2008 November 15 Saturday
University Of Iowa Restricts Online Prof Teaching

Some professors responded too much to financial incentives for the university's liking.

The University of Iowa has capped the number of online students and courses that faculty members can teach after discovering a handful of professors received hefty bonuses for teaching up to three times more classes than their regular loads.

The university doesn't want too much market forces and incentives driving professors to work harder. The U of I Provost Wallace Loh has now placed a limit of 1 course per semester with at most 36 students per course. This limit puts a ceiling of about $10000 on income from online courses. The justification: teachers can't teach several courses at once.

Big lecture classes have hundreds of students in them. Why limit online courses to a tenth their size? Given that online courses can use more automation than in-person teaching this limit seems like an unnecessary obstacle in the way of the future of education.

A small number of professors showed themselves as very responsive to economic incentives. What's the problem with the rest of the faculty?

Fourteen U of I professors were paid overload bonuses in excess of 30 percent of their base salaries for the year that ended June 30.

The bonuses, which ranged from $17,000 to $120,000, were paid to professors who taught additional classes beyond the four per school year required by the university.

In the most extreme example, a popular U of I health science professor was paid $121,000 in overload pay on top of his $74,000 salary for teaching 14 courses last year - 10 courses more than the required load.

Higher education is an enormous cost burden and entirely too labor intensive. Universities should be trying to move more of their course delivery online in order to cut costs and boost productivity.

What education should look like in the future:

  • Courses should be delivered via live lectures, recorded lectures, interactive learning software, in-person question and answer sessions, web Q&A sessions, and email Q&A. People should be able to take a course on the web without applying to a college for admission.
  • Test delivery should be separated from course delivery. In other words, how you take a course should be decoupled from the format of the tests you will take to see if you mastered the material. One would take courses in any form to prepare for tests.
  • Tests in many subjects should be standardized by professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, and other professional societies. The test administering organizations should be different than the test creation organizations so that one can go one place and take tests from different professional organizations.

Recorded lectures would allow one to watch lectures by different experts on the same subject. Don't like one guy's presentation of basic chemistry? Watch 2 or 3 others. Since the recorded lectures would be watched by many more people than sit in a lecture hall the cost per viewer could be an order of magnitude or more lower than typical college course tuition prices.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2008 November 15 07:02 PM  Education Online

Thai said at November 16, 2008 5:54 AM:

I couldn't agree more. If they allowed this in medicine preclinical material, medical education costs would plummet.

One question: I have read this format of education only works for older students and is not effective for smaller children (and have read differing accounts as to what 'older' means- some articles suggest must be > 21). Do you have any data whether this is true?

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2008 8:59 AM:


I don't have data on younger kids. Have studies been done on the effect of, say, watching Sesame Street? I have no idea.

I very seriously doubt that one has to be 21 to learn from recorded lectures. I was a reading addict even before my teen years. If only I had been given better material to read and also recorded lectures I could have learned lots of material before even turning 13.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2008 9:10 AM:


I think the bigger problem is with people who have short attention spans. A hyperactive kid is going to probably need a person in their face who keeps trying to drag their attention back onto the subject matter. A kid who has better concentration can learn from recorded lectures and online Question and Answer sessions.

James Bowery said at November 16, 2008 9:58 AM:

The bigger problem is that people are being granted life-titles of nobility (degrees) in exchange for mortgaging their futures.

It is an ethical conflict of interest to have the institution doing the educating also doing the certification.

Thai McGreivy said at November 16, 2008 11:33 AM:

Actually there have been studies on Sesame Street but I haven't read them in years. I was referring to prepared video education. Studies absolutely have been done on this as I have come across reports on some of the studies over the years (if I see some again I will forward it to you) and I think they have shown it's success tends to be very age dependent. There is actually quite a bit of research-interest in this area in the educational research literature as it is worth a lot of money to the people who tend to sponsor it (institutions like The University of Phoenix, etc... are keenly interested in establishing where it is viable to further increase their markets).

I am totally unaware if the studies on younger kids have been further analyzed to see if there are subgroups of children that do benefit from video education vs. others who do not as you suggest... You may be correct on the ADHD but it would actually surprise me. The ADHD kids often do better in video rich environments where the imagery/subject can be changed fast enough to hold their attention.

Derek said at November 16, 2008 12:38 PM:

Online classes are much easier for instructors to teach. My father went from teaching 2-4 classes a week (as an adjunct instructor) to 4-6 online classes a week. There was a higher work load getting the material online but once it was done his work load went down by 80%. Students have the same problems and questions every semester. So once you work out how to help one student you just recycle the same material for the next student. You update the online material once in a while and the rest is just grading papers and such.

Frankly they are paying instructors way to much to teach online classes. They could realistically teach 2 times as many students for half the pay and still be doing less work than with a normal class.

dchamil said at November 16, 2008 5:54 PM:

Test only

Jerry Martinson said at November 16, 2008 10:21 PM:

I'm surprised a public university would want to curtail this. Most public universities have a mission to serve the entire state, not just the small region that can drive to a particular class. I know of a neighboring state, Wisconsin, that has an oft-cited mission statement called the "Wisconsin Idea" where the university's boundaries end at the state line.

States with a large agricultural population (such as Iowa) that is very distributed need this kind of education service the most. One thing that the NCLB metrics expose is the poor job these states are doing for smart kids in the rural areas as high schools aren't big enough to have specialized subject teachers. Although these states have smarter kids than the national average, the travesty is that these smart kids arrive to college underprepared and waste a year or more taking classes that they should have had in high school. That's a huge waste of human capital. Distance learning directed by the state university system is the only real way to close the gap for "AP" classes.

James Bowery said at November 17, 2008 10:11 AM:

I went to the University of Iowa when the dorms were first going coed back in 1972 and it was already apparent that "higher education" in Iowa had become primarily a way to funnel girls into corporate harems in urban centers. If you can't physically access the girls then what's the point?

R. Yost said at March 14, 2009 7:30 PM:

Where's the notion of quality education here? Giant classes with hundreds of students are NOT a model for education, neither are largely automated courses with open-book multiple choice exams, minimal writing with minimal feedback, and chat rooms/discussion boards with shallow "discussions".
Where I teach, online courses can be done well or awfully depending on what's driving the instructor: professionalism or greed. Unfortunately, the notion of just boosting productivity and cutting costs doesn't leave room for much quality or standards. We may as well just put price tags on different degrees based on their earning potential and sell them outright, but that's not education. As I tell my students, there's a big difference between getting a slip of paper and earning an education. At my school we have at least three online instructors who are, based on their behavior and course loads, driven solely by monetary gain. Between the three of them they have 900 students/per semester. And I've seen what passes for "college-level" material.... it's crap. We can all delude ourselves that this approach to online education is good, and justify shallow, automated learning with minimal contact with an actual instructor, but those with any sense of integrity or professionalism should know that the reality is quite different. Just saying that herd courses are bad isn't a very convincing justification for doing the same thing online either.

Randall Parker said at March 15, 2009 10:46 AM:

R. Yost,

Regards quality: Certainly the tests that are meant to measure amount of knowledge need to be tough enough and thorough enough to do that. Poorly designed easy tests can be created for online and classroom courses. Higher quality tests can be created for each as well.

For some subjects the knowledge to be tested is objective and widely agreed to. For example, calculus and physics have clear and well defined bodies of knowledge. The American Chemical Society had (not sure if they still do) example exams for what freshman chemistry should teach. We need professional societies to come up with tests that can be used for objective subjects like math, chemistry, physics, engineering, and accounting. Then online tests can be certified by professional societies.

Herd courses: I have had to sit in a room with a few hundred people listening to a lecturer in Calculus whose skills in English made him impossible to understand. If my choice is between trying to decipher a foreigner teaching calculus or watching a American lecture the same subject in a video feed I'll choose the latter since at least I'll be able to understand.

Rob Yost said at April 12, 2009 7:43 AM:

And online tests, no matter how well-designed or objective, need to go beyond looking stuff up on books or cheating. I want professionals to actually know things and how to do them, not hunt and peck in a book or ask someone else how to solve a problem. Giant herd courses are garbage, but they're not the same level of garbage as giant online "herd" courses, rhetoric aside from Distance Learning advocates who want lots of money for "teaching" largely automated courses.

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