Disaggregation of the Professional School Experience

A recently released paper, “Will Video Kill the Classroom Star? The Threat and Opportunity of Massively Open Online Courses for Full-Time MBA Programs,” by Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania has awakened my thinking about advising students about graduate school.  The now outdated but otherwise excellent book by Robert Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D. as well as other works on applying to graduate or professional school and helpfully titled and subtitled articles in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, e.g., “Just Don’t Go,” and elsewhere all highlight the importance of thinking carefully about graduate school.

The Terwiesch-Ulrich article examines how MOOCs will change business school.   In that examination, they disaggregate the activities of MBA students into three components: career management, teaching and testing and co-curricular activities. (p. 5) Their focus is a bit different from mine.  Terwiesch and Ulrich see the use of “SuperText,” a teaching style or technology that bundles expert-created content into short videos as part of separate modules that are in turn bundled together to make up a course (p. 12), as the disruptive and potentially transformational elements of MOOCs.  The technology “shifts the efficient frontier in education” because it “combines the adaptive nature of office hours, the charisma of the best educators, the convenience of ‘anywhere anytime,’ and the economies of scale in production.” (p. 14)  With this technology, they assert, “business education has the potential to move to mini-courses that are delivered to the learner as needed, on demand.”  More boldly, they suggest a reorganization of the curriculum and education.

I’ll leave reflection on how technology will or will not change education for another day, but Terwiesch and Ulrich’s disaggregation or unbundling of professional education into segments – I don’t know how novel an idea that concept is – is helpful for thinking through certain kinds of advising issues about post-graduate education.  For advising, I would disaggregate graduate school a bit differently.  How would I disaggregate a graduate experience? Into four parts: instruction, certification, network-development and institutional support.

By instruction, I mean teaching and learning in their usual sense.  This idea, of course, can be further sub-divided into: intellectual orientation (telling students what they need to learn as by a syllabus or even in lecture); enforced self-learning (where students pretty much learn the material themselves by reading or otherwise with expectation of a test or the like) and feedback, correction and integration (helping student understand what they have learned or not and offering suggestions to correct misunderstanding and helping students to integrate what they have learned with other things they know).   The bulk of time in graduate school is spent doing assigned reading and studying – the enforced self-learning.  Disciplined students, in theory, can read books and study many things by themselves.  Intellectual orientation can come from texts, writings on “the state of the discipline” or elsewhere.  Feedback, correction and integration is the hardest to imagine outside graduate school – although for a person with strong network skills, that too might be possible.

Certification is the institutional assurance of learning provided by an accredited institution.  Schools offer assurance – to outsiders – that students have learned material by providing grades for courses and degrees for accumulations of courses.  The certification matters – and it matters more as students (or former students) mature.  Accountants, actuaries and attorneys as part of their certification processes – which include extensive examinations – require certification of learning at an institution of higher learning.  <note>

Network-development is the association and acquaintance of a student with other students at the school as well as alumni, faculty and others that they meet at a school.  Networks are multi-purpose.  They can provide educational, social or business and professional benefits, but these are benefits – in some sense – unplanned and apart from the benefits of formal instruction at a graduate or professional school.  In some sense, because, now, graduate and professional schools sometimes cultivate these network connections.

By institutional support, I mean everything else.  The assistance with housing, mental health, recreation, visas and immigration, and myriad other services that institutions of higher education now offer.   Mostly, this assistance is of a kind and on matters that individuals arrange for themselves throughout the rest of their lives, but it may include items related to core academic mission, e.g., libraries, statistical consulting, laboratory access and so on.

Let me offer an example to put the point on unbundling: Students can piece together much of a graduate education without going to graduate school.  For example, Business Insider ran an article: “How To Get Half Of A Wharton Education For Free.” The point of the article is that much of a first-year MBA program from the Wharton School of Business is available in the form of video presentations and interactive exercises on-line for free.  Other courses in whole or parts are available from Harvard, Sloan and elsewhere.  In broad terms, these courses only offer what I have identified as “instruction,” and, probably, not very much in the way of feedback. But the price is right, and the information is available. A student not away at school may not need the institutional supports that the school offers, and, now with Linked-In and other resources, there are other ways of networks besides meeting other students or alumni. And, this approach does not allow for certification of learning in the same way that a traditional graduate degree does. Still, this approach to graduate education is strikingly different from a traditional degree program.

I haven’t seen a huge demand for this sort of instruction.  The context with the most student self-study – outside of degree granting institutions that I’ve seen college student undertake – is standardized test preparation.  While many students do take test preparation courses, many just buy study manuals and prepare themselves.  What’s interesting in this regard is that when I’ve suggested the self-study approach to some students, I’ve heard more than once, “No, I need a class to make me study.”  And, a few students who’ve used the self-study strategy made a point of meeting with friends or study partners regularly to discuss their progress and talk about problems. I don’t know the extent to which this mutual support comes from on-line, and I haven’t heard about groups structuring their learning to take full advantage of these on-line offerings.  All-in-all, these developments are interesting, and I think advisors might well raise them with students in an appropriate case.

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