Monday, February 07, 2011

what is sacrificed when classrooms disappear?

NYTimes | WHEN colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs.

That includes me. I’m not worried, though, at least for the moment. Amid acute budget crises, state universities like mine can’t afford to take that very big step — adopting the technology that renders human instructors obsolete.

I began teaching classes online 10 years ago, but the term “online” is misleading. What I really mean is that I teach a hybrid course: part software, part hovering human. A genuine online course would be nothing but the software and would handle all the grading, too. No living, breathing instructor would be needed for oversight.

“We should focus on having at least one great course online for each subject rather than lots of mediocre courses,” Bill Gates suggested in his 2010 annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too.

For at least 50 years, the computer has been experimentally employed as the unflaggingly patient, attentive teaching assistant. In 1960, the University of Illinois created Plato, pioneering courseware whose offerings would eventually span the elementary-school through college levels. It and its software successors have supplied individualized pacing, frequent quizzing and help that is tailored to each student’s needs. Computer-aided instruction, however, has lacked a human touch.

Separately, many universities have put free videos online featuring their best lecturers. And Academic Earth, an aggregator Web site founded in 2009, makes the lectures easy to navigate. It says it offers 150 full university courses.

But even when lectures are accompanied with syllabuses, handouts, sample problem sets and other aids that Academic Earth has for some of its courses, is the experience really complete? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also shares the raw materials of courses in its OpenCourseWare program. For the benefit of autodidacts who aren’t M.I.T. students, it strives to publish materials online for every M.I.T. course. But students cannot interact and do not receive vital feedback about their own progress that an instructor or software provides.


Uglyblackjohn said...

But SeeNew - Isn't this an example of interaction between students at Subrealism?
We get to use the Regula Falsi method as ideas are built upon and/or shot down by others who may have more experience in one field or another.

IMOHO - MIT, Ivy, Stanford, The Claremont Cluster in Cali., etc all groom the future elites.
Sure, one can feel his way through the maze of the elites but most never find their way - there are too many subtleties which are missed by just observing.

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