Sunday, April 28, 2013
“Fail Fast:” Fumbling Towards a Theory
I’m fumbling towards a theory, but I’m not there yet. Wise and worldly readers, what would “fail fast” look like in an academic context?
On your main point, did you notice this article? Not a very big sample, but the observation that students prefer on-line classes for topics they don't want to learn (easy ones they think they already know or can pick up without being bored in class) and face-to-face for ones they think they need to learn (lab sciences) or consider personally interesting.
On the other hand, I dropped out of the "distance learning" class they offered for German 4. I really did want to learn that, but the Skype-like video system made interaction really hard, and the other two kids who were taking the class from my campus dropped out first...
You were talking about failure at the systems level, meaning I think, does this type of higher ed work -- or does this curriculum or delivery method work? You could also ask, does this major work? does this faculty member "work," in the sense of does s/he help the students learn what they want/need to learn, in the context of one or another curriculum or format. You could also ask does this student "work," in the sense of is this student making adequate progress. And on to, does this financial aid system work? all of these components would have different time lines by which to measure whether something they are doing is "failing fast," or more likely in higher ed, "failing slowly."
It's basically what FDR did with a lot of the new deal, where his idea was to try a lot of different things and see what worked - but the main thing was to do *something.* (Not typical then or now, of course.)
One problem I see with doing that in higher ed is that you can't - in a lot of contexts - just completely yank the rug out from underneath them. Students who are halfway through a major in, say, central asian studies, need to be able to finish the major even if the program isn't working out. Students who enrolled because of an online program should be able to expect that it will continue for a reasonable period of time. It's not the same as trying out a free website on pet care.
So I kind of think that the bifurcation between continuing ed and traditional ed is a good one: continuing ed students don't have the settled expectations of the traditional students and are fine if a lot of courses are offered as one-offs. Perhaps the missing piece is taking successful experiments from continuing ed and transplanting them to traditional ed?
@MKS - I think that when distance learning does work, it works in courses that can be taught as lectures. I don't think it is a good fit at all for "skills" courses which tend to have a lot of one-on-one contact during each period. That's probably an idea that should "fail fast," if it isn't already.
The big difference between higher ed and software engineering is the expectations of the employees. In software engineering, you expect things to be fluid. Even if your employer goes under, getting another job is not a big deal. In higher education, outside of the rare 1-year visiting position, you expect to get hired for the long haul. Sure, tenure is never guaranteed, and at certain institutions, it is downright rare for your first job, but stability is generally expected.