Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Finding meaningful social innovation

My Facebook sidebar had a blurb which asks, "Are you a thought leader?"  My answer, "I wish I were, but apparently am not."  Take a look at the following paragraph.  It's from the paper The SCALE Efficiency Projects, published in JALN almost seventeen years ago.  The paper was co-written by the SCALE evaluation team and me.  I believe this paragraph was entirely mine.  In any event, ask yourself about labor-for-labor substitution in instruction, where the inexpensive labor is not adjuncts, but students and where the type of interaction envisioned is not one-on-many but rather one-on-one or one-one-a-few.  Nowadays, who is thinking about learning technology innovation this way? 


A few years after The SCALE Efficiency Projects, Brown and Duguid came out with their book, The Social Life of Information, which got a lot of attention at the time. (Brown was one of the keynote speakers at an Educause national conference held in Indianapolis, where he gave a superlative talk.  This cemented the importance of what he was saying among my peers in the CIC Learning Technology Group.)  One might have thought The Social Life... would have amplified interest in the SCALE Efficiency projects and this idea of labor-for-labor substitution.  But it didn't. 

The old NLII idea of capital-for-labor substitution still dominates our thinking about learning technology and how efficiency can be attained from applying technology to instruction.  You certainly see it with the MOOC fascination.  But it is also there with classroom technology, particularly clickers

In the session with instructors talking about their use of clickers that I wrote about last week and that is linked in the previous paragraph, one universal reported by each of the panelists is that students don't want to look stupid so are reluctant to ask questions in class for that reason.  Clickers address that problem in the one-on-many setting of the large lecture class?  Given the high degree of awareness of the issue, one wonders why there hasn't been equivalent attention paid to encourage students to open up in an office hours setting.

In fairness, the folks who teach introductory physics at Illinois do seem to have a solution to this, but the approach hasn't transferred broadly.  One reason for this is that some of the large classes taught in other disciplines are very poorly resourced and the approach taken in physics doesn't transfer.

Let me try to address the above.  If undergraduates who have taken the course are used as peer mentors/tutors then they need to be paid and that might seem to be a cost add.  But businesses have figured out long ago that if they can make payment in a currency of their own choosing, it is much cheaper than paying in cash.  (Think of airlines who bump passengers willing to give up their seats.  The payment is in the form of a free flight to be taken at a later date, where there may very well be empty seats.)   In the use of undergraduates, a similar idea can be employed by noting that the skills entailed in being an effective peer mentor/tutor are essentially the same as the skills one needs to develop to become a good leader.  So by offering candidate peer/mentors some coursework on leadership leading to a leadership minor and having the peer mentoring itself be the practicum associated with that coursework, one can get this labor input at very low cost.  (The second or third time through as peer mentor, the student should be paid but then too, some of the work should change to mentoring the mentors.)

This sort of innovation is right there, in potential terms.  But the potential has not been exploited at scale.  (A few instructors embrace the approach but they don't seem to generate coattails.)  I can't say the MOOC phenomenon is crowding out this type of innovation.  MOOCs are fairly recent and this use of labor-for-labor substitution has been around for quite a while before MOOCs appeared on the scene.  Yet the idea of labor-for-labor substitution didn't capture the larger imagination within Higher Education.  I don't have a full explanation for why, but I do recall one colleague telling me in the 1990s that he couldn't use undergraduates in his very large class, because the idea wouldn't play well in the Chicago Tribune.

Last Friday Paul Krugman had a column called The Timidity Trap where he argued that the good guys among economic policy makers (those who wanted to see more fiscal stimulus) have been cowed into taking half measures only.  I believe something similar has happened in Higher Ed.  Our past seems to mark a willingness for change at the fringes with no change at all among the majority practice and to keep with that right up until the model is broken.  (The model at Illinois would be broken now if not for the influx of international students who pay full out-of-state tuition.)  The good guys in learning technology whom I knew and continue to interact with on occasion also seem content to pursue half measures.

And perhaps they wouldn't agree with this diagnosis that using undergraduates as peer mentors should be the focus of a new approach.  But if they do agree, maybe we should all take a lesson from Krugman and be less timid in arguing for this.  Now is time to turn up the heat. 

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