Saturday, February 27, 2010

At cross purposes: funding vs. attendance

At the same time that we are cutting education budgets, especially for post-secondary education, we are also encouraging attendance at those very same institutions, whether though worker retraining dollars or exaggerated claims of job marketability.  Our educational funding mechanism is so convoluted and disjointed that perhaps this contradiction really does make sense, but I doubt it.

In particular, I think of those students back at the community college who need or want new skills, but not necessarily a degree.  As we know, or should know, our education system is structured to encourage and reward the granting of degrees.  Education is only a means to that end, not the end in itself. 

These student I refer to, however, work in areas where degrees or certifications aren't important or who already have degrees or certifications at a higher level (community college student with a Bachelors degree).  Is there a more effective, flexible and cost effective way to help them identify and gain the education they need?

You may remember sometime back in a post called Basic Cable I floated the idea of the community college as career health club.  When you sign-up you get a counselor to help you define your goals and then establish an exercise plan to help you reach the goals.  The "club" is always open so you can drop in and use the equipment whenever you need to.  In addition, you may team up with other clubmembers to push each other to be better.  What the fitness counselor doesn't do is prepare the gym for you before each session.  She doesn't stand over you with every lift and tell you how good you're doing.  She does not declare "you are healthy", give you a piece of paper to confirm that and send you on your way, never to be seen from again.

And that, to me, seem to be the problem. We can't run more people through the system because we can't get more instructors or because the existing instructors can't handle the increased load.  Or can they?

Let me change metaphors on you for a moment.  The Theory of Constraints says the organization's ability to achieve a goal is limited by one (or a very few) constraining factors.  The only way to achieve more is to maximize the throughput through the constraint.  In education, the instructor is the constraint.  I don't mean this in a bad way, it's just that there is only so much course creation, class prep, lecturing and grading one instructor can do.  If you wanted to double or triple the students through the class you would need more instructors or more TA's or .... a different mindset. 

What if education, not degrees were the goal?  What if the content was already freely available? What if the class was not time-bound or geographic-bound? What if certification was available from an independent entity or wasn't required?  As we know, those are all true.  Class materials and tutorials on hundreds of subjects are readily available across the web for the instructor to select from.  Both vendors and independent organizations offer certifications. Podcasting and learning management systems allow teachers to break the boundaries of time and place. Freely available wiki's allow cohorts to collaborate and share the learning.  Books 24X7 and other online library resources provide access to many books that don't fair well on the library shelves (in technology where change is frequent and constant). 

Could an instructor who now is limited to teaching 30 students, instead facilitate the education of 90 students with the same effort?  I don't know, but it hard economic times it might be worth some consideration.

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