technology, in which lecture material is viewed prior to the class, and class meeting time is spent in discussion and small group problem solving. This method, while promising, still requires significant faculty time for preparation and execution - as well as a re-thinking of what physical and virtual spaces are optimal for this new method of teaching. All of these changes carry with them considerable direct and opportunity costs, costs that will make the transition off  the lecture format a (frustratingly) gradual process.

In what year do you think a typical freshman will be dropped off on campus in a battery powered car, and then proceeds through her academic career without experiencing a traditional instructor-based lecture course? 


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