Unfortunately, blended courses don't scale. Correction, they don't scale enough. Their face-to-face meetings still have to maintain small student/teacher ratios which means hiring lots of adjuncts to support massive enrollments ... and tuition will also have to cover the rental cost of the space wherein the face-to-face sessions are held.
The Uber-ization/Airbnb-fication of blended education
What!?!?! ... OK. I will explain. Just as Uber and Airbnb -- the most successful exemplars to date of the 21st century's new "sharing economy" -- have converted car owners into taxi drivers and home owners into innkeepers, there must be ways to convert existing social interaction opportunities into the required social interaction components of blended programs that will enable blended programs to deliver high quality education that is effective for most students and for a tuition that's low enough to be affordable by most students.
Components of students' social interactions
Some proponents of traditional education, especially at elite universities, have proclaimed their confidence that students will still want to live on their campuses even if/when these elite institutions deliver all or most of their courses in online formats. I think they're right, as long as they confine their projections to elite, traditional, full-time, college-age, undergraduate students for whom the on-campus experience is part of a "rite of passage" in the final stages of adolescence. So the rest of my essay addresses the needs of the rest of the students, the 99 percent for whom the "on-campus experience" is just another component of an increasingly dysfunctional education process that they don't need and/or would be willing to trade for more cost-effective arrangements.
- First, let's acknowledge that most students don't need to have intensive social interactions in all of their courses. Many existing blended degree and certificate programs offer a mix of purely online and blended courses.
- Second, a substantial portion of traditional student-teacher interactions are not related to the content of the courses, i.e., to the teacher's subject-matter expertise. That's why most online programs offered by for-profit organizations and an increasing number of non-profit institutions make sharp distinctions between "coaches" and "course instructors". Coaches provide guidance in the selection and sequencing of courses so as to maximize a student's interests while satisfying a program's graduation requirements; they prod students to become more active in their interactions with course materials when students seem to have been "away" too long; they provide empathetic "sounding boards" when students get discouraged, etc, etc, etc.
- Third, some students interact with each other in study groups, but a substantial portion of student-to-student interactions are not focused on the subject matter of any particular course or set of courses. Students "hang out" with other students who have similar interests and outlooks, but these other students might not be enrolled in the same courses or even in the same departments. If students live on campus, most of their "meetups" for study groups or for just hanging out together will occur on campus; but if they don't live on campus, off-campus meetups are probably more convenient.
So how can we Uber-ize or Airbnb-ify external social contexts for blended programs? In other words, how can we expropriate existing opportunities for off-campus student/teacher and student/student interactions to provide the social involvement that most students need to in order to sustain their study efforts in online courses, especially online courses that have large enrollments, e.g., MOOCs? I won't pretend to have all of the answers to this question yet. Indeed, I only have glimmerings of the kinds of answers that will be needed. So this paper only takes the reader a few steps, but hopefully a few steps that in the right direction. But first, an illustrative anecdote ... :-)
Study group at a Panera in Silver Spring, MD
Last fall I was working on a Sunday morning on a project that required my having wi-fi access to the Web ... and I was also hungry. There was nothing in the fridge that I wanted to eat, so I packed my laptop into my backpack and headed for the Panera in Silver Spring. While I was sitting in a booth plugging away on my project, I overheard bits and pieces of a very lively conversation at a cluster of tables next to my booth among a group of nine or ten young adults in their mid twenties to early thirties, who kept tossing around terms like "ROI", "present value", and "sensitivity tests". Intrigued, I turned to the young woman seated closest to me and asked,
- "Are all of you in the same online MBA program?"
- Stunned, she replied, "Yes! Wow! How did you know we were MBA students and how did you know that we were in an online program?" ... the kinds of questions that characters in Sherlock Holmes stories and movies always asked the great detective. With considerable difficulty, I suppressed the urge to begin by saying "Elementary" and went straight to my deductions.
- "Well, I took a few courses at a business school back in the day, so I recognize that you are employing some basic business analysis techniques. That's how I know that you're not experienced practitioners yet. You're still excited by these basic techniques, so you must be students. Usually students hold this kind of study group session at times that accommodate everyone's schedules, e.g., right before or right after classes on school days. But you're here at Panera on a Sunday morning. Colleges and universities don't offer classes on campus on Sunday mornings, so you must be in an online program. You're older students, so who have jobs, so this must be one of the only times and places that fits all of your schedules."
- To which she replied, "Hmmm" with a shrug that declared that she found my explanation to be so straight-forward and mundane that I really wasn't Sherlock Holmes after all ... Oh well ... :-(
But why a Panera? Why not a Starbucks? Because the MBA study group needed Wi-fi for their laptops, tables that could be pushed together to accommodate nine or ten people, electric outlets that were conveniently located so they could plug in their laptops and their cellphones, and relatively inexpensive meals -- because nothing turns a meeting into a friendly social gathering like tasty food, and relatively inexpensive food because they were still students. And, perhaps most importantly, the group needed to be able to brunch long enough to complete their course assignment. Needless to say, the manager at the Panera had no problem with their staying as long as they needed to stay ... as long as they kept ordering soups, salads, entrees, desserts, coffee, and sodas. A win-win all around.
- By contrast, coffee shops like Starbucks usually don't have tables that can be pushed together and only provide snacks. They don't offer a large array of tasty, relatively inexpensive meals and drinks that would make it worthwhile to allow study groups to stay as long as they needed to stay.
- I noticed that the twenty-year-old Panera in Silver Spring had a limited number of electric outlets, whereas the new Paneras in Bethesda and Rockville opened with at least two sockets under the tables of every booth. This suggest that Panera's top management recognizes that our society's zeal to push everything into the cloud -- courses, business services, self-help groups, etc -- has greatly diminished our opportunities for the kinds of face-to-face interactions that most of us social animals still crave. So why not drum up more business by encouraging cyber hermits to huddle together at Paneras?
- I've also noticed that the new Starbucks in this area have fast Wi-fi, but few sockets, and no moveable tables. In other words, they were designed to accommodate cyber-hermits' needs for uninterrupted Internet connectivity, but they don't want the hermits to meet in groups of more than two or three, and they definitely don't want them to stay for long periods of time. Starbucks only sells coffee and snacks, so it can't meet its profit targets by renting space for long periods of time to customers who only buy coffee and snacks. Indeed, one of the new Starbucks recently moved its large table to the center of the room, far enough away from the few sockets on the walls to prevent customers from connecting their laptops and cellphones. "Come in, coffee, snack, and get out. When your cellphones run down, it's long past time that you left!!!" ... :-(