Student learning and opportunity should be at the center of BOG deliberations about the future of classrooms

As Florida’s Board of Governors considers the future of classrooms in the State University System, members can focus on either saving money or on improving student learning in fields that provide economic opportunity.

Of course, I hope they choose to focus on opportunity.

But I should be forgiven if I’m a little pessimistic on that score.  The presentation that BOG Assistant Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Chris Kinsley gave to the Board’s Facilities Committee on the “Impact of Online Education on Space Needs” argued that the need for new space in the SUS has been reduced by $1-2 billion by the system’s push for online education but said nothing about improving student learning in high-demand fields like engineering, math, and physics – and the facilities needed to do so.

If Kinsley and his BOG colleagues asked about improving student learning, they might get some answers that surprise them.  An MIT study demonstrated that introductory physics students enrolled in a MOOC with recorded lectures made somewhat greater learning gains than students in a traditional lecture course.  However, student learning gains in both of these formats fell far behind those achieved in interactive engagement courses like the SCALE-UP format that FSU’s studio physics program (and, ahem, MIT’s Physics Department) has adopted.

So what conclusion should the Board reach?  Fewer lecture halls and more interactive engagement classrooms would be logical.  For those courses where instructors insist on the lecture format, lectures could be recorded and the need for new lecture halls mitigated.  Improved student learning would probably result.

But it would also be fair for Kinsley and his colleagues to ask whether the dramatically higher student learning gains achieved in a physical interactive engagement classroom could be reproduced in an online environment.  The first answer is that it hasn’t been done yet.  The dramatic improvements in learning gains in an interactive engagement environment are driven by intensive social interactions – among students and between students and instructors.  Nobody has yet come up with a way to reproduce that social bandwidth fully online.  If they had, perhaps Florida’s Legislature would meet via Skype instead of wasting all that money on physically coming to Tallahassee every spring.

However, there are people thinking about how to do it, and perhaps those techniques will become available in the next decade.

But for now, if the highest priority is to give students from diverse backgrounds access to the nation’s most lucrative career paths like engineering, physics and math, we’ll have to find the resources to construct the physical interactive engagement classrooms we need.  That might not make Kinsley and his colleagues at the Board of Governors happy.  But it’s the truth.

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