Technology and Teaching, Part II

20prof600.1aWhen I sat down to transcribe some thoughts on technology and teaching, I had no idea that Nathan Heller’s excellent piece on the subject (Laptop U: Has the Future of College Moved Online?, New Yorker, May 20) was forthcoming. Reading and reflecting on it has prompted me to clarify what I think are some of the key issues in online teaching today.

First of all, lectures are not courses. This seems obvious on the surface: courses involve many vehicles for getting ideas into the heads of students—lectures, seminars, reading materials, labs, and so on. But for some reason, when the prospect of having students listen to another professor’s lecture arises, we reflexively assume that the other professor is teaching the course. That’s not necessarily the case. Online lectures are texts, and we should think of them as such. That is, as long as he’s not offering to grade your students’ papers, Michael Sandel’s lectures are just lectures, nothing more.

Second, as I wrote previously, the value of education depends on the quality of assessment. Students and their parents pay us, not just to educate their students, but to separate the A students from the C students with a high degree of reliability. To the extent that we farm that function out to other Universities or to the students themselves, we dramatically undermine our value, and our revenues will suffer accordingly.

Third, as Heller points out, educators’ productivity does not rise with salaries. Higher salaries may attract more people, and the culling process of graduate school may then produce smarter ones, but no matter how smart educators are, feasible classroom sizes remain fairly fixed.

What all of this means, I think, is that massively open online courses (MOOCs), in order to be profitable, will either have to usurp Universities’ assessment functions, as some are seeking to do, or supplant faculty as instructors. In either case, the only way they can provide savings is to teach the same material to a larger number of students, and the quality of assessment will necessarily decrease as the number of students increases. There really isn’t a very good way to avoid that math—at least, not one that I’ve seen—and in principle it should limit the profitability of the business model.

That said, online education technology could benefit one group of education-oriented businesses: Universities. Universities already have the infrastructure and the personnel to teach; they just lack the knowledge to capitalize most effectively on changing technology. It’s hard to know exactly how to do that, of course. For my money, the key to doing so may lie in our ability to use technology to shift time.

The key to this idea is the lecture. Lectures are an odd tradition: they give a professor the opportunity to weave all of the course materials into a singular and personal interpretation of the subject matter. They’re also grossly inefficient: students can read much more quickly than professors can speak, and although the option to interrupt with a question is usually available, doing so is generally the exception rather than the rule. In short, lectures (as much as we love them—and I do) are a highly inefficient means of interacting with students to convey knowledge.

Using online technology to lecture less—by pre-recording and occasionally updating our own lectures and/or by assigning occasional “guest lectures” by others—would free up educators to spend more one-on-one time with students, thereby increasing both the quality of education and the quality of assessment. That, in a nutshell, is what I’m trying to do this fall. In past years, I’ve taught a 25-person undergraduate data-analysis class that was a mixture of lecture and computer-lab exercises—a total of 150 minutes of contact time per week. This fall, I’ll be posting the lectures online and focusing exclusively on 50-minute lab sessions. What that means is that, once I’ve paid the summer startup costs of recording the lectures, I can teach three lab sessions per week, and enroll 75 students rather than 25, without any cost in terms of the quality of education or assessment.

Will the model generalize? I don’t know. But my own intuition is that this sort of “blended classroom” model, or something like it (I’m partial to SPOC: Small Private Online Course), will be adopted much more widely by faculty in existing Universities. Such courses could boost educators’ productivity dramatically by putting more students in smaller classrooms.