How to Remove Teachers and Improve Education (in 6 Easy Steps)

Gregory Ferenstein uses Udacity’s recent partnership with San Jose State University (part of the California State University system) as evidence of the beginning of the end of higher education (and said teaching profession) as we know it.  The post is everything that drives me crazy about 21st Century journalism:  anecdote as proof, charismatic author as authority, grounded theory and research be damned.  I don’t disagree that this partnership could change higher education; of course, the inclusion of television stations at most major and minor universities across America in the 1970s was supposed to do the same thing, and twenty years later most of these expensive studios were shuttered (see Baggaley’s excellent Harmonizing Global Education for more on prior movements in educational technology and mainstream educational institutions).  You should read the article for yourself, but my takeaways:

1)  Ferenstein notes that Udacity will offer lower-level courses to SJSU, and that lower-level courses make up a significant amount of educational profit.  Then he notes, especially the humanities.  This is the first of a number of digs at the humanities (author’s note:  I hold a BA in English, with an MA in Communications and an upcoming Ed.D in Education), but he fails to note that Udacity does not teach courses in the humanities or soft sciences, and offers very little in the hard sciences outside of computer science.  The system primarily teachers mathematics courses.  To that end, Thrun’s wife, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, is teaching a MOOC-like course in Queer Literature & Theory at Stanford, outside of Udacity’s auspices, with pedagogical practices different than what Udacity employs.  The discipline might matter.

2)  My favorite Ferenstein quote:  As someone who has taught large courses at a University of California, I can assure readers that my job could have easily been automated.  Cathy Davidson and Gary Stager, among others, often say that if a professor can be replaced by a computer, that professor should be replaced, the meaning being teaching is about much more than content distribution.  Thus, I read this quote much more about Ferenstein’s reflexive inefficiency as a teacher rather than about the lack of necessity for educators in general.

3)  From Ferenstein:  Traditionally, droves of unprepared teenagers were crammed into the faceless lecture halls of lower-division and remedial courses…where, to paraphrase Ferenstein and Ellen Junn, the provost of SJSU, they would by and large fail.  Perhaps part of the problem is cramming those students into faceless lecture halls, a pedagogical practice proven ineffective over 30 years ago.

4)  Ferenstien attempts to prove my Point 3 wrong by linking to a NYTimes article that has a paragraph about a SJSU/edX pilot where students who took the MOOC version of a course in circuits and electronics did much better than those students who took the course face to face.  Ferenstein does not link to the part where the article talks about the high dropout rate in MOOCs, however, and how such dropouts do not factor into the final results of the study (of those students who finished the course, only 9% did worse than a C, whereas all students in the face-to-face were factored into the results).  With such research still new and fresh, we need to account for all aspects before falling in love.

5)  Quoting Ferenstein again:  While faculty worry about the quality of online courses, the truth is that our education system, primarily designed to test rote memorization, is built to scale and be independent of teacher interaction.  Ferenstein does not question the validity of such a system.  I question both the validity of such a system as well as whether such a system should exist theoretically.

Ferenstein ends with a six-step look at the dissolution of higher education as we know it, starting with the closing of many humanities departments due to lack of interest (and he celebrates this in parenthesis), seeing an end result of high-end, Ivy League colleges controlling the content and the system, and face-to-face learning being something once again for elites only. He doesn’t assign this a value, just takes it pragmatically. Of course, this flies in the face of educational growth, development and theory since the GI Bill (hell, since the Morrill Land Act) that sees the democratization of education needing to be about high quality for all, and not an equation where democratization = dilution.  Perhaps we are diluted at present based on our K-12 and higher systems, but hurrying that path in order to save a buck and scapegoating educators doesn’t seem like the ideal way to handle the situation.

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