Average is over, higher education, MOOC

Average is over: Future of Academia

In Average is over Tyler Cowan argues that the future of work will be about working with intelligent machines and how effectively we will do that, will depend a lot on education.

Part of the story about education is online education as one of the places where new information technologies is playing a role. Think MOOCs, but also of blogs, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and TED. Cowan argues that there are new ways of learning and they are based on the following principles:

  • Time-shifting,
  • User control,
  • Direct feedback,
  • Online communities, and
  • The packaging of information into much smaller bits than the traditional lecture or texbook chapter.

So does he believe in the “disruption” and “revolution” that people have been blogging about? Not quite. He highlights some of the important features of the economics of online education that will influence the role it can play: that it will be cheap, that it is flexible, that the profits from teaching innovations will be high and that it allows for much more precise measurement of learning. But then goes on to argue that online education and learning games will supplement current systems.

He makes an interesting point about who will provide online education to supplement current systems. The MOOC model is to be replicable and universal. The business model of universities is to market the quality of exclusivity. Though Harvard and Princeton provide MOOCs, they are unlikely to dilute their brands by providing credits and having thousands of partial alums walking around.

Cowan says that online education will be egalitarian in a specific way: smart, motivated learners from non-elite communities will use it to get ahead, but it will not push the uninterested student to the head of the pack. “This kind of learning is driven by the hunger for knowledge, not by a desire to show off your talent or to “signal” as we economists say”.

Given all this, what will the new world of face-to-face teaching look like?

Probably something like the so-called flipped classroom that everyone is talking about: watch a video on YouTube, come to class for some discussion, practice to homework problems on the e-learning system. Cowan writes: “It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and learning something on their own”. He argues that the better performing students will be treated like the chess prodigy’s are today – they use intelligent software to teach themselves, they cooperate with each other and they get guidance and feedback from coaches. “Their conscientiousness, and the understanding that high wages await them in the world, will enforce hard work and discipline”. The lesser performing students will specialise in receiving motivation. In this, there are some choice bits that made me smile:

Education will become more like the Marines, full of discipline and team spirit.

The teacher is first and foremost a role model and a motivator and to some extent an entertainer.

In the longer run, professors will need to become more like motivational coaches and missionaries.

We could think of the forthcoming educational model as professor as impressario.

Let’s treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.

 And then finally:

Of course, educational institutions are not ready to admit how much they share with churches. These temples of secularism don’t want to admit that they are about simple tasks such as motivating the slugs or acculturating people into the work habits and sociological expectations of the so-called educated class.

I think that it is an excellent chapter and well worth the read.

And what do I think it means for me and colleagues in the School? For example, should I jump into edtech and develop an e-guide, make video’s or apps? It depends.

If your resource is uniquely interesting and well explained, you could have a world market for it. If you are just animating your PowerPoints because the Dean says so, you are probably better off curating resources than creating it. I think that there is already a lot of good resources out there. My contribution can be in how I put them together for my students.

Whether you decide to create or curate, the next question you should ask yourself is whether it will help the conscientious students to teach themselves, or whether it is aimed at inspiring and motivating the others. I frequently hear the hope expressed that interactive pdf’s or slick mobile apps will engage this new generation. But I fear that nice graphics and pop-up messages are the sort of things that everyone gets used to very quickly. If we accept the idea of being coaches and preachers I think that it is obvious that you should spend your extra time on your live show in class, on getting to know your student, on being that real-life exemplar – not creating more e-resources.

I think that we should all think back to the professors who inspired us in the days before e-learning. Were they the ones who read from the book, or had perfect over-head projector transparencies, or a nice list of prescribed reading? The modern day equivalents are the e-guides and apps. Or were they the ones who could motivate and inspire? Now put that in your twitter.


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