A cheaper mousetrap is not necessarily a better one.

12 05 2011

“Work flow platforms are enabling us to do for the service industry what Henry Ford did for manufacturing,” said Jerry Rao, the entrepreneur doing accounting work for Americans from India. “We are taking apart each task and sending it around to whomever can do it best, and because we do it in a virtual environment, people need not be physically adjacent to each other, and then we are reassembling all the pieces back together at headquarters [or some other remote site].”

That’s from Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat, and I though that line important enough to highlight it when I first read the book so many years ago. Now I see, as the Chronicle‘s special digital campus issue suggests, that higher education is being treated the same way.

At a conference last summer, Bill Gates predicted that “place-based activity in college will be five times less important than it is today.” Noting the ever-growing popularity of online learning, he predicted that “five years from now, on the Web­—for free—you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

“College, except for the parties,” Gates concluded, “needs to be less place-based.”

Via my new bloggy friend Music for Deckchairs, I see that someone writing in Australia (MFD didn’t leave a link so I went and found it myself), has carried Gates’ sentiments to the point of absurdity:

[T]he momentum towards online teaching, learning and collaboration is unstoppable. That will not necessarily undermine the value of, or demand for, face-to-face teaching and classroom interaction. Nor will free, open-access online courses replace the qualifications, grades and accreditation only universities can confer through rigorous assessment. But it does mean the blending of face-to-face teaching with extraordinary new digital tools, such as immersive 3D ”learning environments”, as well as the ability of motivated students to explore far beyond the courses they are enrolled in. The traditional lecture could, in fact, become an online multimedia package to be viewed at home or on a smart phone on the bus before class, so students can use their time on campus better to make sense of its contents.

Call me a Luddite, but I don’t think a college education where the professors are relegated to the role of intellectual ushers at an academic Disneyland is going to be very helpful to anyone because there’s always the nagging need to actually learn something.

Looking back on the history of industrialization, it’s easy to find examples of cheaper, inferior products crowding out hand-crafted ones – shoes, cigars, etc. Read The World Is Flat and it is easy to find examples of foreign services performed for less crowding out domestic ones – accounting, reading X-Rays, etc. Yet to this day, there are plenty of things that have not been industrialized. The hottest market in food today is for groceries that are less industrialized rather than more so.

Just because you can educate someone cheaper online does not mean that they’ll get a better education. Indeed, it doesn’t even mean they’ll get any education at all.

We’re actually under enormous pressure here to begin teaching online. As someone who is tech-savvy enough to blog (among other things), I’m near the front of the list of potential instructors. However, there is simply no way that I will ever run an online class which I think is inferior to the one I do face-to-face. Ever. If the people who want me to teach this way aren’t online education charlatans, they’ll cut me enough slack to develop something that will make us all proud. If they are (or perhaps they’re just conflicted), I’ll offer up some advice from Music for Deckchairs:

I spend enough time in committees with people who have been at the corporate Kool Aid, to recognise that anyone can fall for the sales pitch that online learning achieves miraculous levels of “student-centredness” and “authentic learning” and any number of other transformative experiences. Mostly, I think these people just need to spend more time working directly with students before they tell us how online anything will transform the challenges they face.

After all, it’s not as if the Chinese will be training their surplus teenagers to teach American history anytime soon. The world may be flat, but knowledge is still bumpy.


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5 responses

12 05 2011
To Be Announced.

I feel as if the students are being stereotyped in this situation. Yes, things such as Facebook and twitter are revolutionizing the way people interact, but just because technology is advancing does not mean students will want that for a classroom environment. I think students still value lectures and discussion in-person with their professor and other students more so than they would looking at a computer screen. To have only online classes and discussions would take away the passion and personality that comes away from a good classroom environment. I mean, there are enough outlets already to talk and socially interact via the internet, do we really have to go there with education? I understand where online courses can be useful but to completely use them for every single course would be catastrophic in my opinion. The relationships that are built between students and the ability to think on one’s feet would be lost.

I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon because despite all the online resources available and the cost of tuition, attendance at universities is still increasing and students are still wanting that interaction they can only receive from in-person lectures and courses.

12 05 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I think we’re having some difficulty achieving a common use of the term “online” here, and to my reading, so are most other conversations on this difficult topic.
There’s a position which makes sense if online = cheaper, and another position which makes sense if online = foreign (although this position looks a bit different from Australia, where we live with key cultural institutions dominated by foreign product from, ahem, where was it again? Very big country in the northern hemisphere somewhere near Canada?). And there’s a third position which I would absolutely salute if online = staring at a computer screen rather than having discussion with their professor.
But if you take a divergent view on these equations, the propositions they support also look a bit different. What if doing stuff online is more expensive, introduces students to a wider range of perspectives than those circulating in their home culture, and even enables students to meet and discuss with professors than those at their home campus?
The challenges we face in sustaining this kind of vision are immense, not least because the hungry gaze of higher ed administration has just fallen on “online” as a solution to a host of other business problems, dressed up in the guise of giving students what they want. And some in serious decision-making positions have failed to recognise that after the great big contract purchase of a system to deliver online, they’re still got to engage the Faculty users, and that means factoring in real time and real cost, or steering us all towards really Titanic stuff up.

12 05 2011
Middle Seaman

“We are taking apart each task and sending it around to whomever can do it best, and because we do it in a virtual environment, people need not be physically adjacent to each other, and then we are reassembling all the pieces back together at headquarters [or some other remote site].”

This statement is absolutely correct about some projects. We do have tool and knowledge backed by more than 30 years of research involving many scientists to do it right. Experience of similar tools in education is limited.

Bill Gates has the same predictions ability many people have; being rich doesn’t bestow clairvoyance. We can ignore his prediction.

“Blending of face-to-face teaching with extraordinary new digital tools, such as immersive 3D ”learning environments”, as well as the ability of motivated students to explore far beyond the courses they are enrolled in. The traditional lecture could, in fact, become an online multimedia package to be viewed at home or on a smart phone on the bus before class, so students can use their time on campus better to make sense of its contents.” Reality is way more complex than the quote implies.

The whole implicit online face-to-face teaching requires many features known to researchers but not available commercially. (It means about a wait of at least a decade from now.)

Scholarship and discussion/problem solving will forever stay with actual teachers. Scholarship doesn’t travel well online neither is the time you stay after class and interact, technically, with interested students.

We’re are under demand to begin teaching online. The problem is that we don’t know how to do it well yet. It will take time for each discipline to find it kinks and advantages.

We cannot convince the converted, they are lost. We do, however, have to work hard and adjust modern technologies to everything we do. (I have been given exam as take-home and email back more than a decade, but I am still the only one out of 20 who does it.)

There are many reforms we have to propose. First, it might change the agenda and second, universities are real dinosaurs and require a kick.

25 05 2011
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3 07 2014
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