Best of times and worst of times for project-based education

The New York Times, in “Who Gets to Graduate” (May 15, 2014 Magazine), writes about University of Texas students who did poorly in a 500-person lectured-based chemistry class but were able to master the material when it was taught in a more collaborative manner. The article is ostensibly about race/class issues, but I think mostly what it shows is that 500-person lectures are useless and colleges haven’t noticed until now because (a) they don’t measure or care what students learn, and (b) the elite colleges admit a huge number of students who are so bright and motivated that they can teach themselves everything from textbooks, Wikipedia, and problem sets.

[Note that MIT has had a similar program for freshman, albeit self-selected, called Experimental Study Group, founded in 1969.]

Meanwhile, here in Massachusetts there is the Olin College of Engineering, which addresses a lot of the problems with standard approaches that I wrote about in “What’s wrong with the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum.” Olin has been enormously successful pedagogically, with one friend of mine saying “I’ll hire at least 95 percent of the Olin graduates whom I interview [for his software company], but only 5 percent of the MIT graduates.”

Yesterday, however, the Boston Globe poured some cold water on the Olin College torch with “Losses soar at acclaimed Olin College”. It seems that the traditional way of teaching (i.e., by giving “live videos” rather than actually teaching) is more profitable than working shoulder-to-shoulder with students. (See also: the response from Olin.)

I’m saddened by this, but based on my one business interaction with the Olin College administrators, I can’t say that I am completely surprised. Back in 1999 I ran an open-source software company that had a contract with the MIT Sloan School. We were delivering to Sloan a system for coordinating on-campus learning (see this document regarding an early version). Per the terms of the contract, the software developed for MIT would be rolled back into our open-source toolkit and, in fact, the system eventually grew into the .LRN system that currently supports hundreds of thousands of students worldwide.

As soon as I heard about Olin I contacted the president of the new school: “I’m a huge fan of project-based education. That’s how I try to do everything at MIT. We have a contract with MIT Sloan and they are paying for most of the learning management stuff. We want the software to work well for other colleges as well, so we’re willing to offer you a 100 percent free IT system to run your school. I will dedicate two MIT graduate programmers to build whatever extra features that you need beyond Sloan’s requirements. We’ll run it on our servers so that you don’t have to buy anything or hire sysadmins and dbadmins. Or you can run it on your servers and we have a good relationship with Oracle so we can probably get you a free license. Our existing customers are Siemens, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and the World Bank. We’ve delivered all of our projects to them in much less time than there is between now and when your first class of students shows up.”

How did this guy respond to having nearly his entire server-side IT budget eliminated? He bounced the offer over to his Chief Technology Officer who said “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re planning to spend millions of dollars on servers, software, and services from Microsoft.”

Presumably Microsoft did a great job for Olin, but I was surprised that what the (ridiculously rich) MIT Sloan school was gladly paying for these guys didn’t want to take for free.

To end on a hopeful note, the new Cornell Tech school in Manhattan uses a project-based approach to learning, though for graduate students only.

6 thoughts on “Best of times and worst of times for project-based education

  1. My understanding is that Microsoft interviews about 3/4 of each class. A large percentage of former interns for my company went on to work for Microsoft upon graduation. It was likely a rational decision on the part of the school to have deep, multi-level ties with Microsoft to ensure a pipeline of career opportunities for graduates. We’ve seen a steady rise in companies attending the Olin career fair, so their overall strategy to increase demand for graduates seems to be working.

    I enjoyed reading Olin’s vivid response to some shoddy reporting that confused a paper loss in endowment with an operating loss.

  2. I’d like to comment more generally on institutional education, if that’s OK.

    Philip, I believe that the sardonic points about universities that you made in the first paragraph are in fact literally true:
    “(a) they don’t measure or care what students learn, and (b) the elite colleges admit a huge number of students who are so bright and motivated that they can teach themselves everything from textbooks, Wikipedia, and problem sets.”

    So what is the actual point of institutionalized education, if not learning?

    I believe that the point is that graduates will have demonstrated that they can grind through whatever arbitrary tasks are set in front of them, to some degree of compliance.
    Historically, institutionalized education has served as a mechanism to select and filter task workers for large organizations, such as the church, government, the military and large corporations.
    What do the vast majority of jobs in large organizations consist of? Large organizations are typically engaged in vast complicated processes. Those processes need to be broken down into manageable tasks, suitable for individual workers. From the point of view of the individual worker, the point of the task she is performing may be quite obscure. That obscurity may, in many cases, even be desirable from the point of view of the organization. What these organizations need are workers who will perform whatever arbitrary tasks they are dealt out, with a minimum of fuss and bother to their superiors.
    Institutionalized education has historically performed the function of selecting and filtering suitable candidates for the type of jobs large organizations typically need.

    That was the traditional environment. Today there are, in addition, more possibilities for making a living at start up companies. Also, even large organizations like to pay lip service to a “start up mentality”, innovation, creativity, etc. – at least some departments.

    So today there is a perceived need for a different type of worker, more creative, blah blah blah. Traditionally the need for that sort of thing was quite small. Now all workers and jobs are supposed to involve creativity and innovation. Realistically, I’m skeptical, I believe that the vast majority of actual jobs and tasks out there are pretty routine and will be for the indefinite future.

    However there undoubtedly is a greater opportunity for people to do “cool” work today than ever before and institutionalized education would like to get in on that.

    There are a few people like Philip, who actually have a background in innovative start ups, have had some success and are also interested in evolving education to help prepare young people for “cooler” jobs. Unfortunately that’s probably pretty rare. How many talented educators also have a successful track record outside of the university system?

    But even with the right teacher “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous” – harking back to point (b) in Philip’s initial paragraph.

    On top of that, large educational institutions are themselves large organizations engaged in complicated processes, and to function smoothly, they have also need to break up those processes into manageable tasks.

    Furthermore, while it’s cool to pay lip service to preparing students for cooler jobs, the reality is that most jobs out there are still not so cool.

    So the result – not withstanding a few talented exceptions like Philip – is a system which pays lip service to innovation and creativity while largely grinding out another generation of grinders.

    Which isn’t really surprising, given our history and a realistic assessment of the current environment.

  3. It’s not surprising, really: project-based teaching has got to be more labor-intensive than the traditional lecture system.

    Patrick: what you describe is the so-called signaling model of education, I.e. that students get a degree to signal to employers they have certain desirable skills like conformity, ability to take directions, etc, as opposed to the traditional interpretation that they go to increase their human capital.

  4. The most interesting (and also shortest) part of the response was this:

    5. Are administrative salaries at Olin too high?

    Olin benchmarks its salaries against its peer schools. We regularly update this data to make sure we are in line with the compensation structures of our competitors. We make the salaries of our highest paid administrators publicly available and we know that they are not higher than our peer schools.

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