The factory farm?

by on April 24, 2012 at 4:19 am in Education | Permalink

There are no professors in Virginia Tech’s largest classroom, only a sea of computers and red plastic cups.

In the Math Emporium, the computer is king, and instructors are reduced to roving guides. Lessons are self-paced, and help is delivered “on demand” in a vast, windowless lab that is open 24 hours a day because computers never tire. A student in need of human aid plants a red cup atop a monitor.

The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store. Four math instructors, none of them professors, lead seven courses with enrollments of 200 to 2,000. Students walk to class through a shopping mall, past a health club and a tanning salon, as ambient Muzak plays.

I reserve judgment, but note this:

…Virginia Tech students pass introductory math courses at a higher rate now than 15 years ago, when the Emporium was built. And research has found the teaching model trims per-student expense by more than one-third, vital savings for public institutions with dwindling state support.

“When I first came here, I was like, ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’” said Mike Bilynsky, a freshman from Epping, N.H., who is taking calculus. “But it works.”

No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of efficiency via technology in higher education, said Carol Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation, a nonprofit that studies technological innovations to improve learning and reduce cost. She calls the Emporium “a solution to the math problem” in colleges.

It may be an idea whose time has come. Since its creation in 1997, the Emporium model has spread to the universities of Alabama and Idaho (in 2000) and to Louisiana State University (in 2004). Interest has swelled as of late; Twigg says the Emporium has been adopted by about 100 schools.

You can read more here.

Ray Lopez April 24, 2012 at 4:27 am

Good idea. I’m all for lerning by doing. And if the Math Emporium is connected to the net you can ask the net for answers! Seriously, what is calculus and the transcendental equations anyway except to a large degree (at first at least) rote memorization? Let those remedial math majors lern by doing! ;)

Jon Smith April 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

Learning by doing is one thing, but the price seems a little bit steep for the level of service they are providing. Unless I’ve missed something?

Yancey Ward April 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Well, if you are missing it here, you are missing it in the traditional course method, too.

Rahul April 24, 2012 at 4:31 am

The red plastic cups seem a wee bit out of place in such a high-tech enterprise.

Dan Weber April 24, 2012 at 10:26 am

The red plastic cup is cheap and disposable.
In fourteen years they are decomposable.
And unlike my house they are not foreclosable.

JWatts April 24, 2012 at 10:37 am

And they have a theme song. ‘Red Solo cup ….’ ;)

Ken Rhodes April 24, 2012 at 4:47 am

Yes, in my local grocery store with self-checkout stations, there is a blinking light to signal “needs assistance.” That’s more high-tech, and certainly worthy of a university with Tech in its name.

Cliff April 24, 2012 at 9:17 am

Sounds unnecessarily expensive.

liberalarts April 24, 2012 at 7:08 am

Passing a class is endogenous to the testing method and its passing bar. I would be more convinced if instead of, or in addition to, a higher pass rate on the class, they found that the students did better in the next level of math that they take, such as applied statistics.

theCrankyProfessor April 24, 2012 at 7:41 am

Have you ever dealt with a university buildings and grounds department over any MINOR repairs (like a non-blinking light)? Red cups make perfect sense to me.

Andrew' April 24, 2012 at 7:50 am

They should give you 5 red cups and your grade is how many cups you leave with.

Rahul April 24, 2012 at 8:06 am

The bright red cups remind me of beer-pong. If only they had a way to incorporate ping-pong balls in there too!

Andrew' April 24, 2012 at 8:29 am

For the love of god, I hope you can test out of this kind of thing. There is no limit to the hoops computers can make us jump through.

Marie April 24, 2012 at 8:08 am

The red cups were to keep everything quiet and calm. The place is huge and everyone is wearing headsets and there’s only slight murmuring from the group work cubicles. You’d put up your red cup and a moment later an instructor silently appears. It’s all quite Zen.

Doc Merlin April 24, 2012 at 8:27 am

So the teachers actually teach, instead of lecturing? WOW! Incredible!
I am impressed! I hope it catches on.

Rahul April 24, 2012 at 9:29 am

It’s a bit scary how proud they seem of the fact that there’s no Professors out there.

Imagine a hospital advertising; “Look, no doctors! We let the nurses handle everything!”

Lou April 24, 2012 at 9:57 am

This model only applies to introductory courses. There’s growing demand for simple procedures to be performed by non-MDs to keep costs down, so that’s actually a very good analogue.

Dave Hansen April 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

Um.. Why do you need someone with a PhD in math to teach basic calculus? I get why you want a trained heart surgeon to do heart surgery (although, I think there’s still over-credentialing in the medical field–do they need a 4 year undergrad degree before going into med school? Probably not.).

Look at how many people have been taught math by the Kahn Academy, which are videos produced by someone who isn’t a professor, doesn’t have an undergrad math degree, and doesn’t even have a teaching degree. However, he does know math rather well, and more importantly, he knows how to teach it to others.

Sum Yung Gai April 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm

It’s Khan, not Kahn

Kahn == Jewish
Khan == Muslim

James T. Kirk April 24, 2012 at 5:54 pm

I prefer Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

From the Math Emporium, I stab at thee. With my last breath, I ask a calculus question.

Doc Merlin April 24, 2012 at 10:35 am

Professors usually aren’t experts in teaching but experts in the field. Something like calculus is best taught by TA’s imo.

eddie April 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Doc Merlin: Actually, it would be best taught by someone who had devoted some time to learning how to teach calculus. This describes neither Professors nor TAs.

It describes people like Salman Khan pretty well, though.

Nk April 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

I wouldn’t mind, as long as I didn’t feel it could be something serious and if the price reflected the fact the place is staffed with nurses.

Andrew' April 24, 2012 at 12:03 pm

I pray to Jesus frequently that the majority of my interactions with the medical system be replaced by computers.

Rahul April 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Wouldn’t it be more efficient to ask him for no interactions?

DanC April 24, 2012 at 9:24 am

You learn more economics by doing problem sets.

Having quick feedback loops always works, few professors do that.

If the choice is 200 + students in a lecture hall Vs 200 + students in a computer lab with individual help, I would expect the latter to have better outcomes.

Learning the basics in High School might be a better option.

Dave Hansen April 24, 2012 at 10:30 am

And this might be a nice model for high school math. Think of how many students in high school are disengaged with what’s going on either because they’re too far ahead or too far behind and the teacher doesn’t have time to devote individual time to each one.

Dana April 24, 2012 at 10:03 am

I don’t see anything “new” here. Educators have known for at least two centuries that individual attention is tremendously beneficial to learning. There seems to be a need to credit technology with the change, but the “Emporium” started in 1997 and probably could have been done nearly equally as well 10 years earlier with notebook paper and graphing calculators–and red cups. Or even earlier with just pencils, paper, and red cups.

What is new? Where are the savings that make this possible? We now believe that it is no longer important to pay instructors at our universities a wage commensurate with their education and experience. Why pay a professor’s salary when we can pay grad students and contingent faculty $2500 a class to tutor in an auditorium? Maybe this is fine at the intro level. I don’t know, I’m not a mathematician. But what happens when these adjuncts realize they’ll never get their own classroom much less time to do research and they can make 10-20x the $$$ out of the gate by moving money around on Wall Street? I would guess it does not bode well for the future of mathematics. Or our society.

Dave Hansen April 24, 2012 at 10:34 am

What’s “new” is that institutions of learning are starting to embrace technology to provide more individual instruction, both from a computer AND an instructor. I’m not sure why this is short-selling instructors or professors (at least future ones). If there are fewer instructor jobs in the future because we’re able to use their skills more efficiently, then fewer people will pursue that as a career and instead put their efforts into things that have a higher pay off for both them and society at large. I’m not sure what the economic model is that concludes that we’re better off by paying people to do things that could be done more effectively by cheaper means.

Dana April 24, 2012 at 11:22 am

My point is that it is not the technology that is allowing them to embrace individual instruction, but reduction in labor costs that is occurring independent of the implementation of technology (and for which the implementation of technology is just a convenient cover?). The better “economic model” is one that recognizes the social value of expert mathematicians is independent of profit margins and revenue streams, that learning and knowledge are economically valuable ends even if they cannot be easily measured on a balance sheet (or their value extends beyond what is easily measurable). If there are fewer jobs for mathematicians (or, more likely, less pay for the same number of mathematics instructors) it will be because we as a society have decided mathematics is no longer worth the investment, not because of gains in “efficiency.”

Rich Berger April 24, 2012 at 12:40 pm

You sound like a disgruntled educator or the relative of one.

Dana April 24, 2012 at 1:18 pm

For now I’m fully gruntled, but that probably won’t last long if I keep reading blogs posts & comments on the future of higher ed…

Dan Weber April 24, 2012 at 10:45 am

If the adjuncts haven’t realized a long long time ago that they weren’t going to get their own classroom they haven’t been paying attention.

If the only reason to major in a subject is to raise the next generation of majors in that subject, the subject probably doesn’t deserve to exist at a university.

Non Papa April 24, 2012 at 10:56 am

If the job description doesn’t include research, I imagine the people who apply won’t be concerned about having less time to do research. Instead, the job will probably attract the same personality type that goes into K-12 teaching or any other pedagogical role. I also doubt those people would find the lifestyle of a Wall Street money-mover very attractive.

The kind of people who want to become researchers and financiers are not going to be interested in a job that explicitly focuses on teaching, especially if teaching is no longer a requirement for a better research job.

Dana April 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Non Papa: You’re making a lot of assumptions. I guess I am too, but I tend to think mine are closer to accurate. I assume for example that most of the instructors at the “Emporium” are not full-timers but contingent faculty interested in academic careers who will have to find the time to do research one way or the other if they ever want a better job. If they were interested in K-12 education they would be teaching K-12 and probably making more money at it. I also assume that when you’re making $20,000/year with or without paltry benefits after 10+ years higher education and experience, about any lifestyle besides the one you’re living starts to look appealing.

Really I don’t want to make too big a deal of this. This is probably fine at the intro level. But I can already see the apostles of efficiency have grand designs on more widespread use of “technology” as a cover for reducing labor “costs” that are at least as much an investment in human capital as they are an educational expense.

Non Papa April 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I was responding more to your hypothetical about the future of math education if this model is extended (“But what happens when…”). Sure, the people who are teaching at the Emporium right now may be stretching themselves thin because of the need to research. That’s the reason administrators should expand the Emporium model: the need to break the chain between research and teaching. Allow people who want (or are suited) to teach to do that and allow researchers to focus fully on their work. Under this model, the adjuncts of the future won’t be expected to kill themselves putting together monographs by candlelight after a full day of teaching — they’ll be professional teachers and their performance will be evaluated based on the success of their students. This will also attract people who want to teach, not the ones who want to research or spend 60hr weeks crunching numbers on Wall Street.

Dana April 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm

I do not think the future you describe is either likely or desirable. Not likely, because (as I’ve tried to make clear) the efficiency gains provided by the emporium model are predicated on paying apprentice wages (and cutting the journeymen and masters out of the process), not on some technological revolution. Paying a “professional” teacher’s wage to tutors would make the model untenable. Not desirable because breaking the “the chain” between research and teaching diminishes both. Teaching enriches scholarship and vice versa. The two should be more thoroughly connected, not disconnected–teaching should be weighted more heavily in academic job evaluations, not excised from the job description.

And speaking just for myself, I have no problem with doing both teaching and research (although I admit I’ve never been reduced to doing it by candlelight). But it won’t be possible if I don’t get paid to do it. Again, probably not a big deal if we’re just talking intro classes. But I can’t help but ascribe grander plans to those intent on relabeling the complex process of advanced learning and knowledge creation as “costs” and “inefficiency.”

Rahul April 24, 2012 at 2:27 pm

@Dana

How much of a synergy is there between teaching and research? Are good teacher ratings well correlated with good research credentials? I often suspect they are skills on totally different axes.

Slocum April 24, 2012 at 10:28 am

They should have been able to cut costs by whole lot more than just a third. And why wouldn’t most students do this work on their own PCs without trekking to a converted department store filled with hundreds of computers? Seems like the university has replaced an expensive, inefficient system with a slightly less expensive, slightly less efficient system. I guess that counts as progress.

eddie April 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm

I certainly hope the material is made available from home. If not, it should be.

Even so, there’s probably a great deal of benefit to the typical student from going to the math lab – specifically, being able to get help in person the moment it’s needed, in an environment which encourages asking for help and makes it easy to do so.

And while its true that even the assistance could be rendered remotely via webcam and whatnot, a good instructor will be much more effective when physically present with the student than via onscreen video.

axa April 24, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Being realistic at home you have TV, books, video games, hot GF, fridge with beers, and many more distractors. That’s my situation, I got a job that I can mostly do at home, but I prefer to wake up every morning, shower and get in the good old office to actually do some work…….besides posting in MR.

So, I agree that a math lab is a place that helps to learn. If you have a question, at home you see a couple youtube videos before chatting with the TA, at the lab you answer a couple whatsapp messages and then stand up and ask the TA

Slocum April 24, 2012 at 3:34 pm

But as a college student, how much extra would you be willing to pay (how much deeper would you be willing to go into debt) in order to be able to head on over to an old department store to do your math home work (and be able to summon a tutor with a red beer cup) — vs just doing the equivalent work on your own laptop at your own desk? And before you answer, imagine, for the sake of argument, that it’s right in the chilly middle of the academic year (say Nov to March).

dead serious April 24, 2012 at 10:29 am

No comment other than “The Emporium” conjures up images of a waxen mustachioed barker with a cane and top hat extolling the virtues of his wondrous and exotic shop.

Name change ftw.

Mm April 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

Sorry- the improvement means little as VTs math department stinks-with such a bad baseline anything is bound to help. As the father of 2 VT engineers I can tell you they have not found the answer- Khan academy is probably a better bet. After helping my sons a number of times with their math ( I am not an engineer or math prof) I know they need to do a lot more.

RAR April 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I started at Tech the year the Math Emporium opened. It was a joke. At the time, you still had to take instructor lead courses, plus you were required to spend a certain amount of time at the Math Emporium to do your homework, which could have easily been made available online. It basically served to artificially inflate traffic so they could brag to alumni about all of the students using their fancy new off-campus computer lab. At least it sounds like they’ve figured out how to utilize it in a less artificial way. Or they’re still making it sound better than it really is.

NaG April 25, 2012 at 11:19 am

Isn’t the takeaway from this that some subjects and matters can be most efficiently taught on a large-scale Emporium-style approach, and others on a more initimate level? I would think that basic topics that mostly require rote memorization or repetitive application of basic concepts can be done with an impersonal approach.

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