In an article in Washington Monthly entitled Transformation 101, Kevin Carey makes a case that colleges are simultaneously driving down the cost of teaching through computer-facilitated instruction and increasing tuition. I'm not focusing on the "universities are wasting money", but in the middle of the story is a great description of one particular computer facilitated course -- the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech. Located in space leased from a bankrupt department store chain for $3 per square foot and using "modules" developed by the university and available either through the Internet or on computers in the Math Emporium, this program is proving very successful. Upperclass math majors, graduate students, and professors provide a human component, but much of the learning is done through these self-paced modules. Here's a key paragraph:
"Once the module materials are completed, students can take randomly generated practice tests that draw on a central bank of thousands of potential questions. If they get questions wrong, the computer refers them back to the appropriate materials, and there’s no limit to the number of practice tests they can take. When they decide they’re ready, students come to the Emporium to take an official, proctored test that’s generated in exactly the same way as the practice quizzes. Then they move to the next module. Instead of marking progress by time—the number of hours spent in proximity to a lecturer—Emporium courses measure advancement by evidence of learning.
The article goes on to describe how the University of Alabama doubled pass rates and eliminated a large white/black disparity in freshman math through a version of the approach exemplified by VT's Math Emporium.
Schools sell work to students. Getting students to buy more work, and higher quality work that better helps them acquire necessary knowledge and master relevant skills is what improvement is about. Technology can help. Let's use it.