Classroom technology is a part of that. On a recent weekday morning, a handful of students work through problems in a developmental math course that looks little like the traditional model. There’s no lecturer or blackboard; software takes students through the material at their own speed, adjusting to their errors. An instructor is available to answer questions – a model that’s proven cheaper and more effective than the traditional class.

Yet what matters most here isn’t the technology in the room. It’s this: Most students have mastered the material and moved on ahead of schedule.

ASU has broken the traditional two-semester model into six pieces, which includes accelerated, seven-and-a-half week versions of some classes. So students who finish these flexible introductory courses don’t have to wait nearly another two months to start a new class; they can pick up a new one immediately, and move more quickly toward a degree.

“We began to say, `What are all these sacred cows about time?'” Crow said. “What we’re looking for is intensification by freeing up the clock.”

Some of these innovations alarm traditionalists who consider education a “seasoning process” that can’t be rushed. But Crow said one goal is to free up faculty resources for upper-division and critical thinking courses where that kind of interaction really matters, and for the other endeavors of a physical university.

He said it would be a “fatal error” to totally unbundle the college degree not just from the institution but from the importance of interacting with human faculty.

The factory model definitely has its advantages: Peer pressure – and paying tuition – incentivize students to stick with classes. By contrast, roughly 90 percent of people who sign up for MOOCs don’t complete them.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller counters that most MOOC enrollees don’t want or need a whole class, so the courses help solve academia’s problem of wasted time. But she acknowledges that MOOCs can’t do everything.

“If you have the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a great lecturer, 12 people around the table having a discussion, then by all means that is the best educational experience you can have,” Koller, a former Stanford computer science professor, told a recent conference of education journalists.

“I’m not trying to substitute that with technology,” she said. “But even at Stanford I can’t make the claim that students spend the majority of their time in classes with less than 20 people.”


Add your opinion to the discussion.