Friday, January 24, 2014

Why it is hard to make learning more efficient

There have been many attempts over the years to increase the efficiency of learning, but they have had little effect.  We still take in students at around four or five (a bit earlier at some times and later in some countries) and shunt them through a system that they emerge from many years later having learnt whatever they may have learnt.  Then there are those claims of dumbing down which would suggest that learning becomes ever less efficient rather than more efficient.  So, in this posting I want to look at some aspects of this.

The first thing that I want to look at is the difference between efficiency of teaching and learning.  I think that lectures provide an excellent example of the difference between the efficiency of two.  If you double the number of people attending a lecture then the lecturer is being twice as efficient (assuming nothing else changes, though in fact increasing the audience size may affect the lecture).  They are providing the same learning opportunity to more students at the same cost.  Clearly they are being more efficient.  However, for the student there is no improvement in learning they are attending the same lecture delivered in the same way and with the same content.  There can therefore be a distinct difference between enhancing efficiency in teaching and learning.  We also know that the lecture is one of the least efficient forms of learning; that is for the time invested by the student less knowledge and understanding is achieved than with almost any other learning activity.  However, from the teachers point of view it is very efficient.  One hour is spent teaching (plus however much preparation time) and you can have several hundred (or even more) learning hours happening.  This is exacerbated by the consideration that learner time is "free".  When looking at reducing the cost of learning most of the effort goes into reducing the cost of teaching because teachers are paid.  Little effort goes into reducing the cost of learning (beyond things like open educational resources (OER)).

This raises the question of where is there pressure to reduce the costs of learning coming from.  Let us suppose for a moment that we could double the efficiency of learning (we are not concerned at the moment about how this might be achieved, we are just looking at a counter-factual).  If we could double the efficiency of learning then children who enter school at the age of five would graduate from university at about the age of 13 (they would have learnt in eight years as much as students currently learn in sixteen).  Is there really any desire to do this? There is continual pushing for the raising of the school leaving age, which, in the UK, is effectively 18 now.  This is not just because of the perceived need for an educated workforce, but also because of the political need to keep the number of young unemployed people down.  So, if learning were made significantly more efficient we would probably just be asking children to learn a great deal more than they do at the moment.

Looking at higher education there have been some attempts to make it more efficient (as opposed to more effective) for the learner.  For instance there have been a few attempts to reduce honours courses from three to two years by having short holidays, and it could be argued that part-time study is a more efficient use of the learners' time as they can combine study with work.  However, most of the focus has been on reducing teaching costs, not learning costs (with the already mentioned exception of OERs and their like).

This brings me to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which I suggest do not make learning more efficient (they may make it more flexible), but which if they work the way that there promoters suggest then will be very (massively) efficient from the teacher's or institution's perspective.  Are they an efficient way for students to learn?  I suspect that they are actually quite inefficient, although it would be very hard to collect appropriate data.  To put this another way, do students learn the same amount (and I am deliberately being vague here as learning may also be occur at different levels in Bloom's taxonomy) in the same time as through other forms of learning?  If not then the total cost of MOOCs could be very high; except that we do not value the learners' time.  If we valued the learners' time, which I believe we should,  and they are slightly less efficient than other forms of learning then MOOCs are very expensive.  However, student time is seen as completely free (there is not even an opportunity cost usually associated with the time spent studying).  Thus, when we are looking at the cost and efficiency of the MOOC we are only looking at the teaching cost, and not the total cost of learning.  I am well aware that many people will argue that MOOCs at least offer students the chance to study something that they might otherwise not have the opportunity to study, and that they may be studying for fun.  I am perfectly happy with that, but it is besides the point of making learning more efficient.

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