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Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs, The Stanford on line AI course point to why it is so difficult to reform education

My attention was drawn to this blog post:

http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sachs184/English

which was written by a very well respected professor at Columbia University, named Jeffrey Sachs. In it, he asserts that productivity is improving in our society and he cites the following as evidence of this in education:

1. At eight on Tuesday mornings, we turn on a computer at Columbia University and join in a “global classroom” with 20 other campuses around the world. A professor or a development expert somewhere gives a talk, and many hundreds of students listen in through videoconferencing.

2. At Stanford University this fall, two computer-science professors put their courses online for students anywhere in the world; now they have an enrollment of 58,000.

I found these pieces of evidence of hopefulness astonishing in their naïveté. Of course the man is an economist and not someone who thinks much about education one would assume. But still.

I have often said the that the main problem in fixing education is professors. “We have met the enemy and it is us” applies very well to why education is so hard to reform.

Really Professor Sachs? You are excited by that fact that more people can listen to your lectures? Ask any college students what he can recall from a lecture an hour after he has listened to it and see how much he remembers and how much he simply remembers wrong. Lecturing is a completely archaic way of teaching. It exists today at top universities only people because hot shot professors at top universities (of which I was one) think that their time is better spent doing almost anything else except teaching. Talking 3 hours a week seems like a pretty good deal enabling them to go back to doing what they really like. No one learns in a lecture. If you cared about education you would stop lecturing. But you care more about research which is fine, so did I when I was a professor. But recognize that you are the problem in education and video conferencing is the solution to nothing.

Sachs makes the same point twice when he cites the Stanford course. The Stanford on line AI course has gotten a lot of media attention. AI is my field (and one of the instructors was a PhD student of a PhD student of mine.) I don’t know what is in the course and I don’t care. The media doesn’t care either, nor does Sachs. They just like the 50,000 number. What if I said that a former student of mine was a great parent and so he was now raising 50,000 children on line? Would anyone think that was a good idea? This may seems like a silly analogy unless you really think about it.

Teaching, as I point out in my new book:

http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Minds-Cognitive-Science-Schools/dp/0807752665/ref=sr_1_1_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322491382&sr=1-1

is basically a one on one affair and is about opening new worlds to students and then helping them do things in that world. This will not happen in a 50,000 person course any more than it happens in a 100 person course. Lecture courses are just rites of passage that we force students to endure so they can eventually start working with a good professor in a closer relationship (at least this what happens at in a good university.) A book would do as well for this, better would be a well constructed learning by doing on line course.

But what is happening in today’s world is that the action in educational change is all about getting bigger numbers on line without trying to improve quality. Stanford is making a lot of noise with this course but nothing good can come form this.

Professors need to stop and really think about education. Of course, the problem is that they have no motivation to do so. They are well paid and having a good time. Only the students suffer.

6 comments:

Jeff Rick said...

While I agree with the sentiment that straight lecture is a limited educational device, economies of scale do have potentials to change education. I was at the Open University when they retooled their introductory computer science course. More money probably went into producing the courseware for that course than any other CS course ever. They could do that because their economies of scale (over 10,000 students a semester) meant that they had the resources to put so much time and effort into development. That said, only a small fraction went into lectures. Most went into creating tools and engaging and well crafted assignments.

Even if we limit ourselves to lectures, there are interesting consequences. Being part of a 50,000 person class basically means you are watching a video lecture. What if $20,000 went into producing that video? That would only be 40 cents per student (pretty darn reasonable). If produced correctly, that could be a pretty awesome lecture. That's less than $20 for an entire semester's worth of lectures for one class. That's less than a $1000 for an entire 4-year degree's worth of lectures.

Jeff Rick said...

While I agree with the sentiment that straight lecture is a limited educational device, economies of scale do have potentials to change education. I was at the Open University when they retooled their introductory computer science course. More money probably went into producing the courseware for that course than any other CS course ever. They could do that because their economies of scale (over 10,000 students a semester) meant that they had the resources to put so much time and effort into development. That said, only a small fraction went into lectures. Most went into creating tools and engaging and well crafted assignments.

Even if we limit ourselves to lectures, there are interesting consequences. Being part of a 50,000 person class basically means you are watching a video lecture. What if $20,000 went into producing that video? That would only be 40 cents per student (pretty darn reasonable). If produced correctly, that could be a pretty awesome lecture. That's less than $20 for an entire semester's worth of lectures for one class. That's less than a $1000 for an entire 4-year degree's worth of lectures.

shilber said...

I actually agree with that sense of scalability, as a lecture-based four year degree is probably only worth $1000 regardless of where you attend university.

I'm not saying that the fully complete lecture-based 4 year degree is worthless by any means; I'm just pointing out that by itself, it has limited utility and appeal. If we get that cost down to $1000, that's a good thing - we've done a lot to combat educational assumptions and rampant and toxic college debt.

Jo Tracey said...

As long as education is operated using a business model, there will be no reason for educational change. If students could truly choose courses based on their person passion and the effectiveness of the teaching, then the stampede away from large, impersonal lectures would precipitate educational reform.
Currently, since both students and professors are in it for the money (student looking at future earnings and professors for the current earnings) not the knowledge, the students will find a way to learn the material despite the "archaic" lecture format.
When education becomes based on knowledge and critical thinking once more, we will truly have achieved educational transformation.

Jo Tracey said...

cAs long as education is operated using a business model, there will be no reason for educational change. If students could truly choose courses based on their person passion and the effectiveness of the teaching, then the stampede away from large, impersonal lectures would precipitate educational reform.
Currently, since both students and professors are in it for the money (student looking at future earnings and professors for the current earnings) not the knowledge, the students will find a way to learn the material despite the "archaic" lecture format.
When education becomes based on knowledge and critical thinking once more, we will truly have achieved educational transformation.

Andrew said...

Many lectures are boring. But there are good lectures. We may not remember things from a lecture, but in some ways, recordings of lectures, or at least accompanying lecture notes can be helpful.

You're point is, I think, that we learn by doing, but for many things we have to have someone show us the first time what to do and perhaps explain why we do it - I think that's the point of a good lecture.