Call me crazy, but I think people trying to change higher education should actually know something about higher education, or even just education in general. So when the former CEO of Snapfish (a digital printing service) proclaims that his Minerva Project is going to be:
offering a uniquely rigorous and challenging university education to the brightest of the world’s future leaders.
I have serious trouble taking this seriously. Thankfully, this article in the MIT Technology Review allows me to pinpoint the most glaring, obvious problem in a model that any actual educator should find both appalling and hilarious:
Minerva plans something better. Nelson says classes will be designed by A-list faculty from other universities, acting as consultants. But once the lesson plan is on paper, they will be presented to Minerva students by newly minted PhDs.
I actually knew that this self-proclaimed online Harvard was going to be run by adjuncts, but I didn’t realize that the adjuncts would be working off someone else’s lessons plans. Unfortunately for the Minerva Project, great teachers don’t use lesson plans. They actually know the material that they’re teaching well enough to go wherever the classroom conversation takes them. More importantly, they actually have experience teaching, which allows them to adapt their knowledge and techniques to the realities of any particular classroom that they happen to face. Keeping that in mind, perhaps the worst thing possible about teaching online is the inability of the professor to read the kind of signals that are right there on the surface in any face-to-face class.
That example is so over-the-top, devoting a whole post to the Minerva Project would actually leave the misimpression that it’s kind of extreme. The point of that MIT Technology Review article is that it’s not. Indeed, there are plenty of people who do know something about higher education who act as if they know everything about higher education.
Take Daphne Koller of Coursera, for example:
There’s a preponderance of scientific and technical subjects, but the number of humanties courses is increasing with what Koller says is “surprisingly successful” peer assessment techniques. “It can’t replace a one-to-one feedback from an expert in the field, but with the right guidance, peer assessment and crowd-sourcing really does work.”
Really? How would she know? I would never venture to pass judgement on learning outcomes in computer science. How can she be so sure that peer grading is succeeding? The first version of the “Year of the MOOC” article from the NYT the other weekend claimed that a Princeton professor had used TAs to go back and check peer-graded sociology papers and said that it found similar grades to what peers gave them. Turns out the NYT had to run a correction on that claim since the study hasn’t been released yet. Even if it did turn out the same, that wouldn’t mean that students were learning through peer grading. Everybody who actually teaches writing knows that the learning comes from the quality of the comments and I’m guessing Daphne Koller has never graded an essay in her life.
This post may suggest that I’m more optimistic than I am about the prospect of an all-online future. After all, if venture capitalists want to flush money down the toilet, why should anybody stop them? Unfortunately, it is still possible for companies to make a lot of money even if they’re peddling an inferior product. Just look at Walmart.
Concerned faculty need to stand up for educational quality instruction whether it’s from a computer or from a living, breathing human being. After all, if you need to judge the structural integrity of a bridge, you call an engineer. If you need to judge the integrity of higher education, you call a few professors – preferably one or more for each discipline.