Teaching through a bullhorn.

21 11 2011

You know an article has got to be pretty bad to get me to blog during Thanksgiving break, and this one certainly is:

At The Future of State Universities conference last month, which was sponsored by Academic Partnerships, Dr. Clayton Christensen spoke in front of 250 of the nation’s state university deans, provosts, presidents and faculty about the challenges universities face scaling their education models and how online education can serve students potentially better than brick and mortar classrooms.

That doesn’t sound too bad yet, but there are two warning signs of bad things to come: 1) Christensen was talking about “scaling” education. That means teaching more people at the same time. 2) “[S]erving students potentially better” is not the same as educating them.

It gets worse fast. For purposes of this post, though, I’ll skip some stuff that’s just pretty bad in order to focus on the worst part. This is a paraphrase of Christensen formed out of the interview that forms the bulk of the article:

Rather than teachers fearing for their jobs, they should see online education as liberating. Teachers no longer need to just stand up and lecture when students can absorb the content at home. And when a teacher doesn’t have to be consumed with delivering content they can become a coach and a tutor to the students and help them on an individual basis.

Liberating? Only if you mean liberate them from their ability to pay their bills. I don’t mean to defend lecturing here, although I could. This is about defending skilled labor. If Sal Khan is delivering your lectures, and you’re not; then your skills as a “coach” are much easier to replicate. That means more people can do your job, which means that your employer can pay you less.

That will hurt students too. In fact, let’s talk about what this kind of “coaching” means for the actual practice of teaching. Remember, Christensen is advocating scaling up education. Essentially, he wants bigger class sizes even though the students in those “classes” will be spread out all over the country and the world. How much individual attention can anybody get in a class with 100, 500 or even 35,000 students in it? Maybe some (but by no means all) college students can thrive in a sink-or-swim environment, but what about Kindergarteners?

More importantly, at least for purposes of this blog, what is it like to teach 100 students at once? Britney’s last point from the other day about typing being more onerous than talking goes triple from the teacher’s perspective. The only way teaching more students online than you would in an actual classroom could be liberating is if you deliberately offer them less attention than they would get in a face-to-face setting.

Online education is like teaching through a bullhorn. It’s a great way to reach a lot of people at the same time, but a terrible way to have real interactions with each student. That makes me wonder about this point, which comes immediately after the passage quoted above, even more:

“Rather than [online education] being a threat, it makes it a much more interesting profession,” says Christensen. “It’s really exciting because teachers can have deeper relationships with their students and not be so detached from them.”

Do you think Christensen is being deliberately deceptive or do you think he actually believes that slavery is freedom? Seriously, I don’t know. I also don’t know which answer to that question would be scarier.



3 responses

28 11 2011
A Necessary Source on Education Reform « Jacksonian America: Society, Personality, and Politics

[…] If you aren’t following Jonathan Rees at More or Less Bunk, you’re missing out. Rees consistently provides thought-provoking posts on the dangers confronting higher education. He tends to focus on issues involving online education and technology. For example, he recently critiqued e-books and the “scaling” of education. […]

28 11 2011
What if disrupting education isn’t such a hot idea after all? « More or Less Bunk

[…] the most annoying aspect of the Clayton Christensen interview I linked to last Monday, was the explicit comparison between techno-skeptical teachers and Luddites. I’m not sure […]

12 12 2011
“It’s good to be king.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] education if for no other reason than that the connection between student and teacher (despite what Clayton Christensen says) is less-human by definition. Therefore, everyone would have to show up in a classroom for at least […]

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