Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Random education blogging

I thought this ad campaign was pretty awesome. If nothing else, I think it's pretty ballsy to tell people they're being shitty parents. And I think it's almost certainly true that a lot of students end up in University because they a) didn't know what else they wanted to do, and b) their parents left them litle other options.

There's also the macro-perspective that we're producing way more undergraduates than this province's economy needs in any sense that their education = better performance. What it is doing quite clearly is devaluing the employer's opinion of university education at the undergraduate level.

Which leads to a whole new boom in Master's levels programs -- "grad work: the new undergrad!" -- so that HR departments have easy markers to sort the "qualified" from the not. The shame is that the number of people who can reasonably commit to 6 years of schooling after high school, and the $30,000 total cost, is not representative of the general population. Let's just say that my Master's program is a pretty pale collection of students. Not exclusively white, but damn close.

There's also a political economy thing here. Mike Harris created the double cohort, which caused a huge expansion of university undergraduates and, four years later, a huge expansion of masters applications. In both cases, there were large piles of public money being offered expansion of facilities, but somehow that translated in to massively larger class sizes and lower quality education for students.

Example: I can tell you without question that the difference between first-year assignments at Carleton for Communications undergrads was shocking: by my last year, first years were being asked to do final assignments half as long as the ones I'd written in their place in 2002. That meant five-page essays, which was less than I was doing in high school.

I'm sure it's possible to produce a university system that has a) high enrollment, b) near-perfect accesibility, and c) high standards. We've managed less than two of those three in Ontario, depending on how you score our accessibility. I don't know if re-directing some or much of the current student body to colleges instead would help matters. Given that these universities are almost certainly financing expansion on the assumption of further expansion (The university bubble! Llike Enron, but more pretentious!) I suspect even a modest shrinkage in enrollment would be nasty for the universities.

But what we're doing now ain't working.


viratshah said...

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A educational website too:

aviator hunk: Better online education

ADHR said...

I'd love to know where all the money went. It certainly didn't go to faculty, short-term or full-time. It didn't go to grad students. As you note, it didn't go to improving teh undergraduate experience. So... where is it?

Chet Scoville said...

Where the money went was largely into huge capital projects, mostly in building new business schools, IT programs, and other fads of the 90s. Anyone not connected to one of those programs got diddly.

Liam said...

"In both cases, there were large piles of public money being offered expansion of facilities, but somehow that translated in to massively larger class sizes and lower quality education for students."

In first year science classes (bio, chem) having 800 students vs. 400 students in a single class makes zero difference. As for the labs, the number of people in a given lab is limited by actual lab space, preventing the increase in people per lab.

As for graduate school, many science programs guarantee full funding to each student accepted into their programs.

If you look at the shift of jobs in Ontario AWAY from manufacturing, it makes sense that more people are attaining university degrees.

ADHR said...


How does doubling the class size not make any difference? At the very least, it decreases student access to the instructor and increases the number of grad students needed to keep on top of the grading and labs (which worsens their education as well as their job prospects). 400 students is bad in any event.

While lab space is a physical barrier, one way around it is simply by reducing the number of required labs. Which seems to have a clear educational cost. I'm seeing a similar effect in reducing the length of semesters, from 14 weeks to 12 and even to 10, without changing the number of instructional hours per week. Again, it's a function of limited space, as well as limited instructors.

I'm not sure where you get the idea that many science programs in Ontario guarantee full funding. In most grad programs, as far as I know, you're lucky to get a TAship that pays for your tuition. Maybe you're using the phrase "full funding" in a different way? Standardly, "full funding" means tuition paid, plus living expenses, all without any required gruntwork. You'll get that in the US (at the better schools), but, AFAIK, not in Canada.

I'm not clear why a service (i.e., non-manufacturing) job requires a university degree. Nor a trade, for that matter.

Liam said...

"I'm not sure where you get the idea that many science programs in Ontario guarantee full funding."

Western and Queen's offer roughly 22,000 per year for grad school (for their neuroscience programs). U of T's institute of medical science guarantee's at least 23500 (no TA'ing involved). Perhaps my experience was different than the average grad?

As for class size, the average student doesn't interact with the prof or TA's in 1st an 2nd year undergrad science classes (200, 400 or 800 students). Hell, in an English course I took there were 200 students and the TA told me he rarely had students come and meet with him.

As for TA duties - our exams were marked by machines, 400 exams just take the machine twice as long to mark as 200...

With that said, I think a class of 20 would be wildly better than a class of 200.

ADHR said...

I suspect Western, Queen's and U of T are not a representative sample. ;) There's a few dozen universities in Ontario, and I don't think many will be able to offer those kinds of funding packages.

The problem with large classes -- pretty much any class over about 40 -- is as you note: students don't go to talk to instructors or TAs. This is a very bad thing, IMHO: it prevents students from effectively learning the material and the associated skills. The larger the class, the more distanced students will see their instructors and TAs, and thus the less engaged. An instructor who not only knows who you are but can actually devote class time to discussing things you find interesting is, I suspect, an instructor you're more likely to want to see outside of class.

Machine-grading is another symptom of classes that are too large. It's necessary because there's no reasonable way to grade 800 exams, except by hiring a small army of TAs to grade them.

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