In a recent blog post, I argued that structural changes—the lasting effects of COVID and the acceleration of ubiquitous broadband—would mean that some of the shift to online will be permanent. I also argued that the marginal value of a residential campus experience will be challenged as students and their families consider just what they are getting for in return for the extra money required for a residential college experience.
Today I want to add some more nuance to those claims. I don’t think that residential education is going to disappear except for elite universities. Nor do I think that we’re going to see the long-predicted Great Unbundling. Some residential colleges will fold or go online. There will be some unbundling. There will be some downward price pressure. But one of the most profound changes may be the re-imagining of what it means to have residential education experience in a digitally enabled world. There have already been some experiments in this direction, such as the Minerva Project. But I don’t think Minerva will be the dominant model. In fact, I’m not sure that there will be any one dominant model. Rather, I think we’re going to see a growth in various forms of blended and low-residency educational experiences, where colleges use various means to create that magic of connectedness which we tend to romanticize as coming-of-age experiences but which really are intimately related to the ways in which people learn, grow, and succeed.
As part of my preparation for this week’s Blursday Social, I’ve been binge-listening to Jeff Young’s fantastic Pandemic Campus Diaries podcast series. Rather than giving a top-down picture of what’s happening on campuses through surveys and aggregate data, or a one-off article of anecdata from a handful of individual interviews, Jeff views the rolling crisis from the middle distance. He has asked five professors and five students on different campuses to maintain audio diaries of their experiences as the semester unfolds. The group is diverse in just about every way that you would want them to be, from backgrounds to attitudes to campus contexts and COVID policies. He weaves snippets from these diaries into thematic episodes, peppered with occasional commentary by an expert or interview with a relevant vendor or campus administrator. The result is at once both intimate and textured. We get a glimpse of just how complex it is to make generalizations about the ground truths in education.
And given that the participants are living through a diverse mix of on-campus and online college experiences, it’s also a great laboratory for examining what residential education actually is, what value it offers, and how it is already beginning to evolve during this period of forced digitization.
Connections and serendipity
One of the most memorable visuals in Jeff’s audio story is a description of a dorm hallway in which students have posted their social media handles on their dorm room doors. When I was in college in the 1980s, the whiteboards on dorm room doors were a way of sending messages to people who were out. They were our text messaging tool. Today’s students have much richer and more organic means of socializing remotely. The idea of getting to know somebody who lives two doors down from you through communication on social media is not crazy. But it is weird. It’s not satisfying in quite the same ways. Humans have been socializing in physical groups for as long as there have been humans. We have a rich, subtle, and largely unconscious repertoire of tricks for adjusting the ways in which we socialize to meet the needs of the moment. And most of the time, we don’t even notice when we’re doing it.
One of the students that Jeff captures describes an app that he and his friends are building to fill in one of those gaps. They noticed that most people don’t go to parties or bars alone. They go with a small group of friends. I was the kind of kid who never would have gone to a social event alone in college unless I knew most or all of the people who would be there. If I was venturing out into unknown social territory, I would only ever go with a few friends. The student in the interview described an app where students can form small groups of friends and then search for other small groups of friends to text message with. It’s almost like Tinder for small-group meet-ups. This is a great example of a social pattern that takes advantage of serendipity in the physical world. In the digital world, that kind of opportunity needs to be consciously created.
This happens in classes too. Even an instructor who is a mediocre course designer can offer a decent experience to her students if she is available to them and a good communicator. If they need help, they will ask and she will provide it. And they can also find each other easily, get to know each other, and spontaneously form study groups. If those groups aren’t working for a student, she might ask around on her dorm floor to find somebody she knows who is good at the subject she’s struggling with and is willing to help her. Our capacity for improvisation as social beings occupying the same physical spaces can help people compensate for a multitude of shortcomings and challenges. And as a species, we’re wired to enjoy that kind of interaction. So one of the ways in which it helps is motivation (which is a topic that really starts to come through in the fourth episode of the podcast series).
Most college experiences aren’t really designed to maximize connectedness (to the degree that they are designed at all). They don’t have to be. If you put enough humans together in the same space for long enough, they will tend to socialize. Or, to put it another way, they will tend to become socialized. They will integrate into a social group that is flexible and highly functional. How did Neanderthals bring down a wooly mammoth? With friends.
In the new world we are entering, residential colleges that want to maintain their distinctive missions will have to re-imagine what a residential college experience means, blending the physical and the digital. That will require a lot of mindful observation and experimentation.
Why do we think learning is a solo sport?
The podcast episode that really drove the social home for me—believe it or not—was the one that tackled “cheating.” Jeff captured a number of experiences and perspectives on the problematic product categories of homework sites—particularly Chegg—and proctoring software. The instructors were worried about “academic integrity.” (I’m using scare quotes a lot here to indicate value-laden words or phrases that aren’t necessarily my own.) While they sympathized with students wanting help (in the case of the “cheating sites”) and feeling nervous about being surveilled by proctoring software, they felt a responsibility to make sure the students’ answers were their own. To his credit, Jeff interviewed (and pressed) representatives for both Chegg and Proctorio. The Proctorio representative had the good sense to express concern and sympathy for the student who said the proctoring software made her so nervous that it affected her performance on tests. The Chegg spokesperson (somewhat high-handedly) took the position that, if millions of students are using the platform all over the world, “then either cheating is a much bigger problem then we think, or that’s not what Chegg is designed to do.” The clear implication is that the spokesperson wants us to believe the latter explanation. But I’m more inclined to believe the former. I suspect that “cheating” is a much bigger problem than we think, in part because we have a very restrictive notion of acceptable social support for assignments.
During the same episode, a student described struggling with an economics problem, not being able to reach the professor, and not being able to find anyone at various campus help and tutoring centers who could answer her problem. Interestingly, this problem wasn’t obviously COVID-related. She was stuck. Students in her position see Chegg and its competitors as their only option. Once you’re in one of those sites—which you may have gone to as a student because you were feeling a little desperate and unsupported—it’s a slippery slope. One big reason these sites exist is because instructors and their institutions have defined much academic work—particularly evaluation exercises—as a solo sport and have failed to provide students with the social support that they need. Because humans in general are so good at improvising together to work around problems, this issue isn’t obvious as a campus-wide problem except at heavily access-oriented institutions. But that doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there.
In fact, I myself was (briefly) a human “cheating site” as an undergraduate. I went to Rutgers, which is strong state university with an academically diverse student population (though I suspect it may have been more academically diverse in the 1980s than it is now). A friend of mine asked me if I could help him take paper that had been previously written by one of his fraternity brothers for a film class and repurpose it for his philosophy of film class. I was torn. On one hand, I emphatically did not want to participate in the pre-internet essay mill economy. On the other hand, if I didn’t help my friend, he would either get somebody else to do it or submit the paper as is, with some tweaks around the edges. Either way, he would learn nothing.
I told him that I would help him but only if he agreed to do it my way. I would not write one single word for him. We looked at the assignment prompt and the raw material of the essay from his fraternity brother. It happened to be about Mel Brooks movies, most of which my friend could quote line-for-line. I asked him for his thoughts about the answer to the prompt. It turns out that he had some. I painstakingly drew his thesis statement from him. Then I asked him what lines or scenes in the movies made him think the way he did. He had ready answers. With some prodding from me, he wrote his second paragraph. I then told him that he needed to write about the rest of his supporting evidence without my help.
He said, “You mean, all I have to do is explain the parts of the movies that make me think this way?” He was absolutely incredulous. Essay writing wasn’t supposed to be that easy. It was supposed to be mysterious. Hard. Something he could never do. He was in a cul-de-sac that he couldn’t just study his way out of. Somebody had to help him get past a basic misconception. That somebody didn’t have to be his professor. It just had to be somebody who cared about his learning and had a modicum of skill at teaching writing. Somebody that he trusted to have his interest at heart. A capable peer.
By the time he was finished, my friend had a complete draft with his own thesis statement, his own line of argument, and his own supporting evidence. While the final draft still had a handful of phrases and sentences from the original paper that he was ostensibly plagiarizing, he mostly wrote that paper himself. But not by himself. He “cheated.” And I helped him “cheat.”
A couple of weeks later, he came to me, elated. He got a B. More importantly to him, he had earned a B. It belonged to him rather than to the fraternity brother whose paper he borrowed. And he knew it.
The web of social learning in residential education is vast and varied. It is also largely invisible to professors and administrators.
Solving for social
Today husband-and-wife Coursera pioneers Daphne Koller and Dan Avida announced their new company Engageli, a product that promises to create a more social synchronous learning experience than conventional web conferencing platforms. The news comes hot on the heels of Blackboard co-founder Michael Chasen launching ClassEdu, an education-specific extension of Zoom. When multiple EdTech veterans suddenly jump into the same product category, that’s usually a sign that something is up.
Remember my recent post about product/market fit: A good product is like a key in a lock, where the lock represents some unmet need of a coherent group of people who are willing to pay for a solution. If you don’t like an EdTech product category—homework sites or proctoring tools or LMSs or whatever—then ask yourself why it exists. Whose needs does it fill? What are those needs? And how does our current academic system fail to fulfill or even actively create those needs? Don’t be glib or lazy about seeking the answers to those questions, either. If you really want to understand, you have to get inside these people’s lives, as Jeff has done with his podcast series.
Likewise, when you see a lot of activity by successful EdTech entrepreneurs, ask yourself what need they are seeing. In this case, don’t think as narrowly as “Zoom sucks.” Because it doesn’t. Zoom is everywhere because it is a good product—for meeting different social needs than those of the classroom. We are at the very beginning of our collective examination of the instinctive human magic that truly makes residential education special. It’s social.
EdTech has mostly been moving in the opposite direction. It’s been about robot tutors in the sky working with solitary learners. Because we’ve somehow gotten the idea that a good college experience is getting together in one physical location…so that we can learn by ourselves. Anything else would be “cheating.”
Don’t get me wrong; we absolutely do need to get much better at helping learners become more effective in their self-study. But that’s not the whole answer. EdTech has been focused on how we can teach STEM classes to thousands of largely solitary learners in one shot. But the truth is that residential colleges will be more likely to save their missions and their finances if they can figure out how to transform humanities courses that can only be effectively taught to 20 students at a time and scale them with quality to 50 or 100 students at a time. We’re not going to get there in the near future solely—or even primarily—with adaptive learning and machines “reading” essays. We need to scale social learning. And if you extend that idea to the informal learning that happens on campus, which may or may not be course-related, and to building the purely social bonding that enables the purposeful social work to happen, we will be on the path to a digital residential college experience. How much of it will be online versus digitally-enhanced face-to-face is up for grabs. I doubt there is a single answer to that question.
There is much work to be done.
We’ll be chatting about this line of thinking with Jeff—and each other—at the Blursday social on October 15th at 4 PM ET. RSVP here.