Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The value of being lazy about your education

About a week ago, the NY Times published an opinionator piece with David Brooks and Gail Collins on the value of higher education. It took me a week to see it, but I finally got around to reading the debate and plenty of the commentary. It's essentially the same old argument, rehashed. It goes like this: "All these online courses will cause a major paradigm shift in higher education. As more students just take online courses, the need for so many major, expensive universities will decline. College will become more affordable. After all, college is expensive because of all the money those greedy professors make."

Now, I'm a postdoc, not a professor. Though, I hope to have an academic position as a professor some day in the near future. However, these debates consistently strike me as extremely short-sighted. The source for this myopia is a very odd view of what role a professor serves at a university. The debaters seem to assume that the only role of the professor is to stand in front of a classroom and lecture with no interruptions. Furthermore, there is a very odd public idea about how information transfer, i.e. "learning" takes place.

To counter the first assumption, consider for a minute what is involved in teaching. Certainly syllabi are created and lesson plans are devised. That is a given. Yet, in most courses, a substantial number of assignments and tests are also given. Unless the professor's course is sufficiently large so as to require graders, the professor will do all the grading. In the entire debate in the NY Times, no one ever asked how grading gets done in online courses. I suppose that if every course were a literature lecture on how wonderful Jane Eyre is, then perhaps very little homework could be required. Yet, in every linguistics course, in every math course, in every biology, chemistry, and physics course, there are homework assignments. In a world where 10,000 people (instead of 100) sit in on a physics class via the web, who grades the homework assignments? It seems as if Brooks and Collins assume that one can get a college degree in a technical field just by listening and not through any sort of practice.

Moreover, learning a technical discipline frequently involves using symbols and formulas that are not easily typable. This makes doing any sort of automated grading (or even online homework submission) near impossible, lest you think of some way to automate it. In fact, such automatic grading methods are quite problematic in mathematics, where wrong answers due to small arithmetic errors are evaluated identically as wrong answers due to not understanding a theorem.

I'd also point out that universities benefit quite handsomely from grants which accomplished faculty bring in. These grants often pay professors salaries, in part or in total. In a university system where there are simply fewer professors, the university makes less money. This is a major source of income for major research universities.

The second issue which I'd like to comment on is the idea about how information transfer takes place. In typical courses, professors take time to answer student questions and to evaluate counterexamples to certain claims. There is no perfect course which is entirely clear to everyone. But, how do questions get answered in an online course? If they are not answered in real-time, understanding can be dramatically stalled. There is a false assumption that many people make about learning. It goes something like this "If you see someone do X, you learn to do X." For certain types of simple tasks which involve simple repetition, this might be true. Yet, for methods applied to novel problems, you often only learn if you practice the skill and are evaluated for it (either by yourself or others). Calculus is an ideal example of this. You only really understand integration after having done lots of it.

I will end with an anecdote. Many non-linguists assume that children are aided learning language by watching television. Yet, 40 years of research in language acquisition (and dynamics) has shown that humans require actual interaction (with others or with the world) to learn linguistic skills. Why do those who wish to revolutionize higher education seem so ignorant of the fact that learning requires doing? Listening about how something is done via your computer screen is often insufficient. The idea that one could simply learn a college course well with cheap online learning is certainly attractive. Yet, there is a pretense that the authors would do well to admit. It's just attractive because you get to be passive.