Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Future of Higher Education: YouTube Lectures, Distance Learning, and Open-source Education

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece called "A Self-Appointed Teacher Runs a One-Man 'Academy' on YouTube: Are his 10-minute lectures the future?" by Jeff Young. This piece suggested that Salman Khan, an MIT graduate with a bachelors degree, who one day decided to start creating 10-minute YouTube lectures on various subjects, was the beginning of a trend, and possibly a paradigm shift in higher education in the US. Like most articles of its kind, I think it is intentionally written to be provocative. Especially when considering the audience. The Chronicle of Higher Education is primarily read by academics. In other words, professors and administrators, people who are highly invested in the system of higher education, and as such, probably to some extent invested in the status quo. They, especially the old and stodgy types, are likely to reject that technology is the answer, or in fact, that there is anything wrong with the system at in the first place.

What follows is my attempt to answer Mr. Young's question, whether 10-minute, informal YouTube lectures are somehow the future of higher education.

First, I should start out by saying that higher education does have problems. Plenty of them. The current system (in the US), the status quo, is by no means satisfactory to many of the participants, teachers and students alike. Some of the complaints are as follows (from my personal experience, first as an undergraduate student, then as a graduate student, and a teaching assistant). Undergrads (and their entire families) wish that college wasn't so expensive. Now that going to college seems to be a prerequisite to get a job, practically any job, it has become a necessary cost to most Americans. Without a college education, in modern America, as in the past several centuries, you are at a severe economic disadvantage. The educational gap is part of what (at least seemed) to create the gap between rich and poor.

Actually, access to education has for most of recent history been a symptom, rather than a cause of economic differences. The GI Bill, and the increasing availability of federally subsidized student loans created a huge increase in access to education. There is no doubt that this was a good thing. But, it didn't really change the structure of universities, and instead of economies of scale making education cheaper (as one might think), the cost of education seems to have gone up. Universities definitely have costs, they have the cost of the classrooms, the buildings, dormitories, libraries, lab equipment, etc. Now, with computers, they have the cost of constantly maintaining and upgrading computer systems for student and faculty use. In addition they have the cost of faculty salaries, highest for the law schools and medical schools, since those folks could be getting much better paying jobs practicing instead of teaching. They have the cost of paying salaries to all their administrators. I'm sure that's not all. There is no doubt that there are huge costs, some of them of value to students (teachers salaries, teaching materials, access to research equipment etc), but also some costs that have no apparent benefit to students.

More and more, students, especially those who pay from their own pockets (or their parents), have started to look at their education from the perspective of consumers. In this way, education is becoming increasingly commodified, and courses, majors and degrees are evaluated by students and prospective students in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Students get mad, if when paying for their studies, they are not satisfied with a course or a professor, they feel as though they have been ripped off. I don't necessarily agree with this perspective, but I do understand where it's coming from. But, like any large society, democracy, or bureaucracy, a course with lots of students can't possibly please them all. Some students may love a course. Others may hate it.

The increasing access to education, and the increasing number of students going to college has created a problem of scale. Educational research (not to mention common sense) tells us that different students learn better in different ways. Some of us are auditory learners. We learn best by listening. Some are visual learners, and learn best by seeing. Some people learn best by touching and working with something hands-on. I think it's fair to say we're all experiential learners. But with so many students now, its difficult to serve all these needs with a single model for teaching or education.

So if the question is posed as: "Do 10-minute lectures on YouTube serve a purpose?" I would say the answer is yes, obviously. They give people - not just "students" - access to information in a short, easily consumed package. They are free to the user (minus the cost of the computer and/or internet access), as are many thousands of lectures on iTunesU - where universities are posting course lectures as podcasts, or MIT's OpenCourseware Consortium. Providing content for free is great. The opensource concept which lies behind many of these efforts is great. But I don't think it's going to replace or supplant the current system of colleges and universities, at least not in the near future.

What can such digital online educational media provide? Lots of things. They can be used as supplementary tutorial material for students who are studying a subject, and need help understanding it. They can be introductory pieces, giving information and background on fields of study, and the kinds of results those fields can obtain. They can give access to knowledge and information to people who might otherwise have no access whatsoever. And those are all wonderful things.

But there are lots of things, at least with present day (2010) technology, that a 10-minute YouTube video lecture CAN'T do. For instance, it can't give students hands on access to labs or other materials. In anthropology we teach many courses with hands-on activities. For human evolution we look at casts and reproductions of fossils of our hominid ancestors and the skeletons of contemporary primates. For archaeology we give students a chance to look at ancient pottery, beads, stone tools. We can teach them how to flake stone tools, not only by showing it, but by giving students two rocks to bang together, and guiding them through the process. You can watch as many videos - or Discovery, History, Nova/PBS, or NatGeo TV shows you want about human evolution or archaeology, but this doesn't replace the experience of being able to hold such things in your hand and observe them directly with your own senses. Without this sort of hands-on access, everything about education would be purely conceptual. And while lots of knowledge is purely conceptual, that's certainly not true for everything.

Another drawback is the ability, or lack thereof, to simply raise your hand and ask a question. The YouTube model, and other social media models, do give the opportunity for feedback, through a comments system, but it is much more difficult to engage in a full scale question and answer session, or even debate over a topic, at least with the existing software. Even with an (oldskool) IRC style chartroom, at least, such a discussion might be possible.

The last, and perhaps most important aspect of education that is missing from a 10-minute YouTube video model for higher education, is the opportunity, or even necessity of students to do their own work, their own research, to think, and write, and then have that product be evaluated by their peers and their professor. A frequent end to a college course is the submission of a final paper and a class presentation. Ideally, students should be submitting their own work, their own thoughts and responses all along, during the course of a semester. In large scale education, this does get cut back, and that's definitely a problem, but not one that's solved by a 10-minute YouTube video.

Many universities are now offering distance learning courses. They are modeled on the traditional method of giving 1-hour lecture two or three times a week. Students submit questions by email, or post to a message board, and watch online videos, or sometimes audio-accompanied powerpoints, in a relatively low tech solution. It works passably, as a system, as most any student who's taken a distance learning course will tell you. But it's got serious drawbacks. Is it possible that 10- or 20-minute chunks are more digestible than the current hour-long discourse? Definitely.

I think that learning at a distance, is one answer among many, to the question of the future of higher education, and how to get information, or perhaps better thought of as knowledge, to more people. I think that to reach the level where distance education can meet all of the same requirements, and provide all the same things as in-person, physically present education, technology needs to advance a LONG way. For instance, technology, such as in a virtual reality simulation, could potentially bring students the same level of interactivity with each other, the professor, and "hands-on" experiences with lots of things. But that sort of virtual reality is decades if not more away from us, and may never develop in the way it has been envisioned in science fiction. Even if high-quality virtual reality were possible, I still think I'd be advocating real, human, in-person, direct contact for the best quality of education.

But that's just the thing. Even if we take that some version of in-person education is the best, potentially the most rewarding for both teacher and student, we are again stuck with the problem of scale. The worlds population is currently almost 6.9 billion people, and counting. It's growing, and will continue to grow (though that's a debate for another post entirely), and we want to educate everyone, or as many people as possible. In order to do that, we have to diversify the ways and means of distributing knowledge and information - this is definitely already changing in the digital age, with YouTube, Wikipedia etc. And we need to change the model of university education, to reduce those costs.

But, if you've ever listened to any NPR station, podcast, or YouTube video lecturer asking for donations and support, you know that there will always be costs involved. There are costs to creating new knowledge - otherwise known as research, there are the costs of supporting teachers to live and buy food for themselves and their families, there are costs of distributing knowledge, especially bandwidth, which is a cost both to the distributor and the consumer. These costs will never go away. It is now mainly a question of who will shoulder the burden. Will we someday have advertising supported education: "This lecture brought to you by Cyberdyne Systems"?

I personally would like to see the college and university system miniaturized rather than super-sized. I think that many, many small colleges and institutions could do a much better job serving peoples needs for education, around the globe, with less overhead, fewer administrators, etc. This would bring education to the people, rather than bringing the people to the education. In the sense that small colleges, and community colleges already exist all over the US, this need is to some extent already being addressed. Community and vocational colleges are providing good basic education, at a much lower cost than the larger universities. They are much more numerous, more locally accessible, and open to all. This system could potentially be replicated abroad.

Another solution is to diversify the approaches to content. Some students want or need a liberal arts education - with courses in a wide variety of topics, outside of the one they ultimately select as a major. Other students may not want or need those courses. Offering programs that are more targeted on one particular topic, without requiring students to take courses in other areas could also reduce the number of years in education, and the cost to the individual. I believe the option should be left open. I personally loved my liberal arts degree. I loved taking courses in many different disciplines. But such programs are not even available in the UK or India, where degrees are solely in the subjects that they are listed under. A student in a bachelors in physics, for instance, will study nothing but the discipline of physics. Not to say that there aren't diverse fields within physics, but still, a student in India taking such a course will at no time be expected to think about politics, or read a novel. This can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing, depending on the individual, and the topic.

There is a lot to appreciate behind the idea of free, online, 10-minute lectures. And maybe, with increasing technological developments, these sorts of environments will be able to offer some of the aspects of in-person education that are lacking. Whether or not a person is giving accurate information is another thing to worry about. But I think, in the future of social media, crowd-sourcing, and potentially open-source education, I'm not sure that will be the biggest concern. I think my biggest worry about a digital age, open source, distance education, is that education isn't just about gaining knowledge or information, it's about learning how to think for yourself. It's about learning how to communicate those thoughts well to others. Having personal contact and relationships is hugely important. Having a mentor, a person who responds to you personally, and with insight, and care, is something that will become increasingly difficult to find in a YouTube/Wikipedia model for education. That is why I don't think these technologies can ever really replace the relationship between teacher and student.

With more and more students, we need more and more teachers. We cannot attenuate this link to nothingness. One professor cannot teach us all, because one professor, (or ordinary citizen like Salman Khan) can never REACH us all, in the way that, at least sometimes, professors reach out to students and not only impart information, but guide us into becoming better people, better thinkers, and better citizens of the world.

Because of the benefit that mentoring relationship has brought me, I want like to thank all of my teachers, and especially my mentors, who were and still are more than just teachers. Anyone who has ever had a great teacher, or a great mentor, and I hope that's most people, I think we all understand the value of that relationship, which is something that a YouTube lecture can never provide.

Thank you to the teachers who have touched my life: Ms. Trout (2nd grade), Mrs. Dever (6th grade), Jennifer Shikes-Haines (7th grade), Mr. Halpern (9th grade English), Mrs. Grover (10th grade History), Mr. Panasenko (10th grade Biology), Dr. Cohen (11th grade History), Dr. Linda Grimm (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Michael Fisher (Oberlin College, History), Dr. Perween Hasan (Oberlin College, now University of Dhaka, Art History), Dr. Lynn Fisher (Oberlin College, Archaeology), Dr. Lipika Mazumdar (Oberlin College, now U. Pittsburgh, Anthropology), Dr. J. Mark Kenoyer (U. of Wisconsin-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Sissel Schroeder (U.W.-Madison, Archaeology), Dr. Carla Sinopoli (U. Michigan, Archaeology) and Dr. Kathy Morrison (U.Chicago, Archaeology)…. just to name a few.

I don't think I would be the person I am today, if I had simply listened to lectures online, even if those lectures were given by the very same professors and teachers I am listing here. These people have done more than lecture material at me, they have taught me how to think, and how to write, and how to be a better person. Maybe my list is exceptionally long. Maybe I have been extraordinarily lucky. I hope not. I hope everyone has the opportunity to have such wonderful teachers and mentors as I have had, on and on, into the digitally mediated future…

Update 6/8/10: Recently was linked to this article, which argues for a return to truly "classical" education.

No comments: