‘Elite’ prof on video may not be the best teacher

As online learning transforms higher ed, free courses by elite universities will provide content for lesser institutions’ core courses, predicts Jeffrey Selingo in College (Un)Bound. A community college dean disagrees: “Elite” professors on video may not be the best teachers, especially for introductory courses taken by non-elite students.

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  1. cranberry says:

    I’ve listened to podcasts of university lectures. I doubt online transmission of lectures from elite college lecture halls will prove to be universally applicable. In order to understand the lectures, the students must read the books assigned, which the professors refer to during their lectures.

    I just looked at Michael Sandel’s lecture series, “Justice,” on iTunesU. The course materials include web links for readings. Will all students at all colleges be able to parse Immanuel Kant? Jeremy Bentham? If you don’t read the texts, you won’t be able to understand the lectures.
    The materials provided for the course include “beginner” discussions and “advanced” discussions. I suppose it’s possible for a diligent student to read and understand the philosophical texts, but will every student in a remote college? If many students don’t do the reading, and the professor or discussion leader chooses the “beginner” level of discussion prompts, I submit it could neither be the equivalent of the Harvard course, nor would it be as effective a course students as the current course it would replace.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      One possibility is that there will be different levels of lectures, from the difficult to the easy for the most selective to the least selective colleges. Today, there are different levels of textbooks.

  2. Yeah, I wouldn’t try to do that with a lot of courses at a CC. Students in lower-level courses usually need personal attention and support, and a lot of it. Watching a video lecture and doing assignments alone simply won’t cut it for a lot of people.

  3. I think that it will be interesting to see where the best lecturers come from. I’ve seen ‘mad scientist’ types who were great lecturers, brilliant scientists who forgot what ‘starting at the beginning’ looked like, and people who were excellent teachers in small groups but gave truly boring lectures. I’m sure that there are great lecturers at all levels of schools, from CCs, to elite universities, and also great teachers who don’t give great lectures (these folks do really well in upper level seminars or lab courses).

  4. The weakness in the argument of Matt Reed, the “community college dean,” is in applying current standards of measure of the instructor – research that’s published in prestigious journals that leads to grants and the attraction of top-flight grad students – to the on-line future.

    But it’s the cost reduction per student of on-line courses that’s the revolutionary change and that change allows for the ignoring of previously important standards of measure.

    When you could have no more then a couple of hundred students per year per instructor publishing was the standard. With the number of students capped by physical constraints instructional talent, as a source of income for the college, was also capped. So other measures of value of the instructor to the college became important and that measure’s prowess in getting column-inches in well-known journals.

    On-line courses changes that situation and while Sebastian Thrun enjoys the benefit of being, for practical purposes, the first on the scene that’s a benefit that won’t last. Other colleges and professors, will see that success and respond with efforts of their own which leads to the customers dilemma of choosing among many competing offers.

    Those customers will gravitate towards the course that best suits their purposes and while star power will have some benefit, if it isn’t matched by the bottom line considerations of the student it’ll suffer.

  5. If online courses are offered as little more than “Watch the talking head on a TV or monitor,” then the quality of the professor isn’t the central problem. That would be the failure to fully utilize easily available technology and online teaching and testing tools that can make that presentation much more effective.

    I know from presenting live courses that the audience experience for a live presentation is different from that at a group video replay, and that is in turn different from the experience watching the video in private. I don’t think I need to explain where each of the three falls on a spectrum from most- to least-engaging.

    I’ve also seen people who are great in a classroom setting, where they interact and react, and are far less effective in a straight lecture format, and speakers whose presentation style is lost when they’re stuck behind a podium for the benefit of the company producing a video of his presentation.

    The question seems to be less, “Is this the nation’s greatest professor” and more, “Is this person willing to do the work to create a highly effective, online course.”