Here fishy, fishy, fishy.

6 07 2012

Watch those 11+ minutes and you’ll see yet another person who says they can put themselves through college online, thereby making universities basically unnecessary. Read this piece at the Atlantic and you’ll get the exact opposite argument. Who’s right? I’m not sure I care anymore because either way education is still going to hell in a handbasket.

Maybe you can learn computer programming by watching lectures online at one and a half speed; then hop on your browser and figure out if you know what you’re supposed to know. But in my book that’s not education, that’s vocational training. What happens when the vocation changes? That dude wants you to hop online and take more classes, but why can’t I learn to fish myself?

Unfortunately, whether you’re going to learn that skill in an actual, physical college campus is also up in the air these days. As excruciating as that video was to watch, he’s got a good point about those large lecture classes. I never had a class in college that had less than thirty people in it, but I had teaching assistants to guide me through what my professors laid out for me. As I mentioned before, teaching assistants are disappearing because of – you guessed it – budgetary concerns. These same concerns are leading schools to rush online so that the give and take between any kind of teacher and students that constitutes real education will become increasingly harder to find. The “massive,” in MOOC is just another way of saying, “Individual attention is too expensive in a course you’re taking for free.” Unfortunately, the first part of that formulation is still true of massive lecture halls.

At about 7 minutes and thirty seconds in on that Ted Talk, Scott Young off-handedly mentions “remembering facts, which is of course what learning is.” If that were true, then yeah MOOCs really could substitute for college. I think this is precisely what Cathy Davidson means when she said that any professor who can be replaced by a computer should be.

Unfortunately, the people running universities these days aren’t interested in making distinctions between the professors who deserve to be replaced by computers and the ones who don’t. They’re more than happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, I know that MOOCs are interactive too. Here’s William Bennett (surprise, surprise) quoting Sebastion Thrun of Udacity:

Thrun is using technology not only to transform educational access and curriculums, but also teaching. For the past thousand years, professors have been lecturing at students. “[It’s] like trying to lose weight by watching a professor exercise,” quips Thrun. Now he is leading a new charge — interactive, student focused technology education.

Nice line, but the professor isn’t going to exercise with you either, and if you assume that professors can actually teach you something about how to exercise more effectively that’s a serious problem.

In my case, I spend scads of time in my classes trying to explain that history is more than just facts. It’s about a way of thinking about the past that can change your outlook on where the world came from and where it’s going in the future. I then try to illustrate that way of thinking through countless historical examples so that students can do the same kind of thinking themselves on their papers, which I sprinkle with tons of comments (on drafts and the final copies) in order to help them write the next one better.

That’s not going to happen in a MOOC and it’s not going to happen in a 400 person lecture hall either without a lot of teaching assistants. But in our glorious all-online future, it’s not going to happen anywhere.

As a result, handing people fish will continue for the foreseeable future.

PS Speaking of fish, this is the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul:



2 responses

9 07 2012
“I’ve got to get my feet back on the ground.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] responding to outside demands in a constantly changing environment. Here’s Sebastian Thrun again (via Historiann): “[T]he world’s first university appeared in Bologna in 1088. “At the […]

13 07 2012
Broken? | Music for Deckchairs

[…] I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case. […]

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