Monday, May 13, 2013

Elite Schools as "Broadcast Networks"

Nathan Heller has written a lengthy and informative essay at The New Yorker on the rise of MOOCs.  It is worth a read, especially for those of you have not kept up with the entire MOOC conversation and want to get up to speed. Here are a few random quotes from the essay that caught my attention:

Two weeks ago, the philosophy department at San José State wrote an open letter of protest to Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor whose flagship college course, Justice, became JusticeX, a MOOC, this spring. “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves,” the letter said. The philosophers worried that the course would make the San José State professor at the head of the classroom nothing more than “a glorified teaching assistant.” They wrote, “The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various philosophy departments across the country is downright scary."

Lecturing can seem a rote endeavor even at its best—so much so that one wonders why the system has survived so long. Actors, musicians, and even standup comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity. Why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?

For decades, élite educators were preoccupied with “faculty-to-student ratio”: the best classroom was the one where everybody knew your name. Now top schools are broadcast networks. New problems result. How do you foster meaningful discussion in a class containing tens of thousands? How do you grade work? Nagy’s answer—multiple-choice tests, discussion boards, annotation—is something like the standard reply, although there’s lots of debate. At one extreme, edX has been developing a software tool to computer-grade essays, so that students can immediately revise their work, for use at schools that want it. Harvard may not be one of those schools. “I’m concerned about electronic approaches to grading writing,” Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of the university and a former history professor, recently told me. “I think they are ill-equipped to consider irony, elegance, and . . . I don’t know how you get a computer to decide if there’s something there it hasn’t been programmed to see.”

Meanwhile, smaller institutions could be eclipsed, or reduced to dependencies of the standing powers. “As a country we are simply trying to support too many universities that are trying to be research institutions,” Stanford’s John Hennessy has argued. “Nationally we may not be able to afford as many research institutions going forward.” If élite universities were to carry the research burden of the whole system, less well-funded schools could be stripped down and streamlined. Instead of having to fuel a fleet of ships, you’d fuel the strongest ones, and let them tug the other boats along.

I am sure Jonathan Rees will soon have something to say about this piece.