What does the word “interaction” mean? That’s actually a really important question if you want to evaluate the quality of teaching. Salman Khan of Khan Academy fame, writing in Scientific American, uses interaction (or, to be specific, the lack thereof) as the basis of his critique of modern higher education:
Today students in most classrooms sit, listen and take notes while a professor lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 human beings in the room, there is little to no human interaction.
Does this guy really think we professors all just read from a script and never look up? I have literally never seen anyone, not even the worst professors I’ve ever encountered, teach that way. So if I see lots of blank stares in my classroom and explain a point again on that basis, is that interaction? If I ask my students a question and one of them answers, does that constitute interaction? If that question leads to a follow-up question, is that interaction? Happens all the time in my classes of twenty.
It also happens in classes of three hundred. There’s this thing called “discussion sections” at many large universities. Perhaps Khan has heard of them. Even without those, there’s still interaction in giant lecture courses. I cried a little when my daughter told me that she had to buy a clicker for her intro to psychology class, but that’s a form of interaction too.
Unfortunately, Khan is hardly alone in making such insulting generalizations. Here’s Coursera’s Daphne Koller:
The interactivity that MOOCs offer is far superior to that offered by older forms of online education, and they have significant advantages over classroom-based education.
Interaction is a reciprocal word in the same sense that it takes two to tango. While there may be lots of interactivity in MOOCs, there is very little interactivity with the person who’s supposedly teaching the class. Remember, “slightly more accessible than the pope or Thomas Pynchon?” In other, smaller, forms of online education, there is interaction with both the professor and the student’s peers. Indeed, the smaller the class, the easier it is to make sure that all students are interacting with somebody and actually learning the material.
The second part of that Koller quote is equally deceptive. Because the beginning of that sentence is about interactivity, we are left to assume that the end part of that sentence is also about interactivity. Yet simple math is all you need to see why it is much harder to interact with anyone in a class of 30,000 than in a class of 30. With 30,000 students, how can anyone be sure students will use the discussion forums? If they do, how can you assure that their questions will be answered by other students? Perhaps most importantly, how can you assure that any answers that do come their way will even be correct?
It is inconceivable to me that these online education leaders don’t understand the actual meaning of the word “interaction.” Or perhaps that word doesn’t mean what they think it means. If you ask me, either possibility is pretty sad.