Online versus Lecture

In the New York Times “Science Times” of 6 December 2011 special section on the “Future of Computing” there is a short, somewhat hyperventilated column by Daphne Koller of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL), with the somewhat improbable title of the “Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education”1.

An institution which is at least four hundred years older than Koller’s Renaissance dating of its inception, the lecture hall is not likely to be replaced by anything soon. Her historical comparison with the flight of the workforce from the farm to the city, and the subsequent improvement of agricultural production is interesting but ominous. When workers flee the land and jam the cities (China, India, Africa) because that’s where the economy buys their labor, we have problems. Imagine a time when otherwise inexperienced, and half-trained graduates from online colleges flood the education market. Imagine brain-surgeons, or pilots who trained on YouTube videos.

But for today, I’ll stick to one issue: Fault Tolerance. When a lecturer comes to class unprepared and wings it (and who of us hasn’t?) the effect ranges from a brilliant, ad lib lecture to a waste of time, but still one where the student can at least catch a nap, tweet a friend, do the homework for the next class. How is it when the wireless goes down, the internet grinds to a halt, the projector blows a bulb, or the cloud develops sunspots? Nothing! no lesson!

In my own online classes I build in at least two levels of redundancy to guard against inevitable IT failures. And when all of them fail, at least there’s still a whiteboard in the corner of the room with time-dimmed markers. When the Learning Management System breaks in a distance course, there remains Elluminate, Skype, email, the telephone. I can do this because I have 50 years of experience
lecturing as well as wrangling balky IT for the past 30 years. But once “content providers” replace professors, and Google PageRank trumps the authority of literature searches, there’ll be a nostalgia
for the lecture hall of the past.

As for the Death of God, for the Death of Lectures (no comparison intended) the bells tolls too soon.

  • [1] I am aware that journalists do not write headers, editors do.
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    Necessity, Convenience, Luxury

    There was a fourth, “frivolity”, but I’ll stick to threesomes.

    Sooner (mostly) or later (perhaps too late) every online instructor wonders whether this new form of teaching at the University is a contemporary necessity. And for a large proportion of college students well past the customary college age, it is. Unless they live in a city big enough to support night-school at a local institution, distance-education online is really the only way to pick up needed credits for whatever purpose.

    However, there are a surprising number of college students, and
    even high school students, who take online courses to satisfy various credit related needs under circumstances that are more
    convenient than attending lectures on campus. This population does not seem to mix well with the previous in the upper-level geometry courses I teach online.

    Is it a luxury to learn geometry online? I suppose that depends on how accessible your online tutor is. Can you reach your online mentor by email or bulletin board posts anytime? Can you expect private answers to every question you ask? Can you count on a detailed set of instructions on how to fill out every assignment? If that is the course you have lucked into, it is indeed like having a private tutor, only much cheaper.

    Let me close this post by turning the last case around. What a
    grand opportunity for student and professor to communicate desire for knowledge and its abundant transmission. That is a luxury neither student nor teacher can expect to find in the overcrowded, ill furnished classrooms at a public University.

    How it all began ….

    One reason for this blog is the possibility of some responses. But for now, let me fill in some back story. Three years ago I added “distance math teaching” to my already bulky portfolio. I had taught my first calculus class at the precocious age of 17. That was summer school at Notre Dame, and my students were in-service teachers getting a higher education. Mostly nuns, and some principals too. I’ll eventually tell more once the stories become germane to the discussion.

    I took this late-career step because my University administration conceived of a hare-brained scheme, called Global Campus, to sell University of Illinois degrees over their very own version of the University of Phoenix. There was a very good online program, Netmath, in our own department, which I didn’t want co-opted.

    Global Campus disappeared, and took the president, chancellor and several other misguided people with it. No, that’s not what the Chicago Trib was all chills-and-fevers about. That had to do with selling admissions. Selling stuff that’s not yours (like Senate seats) is an Illinois weakness. But that’s another story.

    Welcome to IOUMath: Innovations in Online Undergraduate Mathematics

    So we didn’t get the grant for which this catchy title was coined. But it was too good to consign to the trashcan of unfunded ideas. And who knows, maybe, with your constructive comments and some luck, it may be funded by some, still unknown benefactor who does read the mission statement.

    We owe you, the world, mathematics on a comprehensible level of discourse. And, reciprocally, you, the world, owe us college math teachers something for training the minds of your future employees. But, for the duration, I’ll just record the story of a 3 year effort to put 2 of my geometry course online.