Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The future of education

  1. Any other reason to save?
  1. Yeah?
  1. PROFESSOR: Right.
I'm enjoying the MOOC I'm taking on global poverty and think that this kind of thing is not going to go away. But it has its limitations.

For one thing, watching lectures online is even worse than watching them in person (which can be great, but often isn't). I just read the transcripts, which is quicker, but reading the same points articulated more thoughtfully (and articulately) would be better still. In other words, I would rather read. Lectures generally, I think, are a waste of time, and probably only exist because a certain amount of class time is required by accreditation agencies and it's much cheaper to have someone lecture to hundreds of students than to actually teach them meet them in smaller groups. If the administrators will allow it, large lecture courses will surely be replaced by something like MOOCs. And I would think that the lecture portions of MOOCs will go away if they are not greatly improved.

But big lecture courses typically involve smaller discussion groups, and, although the chance to discuss strikes me as having little value in itself, the chance to be part of a question and answer session with someone who knows the material much better than you is (or would be) very helpful. MOOCs don't do well here.

The graduate teaching assistants who run discussion sections also do most or all of the grading, which is much better than having students grade their own essays(!), which is how this MOOC does things. So I think the future of the kind of introductory level college course that involves lectures and multiple choice tests is likely to be extinction and replacement by online teaching supplemented by limited face-time with cheap graduate student teachers or adjuncts. This will mean that universities hire slightly fewer full-time lecturers. Anything above the introductory level will still require in person expertise for answering questions and grading essays, so the change will not be dramatic.

Except at institutions where courses never really get much above the introductory level anyway. I imagine we'll see a pretty obvious automatic ranking of colleges and universities, at least in the United States, with those at the bottom being relatively cheap and all, or almost all, online, and those at the top being much more expensive and all, or almost all, involving teaching by well qualified and physically present instructors. Poorer students will get a kind of one-size-fits-all education in easily testable knowledge and skills, while richer students will get individual attention and learn the kind of things that are best tested by the writing of essays, subjects that require greater literacy, intellectual sophistication, and creativity. Actually it's probably creativity that is hardest to grade by machine, so that is what will be reserved for the well off.

What is dying is general access to an education in the liberal arts. They were originally, I believe, the arts reserved for gentlemen at liberty, i.e. people who would today be called independently wealthy. And the trend is back in that direction. For a while we seem to have thought collectively that it would be good for as many people as possible to have this kind of education. We might even have thought that justice required it. Now we think it is too expensive.

The pessimist in me thinks this is terrible. That we are letting our worst instincts rule our lives (not just the love of money over everything else but also all the kinds of bigotry that are expressed in the laws, policies, and proposals we see every day). That our humanity is being squandered.

The optimist thinks about the access we have now to books, papers, documentaries, online lectures and courses, blogs, etc. online. And (less optimistically) about how crappy a lot of in-person education is anyway, and how uninterested in the liberal arts a lot of students appear to be.

We do not, by and large, want the ineffable benefits of education (we want only the ones we can spend). We don't believe that it is better to be Socrates satisfied than a fool satisfied. Or, if we do, we do not care if other people's children remain fools. I don't think we care much about other people's children at all. And we are happy with fakes. At least the real thing (genuine debate, good books) is available online. What is increasingly less available to everyone but the rich is any useful credential associated with what you might call real thinking. Socrates might be happy about that, as might others. Whether it's good for democracy is another matter.    

(But perhaps it's too late for democracy anyway.)            


  1. more and more classes are taught with e-texts which come with homework and quizzes and soon i imagine with midterms and finals, will likely reduce most of teaching to online q&a's regarding said e-assignments.
    so yes once again in person higher-ed will only be for a tiny minority and the rest will be trained to be technicians of some kind of another, the market rules as someone or another said.
    humanities may be taught in person in a sort of continuing ed way, not unlike many campuses do in the summers for elderhostels...

    1. Yes, I think that's about right (although I think most college students will continue to get some in-person education). It's not just the market, or not just the desire to save money driving this. There is also ignorance about the nature of education among the people in charge and the fact that everything digital is trendy. It's appalling how many people in higher ed seem to be driven by a concern to be involved in "exciting" developments. Money follows excitement, of course, but i also get the sense that there is widespread and deep boredom too. That, as far as I can tell, comes from a sense that the liberal arts, at least, have lost their way. Nothing seems worth doing. (This is much more true in some subjects than others.) It might also be that too many people have got PhDs. The ones who seem most lost often seem also to be the least bright, but that might just be a reflection of my prejudice against exciting new developments.

    2. no i remember all too well when close readings of texts fell away to a kind of spouting via cut and pasted quotes (and this before widespread computing), recently been in public school classes where everyone is on their own screen and jacked in with headphones and the instructor is sort of on-call (all while monitoring a classroom 'dashboard' of performance metrics) as needed, see @evgenymorozov

    3. That's a nightmare. Thanks for the link--a good, if slightly depressing, read.

  2. Good grief. I had to google MOOC.
    Did the pessimist get the last word, D?

    1. Sorry, I should have said what a MOOC is.

      The pessimist and the optimist are still fighting with each other, but I think I'm a qualified pessimist in the end. Roughly I think the Great Depression and then World War II brought home a strong sense of what is good and what is bad which led to some very good things (the National Health Service in Britain, the G.I. Bill and the eventual end of segregation in the US, the Marshall Plan, etc.). John Lanchester argues that the Cold War helped, too, because the West wanted to look good. Anyway, for one reason or another I think we used to want to do good and had some success in doing so. Now we are declining again. Not on every front at every moment, but in some important ways. Bigotry and poverty seem to be going away, although they are far from gone, but something else is going away too, or seems to be. It's actually not easy to say what it is, but perhaps culture is the word. It has to do with a sense that we are all in this together and, as separate from that as this seems, that things like books and religion matter. I very much like the idea that we should educate each other's children and that this education should include literature and philosophy. So I am depressed by the idea that everyone is just a consumer with his or her own arbitrary preferences. But I realize that the death, if that's what it is, of an old way of doing good does not mean the death of doing the same good. So I alternate between despair and hope. In the end the two mix together and I don't despair at all. I'm just a bit glum.

    2. Not sure about that answer to the why of democracy: the West wanting to look good. Seems a minor part of it if anything. We are, all of us, also rather complicit in the system. It takes a lot of energy (a big army, of a size equal to or greater than those of all other nations combined, and the will to use it) to keep five percent of the world's population sitting on 50 percent of its resources. How those resources are distributed among the five percent seems rather academic when one realizes it is at a terrible cost to the majority who have no say in how the system is run and no access to it nor means of redress. No one wants the dollar to drop in value or cease to be the reserve currency because we profit from it. It seems the walled garden of democracy is either runnning out of steam or transforming into something more streamlined and locked down in order to stay on top. We're shoring up against ruin. But I do think there is light at the end of this.

    3. I hope so.

      I suppose anything done solely in order to look good is not going to affect much, but having a visible alternative form of government might tend to reduce the worst excesses on either side. If the USA was at all worried about other countries going communist then it had an incentive to show a benign face. Without that worry it has less incentive to do so. It sounds plausible, although perhaps not very important.

      And yes, we're all complicit.

    4. It's alright. The fact that I had to google MOOC just made me feel out of touch.

      Also, I don't dispute the fact of keeping up appearances, I just think it was a means not the end. Why certain parties insist on making appearances look as if it was the end is something I'm still pondering.

      On a different note: was following a debate today and was brought up by this remark: "Capitalists have not managed to solve the contradictions of capital" said by a Marxist, and was amazed he said it without having his face collapse from incoherence.

      PS: Ever read James Kunstler? You might like this:

    5. I think I have read some Kunstler, but I didn't know about his blog. Thanks.


    1. Thanks. Much of this applies to the US too.

      I like Orwell: "self-styled metropolitan intellectuals who ‘get on’ by ‘kissing the bums of verminous little lions’, and whose left-wing opinions are ‘mainly spurious’."

  4. Duncan: there is much said in the blog post that I agree with. As usual, I am only interested in this one point here, detached from everything else:

    "For one thing, watching lectures online is even worse than watching them in person (which can be great, but often isn't). I just read the transcripts, which is quicker, but reading the same points articulated more thoughtfully (and articulately) would be better still. In other words, I would rather read. Lectures generally, I think, are a waste of time, and probably only exist because a certain amount of class time is required by accreditation agencies and it's much cheaper to have someone lecture to hundreds of students than to actually teach them meet them in smaller groups."

    I'm in the studio doing a course this semester. I don't agree with you. I mean, I agree with you, but I'm trying to show the solution. You see, there are two models here. You either produce the thing like a documentary, with sharp edit cuts, good animation, tight organization, etc. Or you do an interaction thing, where there are shorts minutes of presentation, then feedback (clicking polls, writing paragraphs into text boxes) etc. One model holds the viewing audience using the same techniques as cinema, documentary or what not. That medium surely works for getting points across. And the other medium supposedly makes the dynamic a give and take.

    What I am doing is a hybrid. I'm producing a well cut, substantive, animated presentation that stops to get viewer input. I'm also putting extremely short movie and television clips in, as I do in my live lectures, to punctuate or show content as it is being delivered. It's quite a production. And I think it will work.

    I'm going to send you a copy of the course when it is done, along with the outline-text that is almost done. I do this because: (a) I think you are wrong in the above paragraph; and (b) I think you were wrong in our short exchange on "teaching economics."

    Bottom line: lectures on the computer could be quite effective if they are produced using logic fit for this kind of activity. In 50 years, what is being done here won't be what is happening now. Much of the social learning is just now happening.

    I think lectures are great. And I think they are great live and rehearsed. It's just that the two are supposed to be quite different. Perhaps you and I can resume this topic a few months down the road.

    1. Thanks, Sean.

      I said in the paragraph you quote that lectures can be great. If you mean that all lectures, or most lectures, are great then we disagree. Although of course we've seen different lectures. But if you mean only that lectures can be great then there is no disagreement between us at all on this point.

      One point that I always want to make about this, but don't always bother with, is that people use the word 'lecture' to refer to different things. What I mean by it here is something like 50 minutes of straight talking by one person with no audience interaction. This can, to repeat, be great. But more often than not, in my opinion, it is sub-optimal. The kind of thing that would improve it is precisely the kind of thing that it sounds like you are doing: punctuating the presentation with short video clips, getting the audience involved, etc. This is the kind of thing Michael Sandel does in his series on justice, in addition to giving tightly organized lectures in the first place. I think this works well, although I'm still not sure that it is better than giving students a well written text to read. I'm pretty sure that as a student I would prefer the latter because it is, or seems, so much more efficient. But other people might prefer to learn in a different way, and some things might be learned best through what we might call the lecture plus, or enhanced lecture, mode.

      What I'm suggesting will and should go away is the kind of lecture I have been sitting through in this one course I am taking now, where the organization is not tight, what is said is often inaudible, and the audience is often left to figure out for themselves what is being said. That feels very much like a waste of time for everyone involved.

    2. I would love to see your course, by the way, and to talk about this more in future.

  5. ... good point about what is a "lecture." I see better now what you were saying. I agree with you about 50 mins of talking being a real challenge -- and much worse online, for sure. Not sure if you have ever watched or listened to one of those Great Courses products (a company). The courses can sometimes be really great, but, for me, only in audio. I can't for the life of me watch someone talk or give a speech online. It's awful. But if you are bike riding or driving, audio talk seems much better. I think the genre here, though, is like an audio book. So if you had to make an audio lecture, you would probably do it like an audio book (in terms of style). But if did a video lecture, it would have to be like a documentary or show of some sort. I want to say: in one, the video provides the mental pictures, because the audience behavior is sedentary; but for the other, the listener provides his or her own mental pictures, as with a novel. The interesting question is whether ne is better than the other. Almost seems like one is good for regurgitation, but the other for thinking.

    Really rambling now. Sorry about that!

    1. I have tried to watch a philosophy lecture in the Great Courses series, but I don't remember whether I lasted till the end or not. When the lecture is done well enough, or the subject is sufficiently interesting to me, then I can do it. But it can be awful, as you say.

  6. .... here's an example of a clip of an online lecture where I don't believe it is boring to listen to, and where reading the transcript would not move quicker. On learning must be edited differently. It has to move quickly to counter impatience. I'm editing these things myself, so this is just an idea, not the finished product.

    1. That's nice. You're right that it isn't boring, it moves quickly, and it's memorable. I think other people are getting better at this stuff too. I've just started what seems to be an excellent online course on ancient Chinese thought and I actually want to watch the lectures because they have significant visual content (maps, for instance), and you can watch at 1.25 speed, which works well. Still, it isn't all perfect yet. Here's a bit of quoted transcript:

      Explain beautiful music to us-- let me do that again.
      [BEEP] Give you a taste of this-- do we want to do this?
      [BEEP] Runs, begins-- oh, I don't-- let me start over again.
      [BEEP] We'll only be evaluating you on- in the-- ugh.
      So in-- what?
      What? [BEEP] Overall we're talking about a commitment
      of three to five hours per week.
      God [BLEEP] What was the third point? [BEEP]