In praise of classrooms and “live” professors …

Interesting op-ed by a Williams College prof in the WSJ last week touted the perils of online education and benefits of faculty-student interaction …

Most of us in higher education take the long view about the value of what we do.

Sure, students graduate with plenty of facts in their heads. But the transmission of information is merely the starting point, a critical tool through which we engage the higher faculties of the mind.

What really matters is the set of deeper abilities — to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently — that students develop while in college and use for the rest of their lives.

Which educational inputs best predict progress in these deeper aspects of student learning?

By far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors.

Not virtual contact, but interaction with real, live human beings, whether in the classroom, or in faculty offices, or in the dining halls.

Nothing else — not the details of the curriculum, not the choice of major, not the student’s GPA — predicts self-reported gains in these critical capacities nearly as well as how much time a student spent with professors.

These rich, human interactions can’t be replaced by any magical application of technology.

Technology has and will continue to improve how we teach.

But what it cannot do is remove human beings from the equation.

Now, there are new purveyors of massive, open online courses.

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One even proposes to crowd-source the grading of essays, as if averaging letter grades assigned by five random peers were the educational equivalent of a highly trained professor providing thoughtful evaluation and detailed response.

To pretend that this is so is to deny the most significant purposes of education, and to forfeit its true value.

Yet the only way to achieve higher productivity, as the National Academy would define it, is to reduce each student’s time with the faculty.  [To have faculty teach more students and more classes, and to put more material online.]

We know that while such approaches may allow us to deliver some facts to some students more efficiently in the short run, the approaches will undermine the fundamental purpose of education in the long run.

Ken’s Take: Technology doesn’t replace classroom interaction, it liberates and enhances it.

How?

One way is to change the nature of the classroom from “seat time” to “quality time”.

My rule: If I catch myself talking for, say, 10 minutes without a student comment or question, I try to outboard the material to an online tutorial.

That way, I’m able to free up class time for more rigorous interaction that can deepen learning … rather than just running out the clock.

* * * * *

Sidenote: I bet some of the profs who demean online crowd sourced grading use the off-line equivalent: having classmates rate peers’ class participation or having group members rated by their teammates.   Hmmm. What’s the difference?

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