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Monday, June 2, 2014

Harvard screws up online education again; This is not disruption, it is just dumb (and greedy)

The New York Times ran one their nuttier articles about online education yesterday, this time about Harvard Business School’s new online plans.

Universities across the country are wrestling with the same question — call it the educator’s quandary — of whether to plunge into the rapidly growing realm of online teaching, at the risk of devaluing the on-campus education for which students pay tens of thousands of dollars, or to stand pat at the risk of being left behind.
The truth is somewhat different however. Universities are certainly putting their courses online. The question is “why?” I talked last week with a University President whom I have known for many years and asked him why he was building online courses. His answer, unsurprisingly, was “fear.”  
Then, a few days later I met with the online division of a very well known university and asked them the same question. Their answer was that test scores improved in courses where students had access to the lectures online. The real answer, I think, was that they were also afraid and some Foundation had given them money to do it, so they did it.
The Times goes on to quote Clayton Christensen, a well known HBS professor:
He said he remembered listening to an edX presentation at an all-university meeting. “I must confess I was unsure what we’d be really hoping to gain from it,” he said. “My own early imagination was: ‘This is for people who do lectures. We don’t do lectures, so this is not for us.’ ” In the case method, concepts aren’t taught directly, but induced through student discussion of real-world business problems that professors guide with carefully chosen questions.
This, is of course, the actual problem. If HBS or anyone else wants to build online curricula, the question they should be asking is: what exactly they are putting online? Courses, followed by tests? Really? This, according to the Times, is what HBS is doing:

Students have nine weeks to complete all three courses, and tuition is $1,500. Only those with a high level of class participation will be invited to take a three-hour final exam at a testing center.

If this is what they are doing, then they should be ashamed. People go to HBS to be able to say they have a Harvard MBA. I was a professor for way too long to believe that students are there primarily to learn. They want credentials. HBS, to its credit has typically offered courses that involve argument and discussion, not tests. Online lectures, followed by tests, are a parody of what real learning looks like.

The university world has lost its collective mind. Fear (and greed) has driven them to take their worst educational devices, lectures and tests, and try to make that the cornerstone of the future.

So, let me say it one more time:

We learn by doing, not by listening.
We learn by mutual story exchange in a conversation.
We learn when we have goal, something we are trying to accomplish, and by that I do not mean gaining a credit towards a degree.
We learn when we have peers and mentors with whom to discuss the things we are working on.

MOOCs (and lectures in general) pervert what it means to teach. Teaching isn’t telling, it actually involves listening, helping, suggesting, and so on. Universities know how to do this. That is how most PhD programs work. Massive education is not about learning and it never was. Yes, professors like lecturing. I like lecturing. I just don’t delude myself that my lecturing is teaching anybody anything. When I want to teach somebody something it involves constant interaction. By interaction I do not mean stopping a video lecture and guessing what comes next (which is what the Wharton Business School seems to be doing.)

It would be nice if all the universities really did want to build online courses because they were trying to be disruptive (to use Christensen’s word.) But universities are very afraid and have never seen disruption as their goal.

Some will however, and those that do will succeed by providing something other than lectures and tests.

The system will change soon enough. I doubt HBS will lead the way, but there are universities out there who intend to do just that.

The computer is a powerful device for doing. Time to get busy and use This, it that way folks.

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