Will I Be Giving My Last Lecture before I Am Ready to Retire?

Amy X. Wang and Allison Schrager recently wrote a fascinating article that looked at the future of the delivery of higher education courses.

The article is titled The college lecture is dying. Good riddance., and looks at what is taking place in the introductory microeconomics course at Texas A&M.

Jon Meer and Steve Wiggins, two economics professors, will teach the course to thousands of students, none of whom will physically attend a class.

Professor Meer has already drawn up and pre-recorded all the lessons, engineered an interactive video platform, prepared all the homework and reading materials, and uploaded everything digitally, painstakingly mapping every last moment of the semester out before it actually starts.

One of the technologies used is a transparent whiteboard, which the camera later flips—a method that allows Meer to stay engaged and face-to-face with students. I have never seen such a whiteboard, but it looks pretty cool:

Here’s a key paragraph from the article:

Now that the prep is all out of the way, Meer can refocus on individual students who’re genuinely interested in a deeper pursuit of economics. Meet with them. Speak to them. Inspire them. As far as he is concerned, the traditional lecture setting in a massive hall is dead. 

This approach to teaching is not without its critics. Some people claim that the socialization aspect of learning will be lost, of particular concern given how much time students already spend online.

Also missing is the chance for classroom discussion, often a key part of the learning process.

Meer himself states, “Do I think [this new course] is better than 30 students and the Socratic method, Dead Poets Society-style? Probably not,” Meer admits. But, he counters, given the fact that A&M has to educate 50,000 undergrads, 3,000 of which need to take the microeconomics class for their major, “it’s still vastly superior to delivering a lecture to 300 students at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning.”

Meer and Wiggins’ class will offer online segments, quizzes, problem sets, virtual study groups, forums—arguably much more interaction than you’d ever find from an ordinary in-person course.

The online course will also offer better monitoring of student progress, not letting a student get too far ahead, or more importantly, too far behind.

Online courses also offer instant feedback to the students, something which is highly beneficial in the learning process.

Meer also hopes moving large introductory lectures online will free up resources to start an honors section, which would be more teaching-intensive.

I love how Wang and Schrager close the article:

Like most technology, online learning has the potential to be disruptive—in the most negative, chaotic sense of the word. But what we get in exchange for the chaos may be an industry-altering improvement, and education is one of America’s fields that’s most sorely in need.

Online education in its utopian form—effective, immersive, engaging, yet cheap to produce and able to reach audiences of millions—has too many advantages to discount. A university, however prestigious or well-staffed, can only physically educate so many students at a time. That university on the internet? It’s an entire multiverse of unexplored possibility.

I’ve been telling my students for a few years that teachers are always impressing upon their students the disruptive nature of technology, but have been slow, and perhaps even loathe, to embrace educational technology themselves.

I think the Intro to Business course I teach is one possible model of the future of education. Using educational tech tools from McGraw Hill (the Connect platform), my students teach themselves the chapter through an interactive program known as LearnSmart. LearnSmart will customize each student’s learning path through the material. Students complete the LearnSmart before class; this allows me to skip over basic terminology in class, and use that time to talk about the application of the material, and to take a look at the Wall Street Journal each day.

Some people may call this a “flipped” or “hybrid” classroom. I think the online tools are is an effective way to ensure that students are mastering the basics, while still offering the in-class experience. It seems like it is the best of both worlds.

I’m not sure if some day there will be no need for a teacher and students to meet face to face.

But who would have thought that you could get money out of a machine or listen to any song you wanted to, immediately, without ever leaving your house.


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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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