A while back my wife and I were watching “Bad Teacher” on DVD. If you haven’t seen it (and if you’re not easily offended I think you should), Cameron Diaz’s character begins the school year showing videos for a month.
“Wouldn’t the principal notice?,” my much better half asked me.
“He would,” I replied, “but I’m not sure he’d care anymore.”
Showing too much video and not knowing your kids’ names is what makes a bad teacher bad, yet what’s apparently the next big thing in online ed will yield the same result. These guys in the Wall Street Journal, for example, are excited that:
Online technology lets course content be presented in many engaging formats, including simulations, video and games.
I’m sure that if universities invest enough money in this technology (and that’s a big “if”), these things might turn out to be really cool, but there’s a huge difference between cool and effective education. Even if you lay out a MOOC or online course along the lines that George Siemens does here, with lots of interaction and guidance, Clayton Christensen has suggested how the bad will drive out the good over time.
Even if Christensen is wrong about the bad driving out the good, I’m still concerned that this kind of impersonal education will become the new normal. Good MOOC or bad MOOC, “Click-Thru U.” or the most critical-thinking infused Blackboard course that tuition can buy – they all put the onus of learning entirely on the student. They turn on the computer. They read the instructions. They, in the case of massive classes of all kinds, may be the only place that other students can go for help and the students are the ones who have to ask for it too.
While this works for some students, it doesn’t work for others. And even if this format does work for you, you’re still being treated like a number instead of a person. As Historiann explained over the weekend:
[M]uch of the humor in the classroom–quotidian small talk before class starts, questions about a student’s health, expressions of concern for their well-being, banter about university politics or sports teams, asking for student opinion on a local issue, dumb jokes by the professor–well, all of that is pretty much drained out of online courses. I hadn’t really thought about this until my friend made her observation about how much lower she’s rated in her online courses versus her F2F courses, but I think much of this kind of communication between students and instructors, and vice-versa, and among the students themselves–all of this non-content related, non-subject relevant communication is going to have a major impact as to how a student experiences a class emotionally.
Whether or not they feel safe expressing themselves, asking questions of the instructor, and talking over ideas with fellow students is going to be directly related to how they feel about a class. And as I’ve learned (in some cases the hard way), how students feelabout a class is really important when it comes to their ability and willingness to learn, to exert themselves, and to take intellectual risks.
Ultimately, the problem with even the best kind of online education is that it requires making the previously unacceptable acceptable. That’s why when we entertain the idea that it’s OK to call videos and computer games “higher education,” this will eventually become higher education for nearly everyone.
Of course, the “everyone” in that formulation includes teachers and professors. For us, this whole trend amounts to de-skilling, plain and simple. Cameron Diaz may not care because she’s on her way to leaving the profession. If you’re staying you realy should.