They’re not all there (nor should they be)

First, a link to one of my favorite teaching poems. Not that I have a lot of them.

Did I Miss Anything?

(The FAQs linked to at the bottom of that page are also worth reading.)

I was at a talk by MIT’s Dean of Engineering and (because it’s 2011) one of the hot topics was distance education. He had this wonderful statement that was something to the effect of, “Our students are great at distance learning. They’re already doing it right now – some of them from their dorm rooms.” A somewhat uneasy and embarrassed chuckle went around the room.

I personally had a great attendance record in college. I think there was only one class session that I intentionally skipped. I think my girlfriend had something to do with it. I know other folks who considered the class sessions optional, and I know of courses (especially in Computer Science) where class sessions were genuinely were designed to be optional.

I’m divided. On one side is piles of research on the educational worth of interacting with teachers and interacting with one’s classmates. On the other side, we are confronted with the crappy way we teach. Despite mountains of evidence that the “stand and deliver” lecture is ineffective, we seem disinclined to change. Peer instruction and interactive teaching methods do work, verifiably better than traditional lecture, and people just ignore them.

Students miss class because they can. They didn’t miss anything important; nothing that they can’t just make up later or take a point or two off their grade for.

Distance and blended education are taking off primarily because many professors and students would, at this point, love to give up on face-to-face. Cheaper and easier? Let’s do it!

Of course, if it’s cheaper and easier and no worse, then hell yes, let’s do it, and do it ASAP. Today I’m wondering whether we might as well just take that final step and chuck the face-to-face classroom altogether…

…except that I know personally just how much impact a good teacher can have in a face-to-face interaction.

I have no answers today; I’m just writing about the questions.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on December 16, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It’s not necessarily about crappy teaching. A lot of folks don’t learn via lecture. I need books, as well as the freedom to go off and look up tangents when the material references something I am not as strong in.

    I certainly had good attendance for classes where the professor was an entertaining lecturer (before you laugh, see: Porush, Deery), but I can’t say I learned more in those classes than in the many courses where I went twice. (Once for the syllabus, once for the final)

    • But that’s the thing – a lot of folks don’t learn via lecture *because* traditional lecture is crappy teaching. Good teaching means that people learn better.

      And you’ve directly hit another point: more entertaining does not necessarily mean more educational, though it typically doesn’t hurt.

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