Distance-ed meat-grinders?

Running somewhat in parallel to this post from Megan McArdle, Frances Woolley contemplates an educational system with one-for-one class transferability (“credit recognition”):

But universities aren’t entirely frank about the way that post-secondary education produces value. We say it’s about knowledge, human capital and all that. In fact, post-secondary has value in part because it acts as a signal: I took ECON 1000 and survived. It’s like climbing Mount Everest – it’s an impressive accomplishment solely because lots of people try to do it and fail.

“Meat-grinder courses” – courses like intermediate microeconomics that chew students up and spit them out – must exist if a bachelor’s degree is to have any value as a signal of ability.

Yet credit recognition would – if it was to serve any useful purpose – have to allow students to take meat-grinder courses at other universities.

But a university could make good money by delivering meat-grinder courses on a long-distance basis, offering a kinder, gentler, more nurturing version of, say, ECON 1000. For a credit recognition system to be effective, there would have to be some way of preventing grade inflation, and a competitive lowering of standards.

(Emphasis added.)

I’m not sure how much this differs between disciplines, but it seems to me that even meat-grinder prereqs are in fact prerequisite for a reason, and this gives us a reasonably pragmatic-seeming way to prevent that “competitive lowering of standards”.  Every time regulations come up in Formula One*, I rant about how car performance should be controlled by behaviour rather than dimensional specs — if you want to limit the amount of downforce a car generates, then test its -L/D ratio and make sure it’s below a certain constant under test conditions rather than fuck around with wing dimensions.  Similarly, if you want to make sure that Ed’s Interweb Collij isn’t selling a watered-down version of ECON 1000, track the students and see how many of them fail subsequent courses.  If you expect no more than 10% of students who’ve passed your august institution’s terrifyingly carnassial ECON 1000 course to fail out of ECON 2100, then set an upper bound of, say, 15% or 20% and see how many of Ed’s students fail.  If Ed’s graduates fail at higher rates, then Ed’s doing something wrong and doesn’t get certified.  This won’t work for graduate seminars with single-digit enrolment, of course, but filter courses should have a large enough population to avoid statistical outliers.

And if it turns out that even students who’ve taken kinder, gentler meat-grinder courses excel in subsequent dependent courses, well, the higher-ed bubble needs to pop sooner or later.


* I’ll try to post some thoughts about the 2012 cars before the season starts


3 Responses to “Distance-ed meat-grinders?”

  1. 1 TMI
    February 21, 2012 at 22:12

    While I can’t give you a link to the article, I can give you this gut-wrenching display.



  2. 2 TMI
    February 21, 2012 at 22:15

    It looks like I hit a wrong button earlier. Here’s the quote I wanted to share. Mebbe it’s too long for the comments section. Here’s try two:

    “I got a little fired up working on this issue’s cover story about OSU’s efforts to improve student success, helping more freshmen make it all the way through to their diplomas.”

    “Susie Brubaker-Cole, who as associate provost for academic success and engagement is leading the quest to help more OSU students succeed and reach their dreams, left me encouraged that the university is attacking the problem with more resolve than ever.

    “But I remain troubled by one of the sentiments I encountered along the way. I heard it in different forms from several people, including alumni whose lives were made better by an Oregon State education. Summed up, it goes like this: ‘Isn’t that part of what college is supposed to do, weed out the ones who don’t belong? I made it through; why can’t they?’

    “Well, one answer is: Although it’s actually harder than ever to get into Oregon State, more students are arriving ill-prepared for college work at a time when the university’s teaching resources are stretched to the breaking point. That’s not OSU’s fault, but it’s OSU’s problem once the students are here.”

    “I was very much an academic weed when I enrolled at Oregon State as a pre-med student, if one accepts the textbook definition of “weed” as something that sprouts where it shouldn’t.

    “I had no business being a doctor, which was painfully obvious as soon as I encountered college-level work in the sciences, not to mention calculus, which I still believe is not actually math, but a collection of unfathomable and evil spells signified by strange symbols.”

    “Instead they kept repotting me and moving me from one academic greenhouse to another, until they found a major where I bloomed, and I left Corvallis with great passion and a fine education for a vocation that turned out to be my life’s work.

    “So let’s can the talk about weeding out people.”

    • February 22, 2012 at 21:40

      Looks like your first attempt went to a different comment thread.

      I’m happy for this particular “weed” and all — I mean, if you want to go to college, and have the time and the money to try a bunch of different majors and see what works out for you, more power to you! But what s/h/it doesn’t seem to get is that early feedback (getting “weeded out” in MATH 114 or CMPUT 201) makes the process run faster, which is cheaper and more convenient for the students. If you’re going to flunk out of pre-med, or electrical engineering, or whatever… better to flunk out in your first semester than in your fourth year, no?

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anarchocapitalist agitprop

Be advised

I say fuck a lot



Statistics FTW


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