Back To School Electronically

Thanks to computers—those modern saviors of mankind!—students returning to campus this fall needn’t return at all. Yes, sir: they will be able to “attend” class by staying home, ready to learn, while nestled securely in their rooms.

There they will “engage” electronically amidst the comforts of loud, mind-numbing, rotten music, ready access to Facebook, endless supplies of food, the companionship of friends and family, and so forth. Familiar surroundings produce a “better learning environment.”

No more for them the dreariness of the “‘frontal’ presentation“, it’s time to “reverse the ‘lecture-homework paradigm’“. Let’s get those kids out of class to do what they do best: click buttons on screens.

If this shift from analog to digital is an advantage for students, it’s a positive boon to professors, whose roles are being “reprogrammed.” According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, New York University has worked out a formula which shows that if professors banish their lectures and other teaching material to the hard drive, they will have more time to teach!

Make sure you understand this: since a professor need no longer stand in front of a classroom because his students will be elsewhere downloading virtual copies of him, he will actually be able to teach more. This must be true because it found its way into a peer-review paper. Left unclear is exactly whom he professor will be teaching, since his classrooms will either be empty or full of students clacking away on their laptops.

Dalton Conley, NYU’s Dean of Social Sciences, says that NYU shouldn’t have to “pay our research faculty to stand in front of a room and teach the same classes over and over (after all, when’s the last time Calculus I really changed?)…they can now take on the role of faculty curators.”

This is necessary, he says, because “We’re faced with the question of how do we justify the existence of a Research I institution that’s tuition-driven…” Just so. If it weren’t for those pesky and demanding tuition-paying students, those research “I” professors could spend their time more lucratively in their offices writing grants with large amounts of overhead Dean Conley can administrate.

Yet he can imagine the dark side: “could someone skate though with minimal interaction?” He answers, “Probably.”

Mark James, a visiting lecturer at the University of West Florida, says that “probably” is a “definitely.” He eschews PowerPoint slides and YouTube videos and asks “students to silence their cellphones and close their laptops.”

James came to a conclusion that would shock Dean Conley: “students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online…They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.” He also fancies the antediluvian view that “Knowledge isn’t always something that’s able to come out nicely packaged.”

But it isn’t fair, is it? Some kids will be able to complete their course works on their iPods at leisure, while others will be forced to sit still and attend. Some must even endure reading books! Perhaps those kids stuck in front of recalcitrants like James should be introduced to the Should I Skip Class? Calculator, which boasts

This calculator was designed to help college students decide if skipping class is a smart move. Answer these questions and your decision will be made based on a surefire mathematical formula.

The obvious answer for any student tempted to engage this calculator is: yes, you should skip class. Not only that, you should drop out of college immediately and find something useful to do.

Just look at Joshua Peacock, an ardent supporter of the calculator who said, “…no longer will we have to stress out debating whether to skip class, because this simple to use tool will do all the thinking for you.” That fine young man—if real and not a fiction created as a marketing ploy—so willing to let others do the thinking for him, boasts that he is now enrolled in the, we are not surprised to learn, Masters of Business Administration at “Cleveland State University ’11.” He sounds a paradigmatic modern businessman.

The simple fact is that there are too many kids going to college; and therefore, there are too many professors professing. If class sizes weren’t into triple digits, nobody would consider digitizing lectures. That they are and will continue to do so means that the illusion of learning will occur at an increased pace.

This illusion happens when a student is awarded a degree and suddenly thinks herself so knowledgeable that she begins spouting nonsense, just as the Scarecrow does in The Wizard of Oz after being awarded his unmerited diploma. We are producing a nation of self-satisfied idiots.


  1. Interesting topic. Leaving aside the peculiar inclinations of today’s college students and focusing on the pedagogy of computer-based instruction, I have been involved in putting together some on-line programs for companies at a very famous B school. That exercise reminded me of attending a sherry party with a economic history lecturer, Brian Mitchell, during my first week as an undergraduate in 1969(!!!). He said that hopefully we would learn a lot from him, but in his experience the most successful students learned to learn from each other. This is one of the great benefits of going to a very good college – your fellow students will have more on their minds than the next party. Interestingly I believe this little aphorism applies equally to online classes as well as traditional classes. The bottom line at the B school was that besides the professors who gave on line lectures, they needed full time moderators of the on-line feedback and comments. This was not a cheap undertaking though less expensive than a residential program.

    I have not taken an on-line course, yet. However, my wife took one last year as part of a teaching english as a second language program. (My wife speaks German, French and Spanish, has a Masters in Linguisitics, is the quintessential grammar Nazi and possesses a photographic memory – which makes my life very difficiult at times!) What struck me as my wife worked her way through the readings, posting her own multiple weekly “essays” and commenting on those of other students and responding to comments on her essays is that in a class of 19 students it generated a HUGE volume of written material that her insructor needed to stay on top of IF she was going to provide effective feedback to the students. In fairness this was a new course and probably the first on-line course taught by the lecturer. However, after reading a few of the essays, it was painfully obvious that some serious feedback from the professor was needed to ensure that the students were approaching the readings and their essays in the right way. It also meant that the instructors request that people write 3 short essays per week and comment on the other students essays was an impossible assignment both for the students and for her. The professor was always behind and was unable to provide effective and timely feedback.

    At the same time, my wife was quickly able to identify the other students who knew what they were talking about. This allowed her to focus her attention on them and ignore the rest Needless to say what happened reflected Charles Murray’s point about self-selecting groups. The better students seemed to coalesce – making it difficult for the less well prepared students to get the quality feedback they needed.

    My wife says she learned a lot from the readings and overall enjoyed the experience. We both drew the same conclusion from the experience: This type of learning needs to be more carefully structured than a typical lecture course and if done correctly requires actually more work from the instructor not less.

    It appears that we have a lot to learn about this type of pedagogy and how to optimize the use of the technology tools.

  2. As a person who has taken both forms of schooling, I can say unequivocally that the online classes require much more busywork. I’ve never cared for graded “homework” as it seems like a charity tool for the LCDs and utterly pointless to boost a person’s grade based on practice, but the only way for the online professor to gauge your progress was through graded homework. I’m not sure if I learned more/less in online classes, but I certainly worked harder at them.

  3. Today, somewhere in this vast land of ours, birds are singing in the courtyard of the fortunate corporation that one-day will have the services of Joshua Peacock, drawing on his vast knowledge and specialized training, leading them into international competitive wars. His brain, well rested from not thinking it’s way through university, should be fresh and ready for the fray. But for the stockholder’s sake I hope there’s an app for that.

  4. There’s a lot of student time wasted in lecture style teaching. Programmed learning that involves doing the work makes more sense.

  5. I didn’t have too many of them, but many of my friends regularly signed up for lecture classes with hundreds of students, and almost no student teacher interaction. If the student required feedback, they would track down one the appointed graduate student. It seems that the online class is probably an improvement over this large lecture hall class. And for the school, the professor’s lectures can be sold to thousands of students rather than hundreds.

    I thought that this one was curious:

    NYU shouldn’t have to “pay our research faculty to stand in front of a room and teach the same classes over and over.”

    It used to be the accepted wisdom that taking the professor out of the classroom was bad for his research, and that, no matter how much he hated doing it, teaching the class, sharpened his skills, and refreshed his knowledge of the foundations of his subject.

  6. For auditorium lectures, usually taught by a lecturer, adjunct, or grad student, going digital probably make sense. For technical courses, especially those OUTSIDE your major, this is an invitation to disaster for all but the most diligent students. I spend only about 60% of class time giving direct lectures, and spend the remainder discussing ideas and techniques with students, to make sure they can understand and apply what they’re learning–and not just pass the next exam.

    My experience with undergrads is that online courses are a money-maker for the school and a trap for the mediocre student, who may take the course 2 or 3 times before passing it.

  7. TCO,

    This is one time I’ll agree with you, but only partially. There are plenty of dull uninspired and uninspiring lecturers that would be better replaced by machine. As would their students.

    The situation can be salvaged by awarding everybody holding a high school diploma a “degree” from Harvard. They need merely pay that august school a certain fee. But in gaining such a “degree”, they should agree to never appear on the actual campus.

  8. As an undergraduate in Economics, lectures were always optional. Thank God because we had some truly awful and extremely disappointing lecturers – including JK Galbraith – whose fluid writing style was the antithesis of his speaking style. Tutorials with professors, however, were not. The interactions were intense. Feedback was seldom gentle even when well intended. With some professors, these interactions led to increased effort and focus – with others it led to increased beer consumption. However, graduate seminars were consequently pretty easy.

  9. Bernie’s two posts have neatly captured many of the important issues. Students learn differently. Some need the interaction, and the opportunity to ask questions. Others learn best reading. Any many just prefer to observe. Note taking helps some, but is a distraction for others. There is no “best way”.

    Similary, instructors have different strengths and weaknesses as well. Some do well with prepared lectures. Others do best in an improptu q&a session. I had professors who hated answering questions of any kind. Some are great one-on-one, and others are best behind a lecturn or TV screen.

    These new “ininite campus” approaches should be about enhancing options for both students and instructors, not about some new model that is superior to what was offered 40 years ago. Back when I took chemistry in the 70’s, the instruction had several components: Lecture (both in-person and video taped), Labratory, textbook (including homework), and small-group q&a. The technology available today may change how you do some of that (for instance why have a grad student pop in a VHS tape and have everyone sit a room for 30 minutes at a specified time when it can be made available online 7×24)?

    OTOH, my parents were both music teachers. The teaching techniques used at the highest levels (i.e. conservatories) are basically the same as they were 400 years ago. And I’m not sure they’ll ever change.

  10. It really depends on lecture style.

    Lecture’s with interactive Q&A can’t be replaced.
    Lecture’s that just blather on for hours then ‘class dismissed’ might as well be recorded.

    In the end it’s how much time is available for Q&A, otherwise one might as well ‘read the manual’ as was the case in computer programming prior to the advent of ‘computer science degrees’.

  11. Many introductory college courses could be recorded. Consider “Introduction to Calculus.” Why not have students view a recording of the country’s best lecturer for each section of the text. Then have them attend problem-solving sessions with a teaching assistant. That’s very close to the way it works in big universities anyway, except the lecturer is live.

    We’ve all had lousy lecturers. Why not guarantee that students get the best? For big introductory courses, there is not much teacher-student interaction possible anyway.

  12. Steve and Harry:

    I agree, and some of that was done a long, long time ago. I recall watching films of “Feynman Cornell Lectures” in my high school physics classes. I’d imagine these are available online somewhere.

  13. I am co-lecturing a second year course. While the other teacher had his lectures video recorded and streamed, student attendance dropped and there was no way for the lecturer to directly check how much were the students learning. I stopped video recording—there were a few complaints but not that many—and now we have the chance of asking and answering questions during class. All students benefit from this type of interaction, which is much more direct and lively that people asking questions in Moodle (the web learning system).

    We do use Moodle to keep lecture notes, powerpoint presentations and assignment submission. The system allows checking for plagiarism (through Turnitin), which can be a major headache in large classes.

    In summary, unless one is teaching a gigantic class, I see little benefit on video recording lectures. Are they suggesting to use the same lectures over and over again? What about updating the material each year? What about including what we, as lecturers, are learning every time that we teach a subject?

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