Commentary - August 12th, 2013
9:30 am
Tue August 13, 2013

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Information Age

Teaching and learning are under multiple pressures to make heavier use of the Internet’s vast capability to provide access to information and almost instantaneous communication to and from the most remote of locations.

            For those who see teaching primarily as a matter of pouring factual information into people’s heads, computers and the Internet represent an incredibly cheap way of teaching. Separate school buildings, it is suggested, are not needed. Students can work at home. In fact, many fewer teachers are needed since a well-made video of a class can be watched by an infinite number of students, not just a couple of dozen in a classroom where a teacher is lecturing students in an old fashion and boring way.

            Universities have been doing the equivalent of mass classes for decades with a single professor lecturing to hundreds or thousands of students, complete with video monitors hanging from the ceiling in huge theaters. The Internet simply allows universities to carry these “economies of scale” a bit further and get rid of both the lecture hall and most of the professors too.

            That is the appeal of Internet-based education, to rein in the every rising cost of teaching, especially the costs of higher education. Those costs have been rising much faster than the overall rate of inflation and colleges are under pressure to cut costs rather than just pass them on the students in the form of higher student debt burdens.

            Decades ago, economists projected that the costs of some of the most important services we purchase, from medical care to education to counseling, would rise much faster than the overall cost of living because these services were unavoidably labor- intensive.  Those economists noted that it was difficult to reduce that reliance on real people in providing a service because face-to-face contact was crucially important. In that setting, labor-displacing technological change cannot reduce costs the way they can in, say, manufacturing. As a result, services, such as teaching, were projected to get more and more costly compared to the manufactured goods we buy.

            “Not so,” advocates of new digital teaching technologies respond. At one extreme there are the “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) that are available for almost free from a variety of prestigious universities. Unlimited numbers of students can watch the same lecture from the same top teachers and top researchers in the world. It is easy to imagine the cost per student of delivering such a course falling to close to zero, the ultimate in economies of scale. College students could simply stay in their homes in their old bedrooms and take their college classes at their convenience, mixing school with work and important other activities such as partying and socializing.

            Of course, college professors do not think that they can be so easily displaced. Teaching and learning are social activities where teacher and student interact and students interact with each other. In addition, “learning” is not just about memorizing “facts” or mastering very particular narrow skills. “Learning” is crucially the critical use of the mind to puzzle through problems in a creative manner. Education, when it does its job, teaches students how to mobilize what they know in a way that is appropriate and useful in new settings. This requires active learning, not simply passive consumption of a video clip.  

            Universities and professors may have set themselves up for displacement by a misdirected technology because of their emphasis on mass lectures and students’ passive note-taking. That certainly is something on which digital technology can improve. Combinations of the best lecturers with the brightest thinkers in particular fields and creative animators and video and graphic designers can certainly put together something better than a lone professor talking to a theater full of students. That professor often would have her back to the students scribbling madly on multiple black boards while the students equally madly scribble their notes.

            At least one use of the digital technology with Internet access is to replace the lecture with carefully crafted video presentations using the full suite of video tools. This, supplemented with a text, would be something students were expected to master before coming to each class. Then the classes could be devoted to more active learning exercises supervised by a trained teacher and involving interactions among the students and between teacher and students.

            One remnant of the medieval origins of higher education and its focus on educating only an elite is its emphasis on the professor’s mastery of the subject matter and a disregard or even suspicion of teaching or communication skills. The professor knew her stuff and, it was the students’ jobs to figure out how to learn it. As a result, in most disciplines, budding professors receive absolutely no training in teaching. They are only trained in how to conduct research and write up their results for technical journals. Knowing your subject matter is assumed to be the only prerequisite for college teaching.

            It is unclear that that arrangement is appropriate in a digital age when masterful presentations of content are widely and cheaply available. The crucial learning experience should return to the classroom in carefully planned sets of interactions with the teacher and fellow students and well-designed experiential classrooms or laboratories.

            But note that this would not be cheap.  It would require not graduate students or teaching assistants going into small “discussion groups,” but active scholars who are also well trained teachers meeting students in manageably small groups. This would be a costly labor-intensive undertaking, the opposite of what legislators and some university presidents have in mind.

            There is the rub…teaching, like nursing or counseling, is not easily mechanized. If we want and need to maintain the human touch, it is going to cost us…and appropriately so.

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