Thoughts on what students should look for in a course and a school.

A Facebook friend recently provided me with the following article, which is great, btw.

Former College Dean: What Students Should Look for in a College
by Isabel Roche
15 January 2021

Here’s my response:

Beyond the four things that Isabel Roche thinks students should look for

  1. Teaching First
  2. Mentorship Matters
  3. Work as Learning
  4. Demonstrated Commitment to Equity-Minded Practices

there’s one important thing that doesn’t get mentioned; it’s something a given college cannot offer to gain an advantage over other schools: great commercial textbooks.

No school would appeal to prospective students by saying: “Come look at our college bookstore. Our commercial textbooks are better than what you’ll find at any other school.”

Why don’t schools say this – because any school can assign any commercial textbook it so desires. Therefore, schools don’t compete with one another in this regard.

Well then, some might ask: Are textbooks totally unimportant? If so, why do professors assign textbooks. If they’re totally unimportant, then obviously students learn nothing from them, right? Wrong.

Further, as textbooks go online, students have the option of a printed text, an electronic text, or some combination of both. And, electronic textbooks can go far beyond what a traditional printed textbook can offer. Recordings of simple lectures, check. Recordings of high quality documentaries that cover what would otherwise be covered in lecture, check. Adaptive online tests that pose different questions based on what a student knows or doesn’t know, check. Computer aided instruction, check. Recommender systems that suggest materials that would help a student progress toward their goals, check.

The list goes on and on since what we’re really talking about is what might be offered through a ultra-high-quality online course – or perhaps even a complete curriculum of online courses.

If a school has the ability to offer such a set of courses, will that mean that students have to learn on their own, at home, in isolation? No, of course not.

All the things that Isabel Roche mentions are still possible and highly desirable.

So, why would a school that has all the things that Isabel Roche mentions be at all interested in online courses? You could ask the same question about commercial textbooks.

If it’s human contact that’s important to you, then one should consider the option of team learning (aka tutored video instruction). In this case, the school organizes students into small, face-to-face study groups (i.e. teams). Each study group has a student team leader who reports up to a member of the teaching faculty. Under the guidance of the student team leader, the study group works its way through the materials provided by the online course. For example, after students watch a short video segment, they can be given a set of discussion questions and a problem set to work on together. Further, at any point during a video segment, a student can ask the team leader to stop the video so the group can discuss a question. There’s a cost savings here because the student team leader is not paid, it’s something the school expects all students to do.

The real question is whether flesh-and-blood faculty should spend time and energy doing things that the ultra-high-end online course and the study group can do, especially if the ultra-high-end online course is being made available “for free” by something like the British Open University (or, perhaps a US Open University, if we decide to create one).

I’ve been thinking about why the United States might want to develop its own Open University for over a decade. One reason for doing so is it might be a way to develop ultra-high-quality online courses that can be put in the public domain. These online courses would be alternatives to commercial textbooks.

Now that various state Governors – such as Gavin Newsom – are contemplating programs to fund “free” textbooks, I take that as an opportunity to suggest that the US create its own Open University. Here’s a recent example of my efforts in that regard.

Letter responding to Newsom’s plan for free public textbooks.



Aha! I wondered where you were going …. surely, not just textbooks (one leg of of the Golden Tripod) but courses. Now that all kinds of other things — placement of students in courses, support for students, interactions with students, and assessment. Making “courses” free without addressing the other components won’t work, IMO. But what Fred IS proposing is a national initiative to raise the quality of post-secondary outcomes (sorry for the jargon) and opportunities for adults to succeed in this century.


There are many, many things that are best done face to face. And, ideally, one’s school is in a position to support a very small teacher to student ratio. This works really well if the teacher is willing and able to give students essay assignments, not only to improve the student’s grasp of the subject matter, but also to encourage them to hone their writing and thinking skills. In my ideal world, all students would become skilled Oxford essayists.

My chief objection to the status quo we find on too many campuses, is that the large lecture class is what passes as face to face instruction. Pimentel Hall at Berkeley can seat over 500 students! We used to tell this joke: “How many rows back does one have to sit before it becomes distance education?”

The reason Berkeley relies on large lecture classes is because they want to be the best research university they can be. As compared with graduate students, the undergraduates don’t have much to offer the research faculty. So, they get short changed, but may get their money back if they stick around long enough to become graduate students.

While I was at Berkeley, I promoted the idea J. F. Gibbons came up with back in the early 1970s: Tutored Video Instruction, which is now known as team learning. In my blog post, you can learn more about TVI if you check out the John Seely Brown article reference. The short story is that places like Berkeley might be able to largely obviate their dependence on large lecture classes if they switched over to TVI as the main methodology for the large undergraduate classes. With the ultra high quality online course materials a US Open University could provide (for “free” if they were funded to do so), places like Berkeley might be willing and able to make the switch to TVI.

If my proposed US Open University were to provide “tuition-free” courses – in part online and in part with face-to-face instruction at one of its teaching centers – that would be good for the late-bloomers and also students who do not wish to go deeply into debt. But, on the other hand, a “tuition-free” school would also put additional financial pressure on schools that still do need to charge tuition. Some are already close to going belly-up; therefore, a tuition-free Open University might just push them over the edge.

The other major fly in my ointment is that a mega-university might not be in a good position to support academic freedom. Once I’ve studied up more on that subject, I’m planning to talk to Henry Reichman – who heads up the AAUP – to get his thoughts on the British Open University and my idea for a US Open University. Currently, I’m reading his book: The Future of Academic Freedom.

Other References

Bates, Tony

Tony Bates on the Lone Ranger Model of Courseware Development

Most traditional institutions of higher education use the Lone Ranger approach to developing and maintaining course materials. It can be compared with the Professional Development Team approach, which is used by the British Open University.

Beshears, Fred

How to Create a Tuition Free, Public, Online University to Produce Free Online Textbooks and Courses

Brown, John Seely

John Seely Brown on Tutored Video Instruction

Here, J.S. Brown describes team learning in more detail.

Kirp, David L.

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

Here, UC Berkeley professor David L. Kirp describes the Professional Development Team approach to creating and maintaining course materials.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on what students should look for in a course and a school.

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