Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Moneyball and Education

A few years ago when I read Moneyball, the Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, it changed the way I looked at baseball. This past weekend, when I saw the movie version (starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane) I thought only of education.

Too simplify a bit, there are two parts to the basic premise behind Billy Beane's moneyball philosophy:

1) Scoring runs is not just about flexing muscles, star power, or raw athleticism. It's not just about having good "TV numbers," such as batting average, home runs, or runs batted in; it's mainly about getting on base, being selective at the plate, taking walks, and not giving up outs by bunting or stealing bases. In short: you win games by not making outs. The less outs you make, the more chances you have to score runs.

2) A team can win despite financial shortcomings by assembling a team of players who are not rated highly by the traditional metrics. That is, a player might have power and speed, and his TV numbers might look great. However, if he doesn't walk enough, he might actually be giving up too many outs. The establishment might think he's worth 10 million dollars a year. In reality, he might be a worse player than a guy who is only making 1 million dollars a year. Fill your roster with 1 million dollar players who don't make outs. You'll be leaner, meaner, and smarter.

What successful strategies do we ignore in favor of the illusory, over-hyped models?

Are we avoiding the obvious changes that might lead to more effective learning in favor of holding on to tradition?

Are we measuring learning correctly?

Big questions. I'll be working on those when I'm dead. Here's a start:

The standard assumption is that online learning is not as effective as the traditional in-class model. A 2010 meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education disagrees. After systematically analyzing all research literature on online learning from 1996-2008, the authors "found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face. Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se."

A couple of key points here. First, when you measure actual results (like against like), online students learn just as much (and more, according to this study). This doesn't mean one should be scrapped in favor of the other, just that they're both viable models.

Second, the web blended model seems to perform best of all. As the quotation above says, this might have something to do with additional resources and time being dedicated to the students. Once again, this isn't really about the physical apparatus, but about the level of interaction with students.

Finally, this is the largest and most prominent meta-study released on online learning. More will follow. We don't know enough yet to start tearing down the walls (even if that were desirable). However, it's safe to say that online learning isn't going away. Students can learn in online courses. It's not a scam, even if some institutions treat it that way.

Like Billy Beane, can we find a way to win with a leaner, meaner, smarter approach?

Are we ignoring data that suggests learning can occur in unexpected places?

Unfortunately, just like Billy Beane's cash-strapped Oakland A's, educators might be forced into playing moneyball.

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