We hear a lot about efficiency these days. One school of economics will argue that the free market is the best way to efficiently run the economy. Civil engineers seek the most efficient way to transport storm water through a drain system to a river. A finely tuned engine runs efficiently by maximizing the conversion of the chemical potential energy of fuel into useful kinetic energy. Efficiency would seem to be next to godliness in modern culture.
But upon closer scrutiny, is efficiency necessarily a good thing? The ability to transfer huge sums of money into different market sectors in an unregulated fashion efficiently created a global economic crisis; urbanization and engineered drainage systems result in peak, concentrated discharge events in river systems, efficiently transferring surface runoff into channelized flow in one part of a drainage basin, but also creating flood conditions downstream; efficient, unregulated combustion of fuels is more commonly known as an explosion. Could it be that efficient operation of systems without some sort of regulation, buffering, or mitigation ultimately leads to catastrophe?
Nature, too, can be quite efficient. Earth has a remarkable capacity to work efficiently in processes that liberate and transfer huge quantities of mass and energy in a relatively short time frame: earthquakes, landslides, floods, tsunamis, extreme weather. A hurricane is an extremely efficient natural process that redistributes the thermal energy built up in tropical oceans by rapidly transferring this energy to colder, northerly latitudes. We typically refer to efficient components of the Earth system as "natural hazards", and when humanity happens to get in the way we take an anthropocentric view and call these events "catastrophes".
We are facing similar efficiency-driven catastrophes in higher education. As budgets decrease and pressure builds to recruit more and more students, university administrations are forcing the academy to eschew time-tested practices and values that demonstrably promote learning in the name of efficiency. The units of efficiency are typically the student credit hour (SCH) to faculty full time equivalent (FTE) ratio (the higher the better). Other measures may be the growth rate in the number of majors in a department. In the case of SCH/FTE, more students will be competing for either static or decreasing faculty time: an efficient way to push students through the system, but a consequent dilution in the quality of education. In the case of the drive towards ever-increasing recruitment of majors, departments may be rewarded (or at least not punished) if enrollments increase, but are typically put on notice if there is a decrease from arbitrarily chosen times of peak enrollments (often due to external forcing such as the impact of the price of oil on job opportunities in the geosciences). There is little consideration of the concept of "carrying capacity" of a department–the optimal number of majors that can receive a quality education given the departmental staffing and access to available resources (e.g. samples, equipment, computers, field trips). The reality is that more students competing for decreasing resources means diminished learning opportunities. Further, there is little or no consideration about demographic factors that impact recruitment to a profession; is it responsible to continue to recruit more and more students when jobs in the immediate or allied fields may be limited? Just because we can push more students through the system, is this the right thing to do?
In the name of efficiency, compromises to educational values and learning outcomes are legion: proliferation of the ubiquitous and infamous "large section class"; decreased opportunities to learn in the laboratory or field; diminished opportunities for one-on-one interaction between faculty and students; less writing and more rote exercises; fewer opportunities to experience inquiry, discovery, and exercises that promote critical thinking. The most offensive statement I hear from administrators is that we need to "cover" a class (in what, a shroud?) so that faculty can spend more time on more important matters (usually interpreted as doing research, and increasingly, chasing the grant dollar). And apparently, any warm body will suffice. It's acceptable, and even preferred, to have our most important introductory courses "covered" by a post-doc or adjunct faculty to release senior faculty for more "important" endeavors. It's Wal-Mart vs. a local merchant, mass consumption vs. quality of product and service. You can always buy something at Wal-Mart, but it's often not what you really need, and you will never receive the personal service and attention that a local merchant can provide.
A survey of recent articles in JGE and abstracts presented in education sessions at professional society meetings (GSA, AGU) shows that a disproportionate amount of time and energy has been spent trying to "tame the wild large introductory course". There are creative responses to improving this learning environment (e.g. active learning approaches such as think-pair-share, question or picture of the day, minute writing assignments, use of classroom technology such as "clickers"; see On the Cutting Edge resources for Introductory Courses). The ability to know and interact with students, encourage deep and thoughtful writing, engage critical thinking with the opportunity to receive directed assessments are largely obviated. Whole curricula have become more efficient as lab sections are dropped as being too expensive or time-consumptive in favor of straight lecture courses. "Core" graduation requirements (aka distribution requirements) that once required three science courses with labs (two of which must have been a sequence to foster depth of coverage), now require perhaps only a single science course that may not even include a lab opportunity. Field instruction is deemed too expensive, and too much trouble (concerns about liability, demands of uncompensated time for already time-strapped faculty). Opportunities to use analytical equipment are limited, again due to expense and time constraints. Why bother to teach labs or field exercises, when a whole class can watch a PowerPoint or do a computer simulation?
One of the pernicious corollaries in this situation is that the value of faculty time is largely discounted. We are asked to do more and more with less and less; and we continue to "suck it up" and do so because to cut back time-intensive course activities in defiance of administrative decisions typically will only hurt our students–a betrayal that is unacceptable to most faculty even in these hard times. The drive towards using more and more forms of instructional technology in place of lab, field, or small recitation sessions, never takes into account the formidable time required of faculty to develop these instructional resources in the first place, and then to subsequently test, revise, and implement, let alone assess learning outcomes. The drive to develop and use more and more instructional technologies is only efficient if an institution does not account for faculty time required to develop these resources, does not budget for the requisite technical support that is usually needed, and does not budget to adequately assess learning outcomes (we have very little hard evidence about the efficacy of virtual learning outcomes v. "real" learning outcomes from lab or field). This situation is akin to running a power plant for profit by not paying for fuel (faculty time), maintenance and operations (IT support), or environmental remediation (assessing learning outcomes).
The most effective instructional mode has long been based on a master-novice mentoring model. For most professional development programs a long apprenticeship is required (see: Goodwin, C., 1994, Professional Vision. American Anthropologist, 96, 606-633.) This type of apprenticeship approach is decidedly not efficient. Isn't it time for us (instructors) to slow down a bit, get to know our students, engage inquiry and discovery in our classes, inculcate scientific habits of the mind, and instill the values and ethics of our profession? It is a false economy to impose administrative efficiencies on higher education because in the long run our health, safety and economic security as a society rely on the ability of the academy to produce a highly competent workforce. Of course, if the goal is to simply optimize tuition revenue in the short run by efficiently pushing students through the system (with little regard for demonstrable mastery and proficiency), that's an entirely different matter. But, the latter is surely the path towards an academic catastrophe—all in the name of efficiency.
For other thoughts on related topics see Kim Kastens' How Did Economists Get it so Wrong?