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Dec 6, 2021

The end of the average student

This is really a part II of the previous blog.

Despite all the rhetoric, large organizations like universities have a hard time dealing with differences. The only way to make hundreds of policies and procedure work is to achieve a consistent application. Every time a student or a faculty has unique circumstances, someone has to review them, make a decision, and manually record it somewhere. With 30,000 students, you want to minimize the number of unique cases for obvious reasons. This simple reason trains our minds into imagining an average student, someone for whom the standard procedure is intended to work. Human concepts in general are consequences of our practice. We create a concept that allows us to reduce variety. For example, “fish” is such an abstract concept, for there are many varieties of organisms that breathe oxygen dissolved in water. But many of them could be caught and eaten in similar ways, hence the need for the shortcut. However, if you live in the area where the puffer fish can kill you if eaten, the diversity of fish species becomes very relevant. Consequently, the concept of fish become less relevant.

Suddenly, we realized that some of our students value personal contact more than convenience, while others do the opposite. Some want the online teaching to be over for good, while others prefer most of it still going on. I have to say most of our minds fight the newly found distinction. We stubbornly try to invent a situation good for the average student, who does not exist anymore.

We briefly considered offering specific f2f and online schedules to students and found out relatively quickly that our system is not set up to do that. We already sort students by major, class, and identify several categories that need help with building their schedules. Adding another large attribute (virtual preferences) would through the scheduling and registration system into the nightmare of massive manual processing. However, for students it is very important – to get a lease here in Sacramento, or continue living, say, in Stockton, and only occasionally driving here for a specific reason. Those are consequential decisions, but we cannot yet accommodate for them.

It is not like we did not see it coming; we certainly did. Yet knowing of a problem is not the same as solving it. For a while we thought a perfect solution would be to make every course section to be both f2f and online, by using the split modality. I was hoping for something like this to emerge for at least ten years. Unfortunately, the technology is not there yet, and I wish some startup would take this problem on.  While in theory it works, the split modality imposes an extreme cognitive load on the instructor. A few people can do it, but most will have a hard time. As we know from theory, a high initial barrier of learning the innovation makes wide-spread adoption unlikely.

However, the average student disappeared, and we sooner or later need to address it.

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