Virtual Classrooms Could Create a Marketplace for Knowledge

By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS
Published: November 6, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — In the autumn of 1963, the American magazine Popular Mechanics heralded an innovation that seemed bound to change the world: the “teacherless classroom.”

The magazine told of a new building at the University of Miami, doughnut-shaped and carved up into 12 rooms. Professors stood in the hole and had their image projected into every room simultaneously. Faculty productivity was said to have soared. What was lost in intimacy would, readers were assured, be made up for by feedback buttons on students’ chairs, including one for “I don’t understand.”

Fate and technology have pummeled many professions since 1963, from bookseller to travel agent to auto worker. But teachers have resisted the powerful forces reorganizing industry. The dream of the teacherless classroom has remained just that.

Today the dream has returned. Thanks to broadening Internet access, advances in multimedia and the market potential of millions of historically underserved learners among the developing world’s youth and the rich world’s adults, modern versions of the doughnut building are flowering globally: systems through which chunks of teaching can be “scaled up,” in business jargon, and beamed to hundreds of thousands worldwide.

The Open Courseware Consortium, started by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has enlisted universities around the world, from the University of the Western Cape in South Africa to the University of Tokyo, to post courses online free, including professor’s notes, video and exams. The portal iTunes offers lectures from Berkeley and Oxford and elsewhere. The new University of the People, founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, provides tuition-free bachelor-level degrees through what it calls “peer-to-peer teaching” — students learning not from teachers but each other, trading questions and answers online.

Teacherless or virtual-teacher learning is described by enthusiasts as a revolution in the making. Until now, they say, education has been a seller’s market. You beg to get in to college. Deans decide what you must know. They prevent you from taking better courses elsewhere.

They set prices high to subsidize unprofitable activities. Above all, they exclude most humans from their knowledge — the poor, the old, people born in the wrong place, people with time-consuming children and jobs.

Champions of digital learning want to turn teaching into yet another form of content. Allow anyone anywhere to take whatever course they want, whenever, over any medium, they say. Make universities compete on quality, price and convenience. Let students combine credits from various courses into a degree by taking an exit exam. Let them live in Paris, take classes from M.I.T. and transfer them to a German university for a diploma.

“This is putting the consumer in charge as opposed to putting the supplier in charge,” said Scott McNealy, the chairman of Sun Microsystems, the technology giant, and an influential proponent of this approach. He founded Curriki, an online tool for sharing lesson plans and other materials, and was an early investor in the Western Governors University, which delivers degrees online.

It is hard to say whether this technology-tinted vision is friendly or hostile to teachers. A market in instruction will help the best teachers extend their audience far beyond campus. But if you’re a second-rate physicist at a middling university, the sudden availability of free M.I.T. courses could feel threatening.

Mr. McNealy compared university instructors today to the tens of thousands of pianists who performed in movie halls during silent films a century ago. “Technology figured out how to play music in a film, and all of a sudden two piano players moved to L.A. and took all of the business,” he said. The result was a higher average music quality for audiences but many instantly obsolescent pianists. “They had to go and do more productive things,” he said — more productive things being, for Mr. McNealy, not piano-playing.

He argues that many teachers will have to re-imagine themselves as coaches, not content creators, focused on motivating and customizing material to students, while piping in others’ superior teaching.

This view is increasingly commonplace among business leaders and free-market champions. But it has triggered vociferous criticism from educators and educational traditionalists.

Some of the anxiety about the market approach is territorial, from professors concerned for their jobs. Some of it is about the repercussions of unbundling the university: profitable offerings like introductory courses subsidize less-profitable undertakings; and, if low-cost competitors lure “customers” away from these offerings, the larger project of the university might suffer, from laboratories to free-thinking tenured faculty to the campus environment itself.

But there is a further worry that a market in instruction will alter education’s very meaning, will degrade it even as it disperses it more widely.

Education, re-imagined as a consumer product, will become about giving the young what they want now, not what they need or might later want, critics say. They worry that universities will cede their role in civilizing us and passing down the heritage of the past, and will become glorified vocational schools.

Education’s goal, the novelist Mark Slouka wrote in Harper’s Magazine, should be “to teach people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst. It is only secondarily — one might say incidentally — about producing workers.”

As the digital classroom comes, we will face hard questions. What will happen when teachers, like banks and retail outlets, are consolidated by the market, with favored professors teaching hundreds of thousands and regular Joes relegated to night school? Will there be a night school? Will a freer marketplace generate more ideas, or narrow the diversity of ideas as certain teachers crowd out others?

How will students design their curriculums? Does a 20-year-old know what she wants to know at 40? Will the most-downloaded lectures become the new equivalent of the classics?

How will teachers change when the goal becomes to titillate the widest audience, not just connect with the room? Will teaching for the cameras undermine pedagogy or widen knowledge’s appeal?

Will the best teaching, beamed globally, silence voices that might otherwise have spoken? Or, in spreading knowledge, will it help the silent speak?

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