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Good enough is good enough: on the future of teaching

US Stamp: Mark Hopkins, 1940.
Source: Wikimedia.
There is or was in economics a so-called law known as Gresham’s: bad money drives out good. Another law, of broader application, would have it that good enough dominates best.
The web, and indeed Wikipedia—to which I just happily referred—, illustrates this point. Copying is easy, compiling is easy, finding new information is not so easy, even if that means simply reading journal articles and adding a bit to the existing common store. I have Fuch’s dystrophy, a hereditary disease of the cornea. Naturally I’d like to know all I can about it. I search online, diligently, repeatedly. What I find is the same information (some of it perhaps incorrect) repeated over and over again, often verbatim, from Wikipedia to the Mayo Clinic to NIH. As soon as one tries to investigate specific questions, e.g. about the risk of surgery, one discovers that the web has no answers. I would say that it is broad but shallow; yet even that conveys the wrong impression, since the “breadth” consists largely in repetition of a small core of fact and not obviously untrue speculation.
The information one gleans, with grains of salt for more dubious sources, is for many purposes good enough. Were you a journalist or a student needing two sentences on Fuch’s, you’d have them, quickly and without effort. But it is not much better than good enough. I think that that is a general tendency: the apparent wealth of the (publicly accessible) web belies a widespread poverty.
Good enough drives out best—and even better.
Apply this now to university teaching.
Not long ago people were linking to, and praising, pieces in the Chronicle and the Globe and Mail written in defense of classroom teaching, extending the much older industry of praising “Mark Hopkins on a log”—the invaluable, irreplaceable teacher-student relationship upon which liberal arts colleges stake their claim to existence and large tuition fees.
Here’s a sample:
[Computers] enable new forms of communicating. They present information in incredibly understandable and previously unimaginable ways. They even interact with students, correcting assignments for which there are clearly delineated standards of error and success. They can greatly expand the power of the multiple-choice quiz; they can learn which drills remedy which errors. Computers are getting ever better at correcting grammar and expressions in natural language.
These capacities should be celebrated. But they should not be confused with the training provided by one mind interacting with another—when, for example, a teacher discerns what is on a student's mind (even though the thought may be novel and half-formed); sees how it relates to the material; and knows how to question, encourage, challenge, or otherwise prompt the student to find his or her own way out of confusion, to a clearer expression of thought or a more powerful argument or analysis (Pamela Hieronymi in the Chronicle)
Let’s suppose that all those wonderful things do happen in the classroom. Classroom teaching is better than online learning, much better—let’s suppose.
No doubt such courses are a boon to many: shut-ins, desperate housewives, the fully employed and overemployed, deployed soldiers, the incarcerated, technicians at the South Pole – in short, all who lack access to a real education. Something is always better than nothing, and I applaud colleagues who undertake such outreach.
Still, don’t mistake what’s better than nothing for what’s best. Real education requires real teachers and students, not disembodied electronic wraiths. Once that condition has been met, by all means bring in the Web, too. Especially where courses are too large (as is common in our universities), an electronic component can be very useful. But so-called education without live dialogue between teacher and student should excite no one (Clifford Orwin).
Sniffy rhetoric like this almost always follows upon the introduction of new technologies. You might remember Socrates’ put-down of that new fangled invention, writing, in the Phædrus. The rhetoric has a basis in fact. But it’s not going to help.
Stanford’s (for the time being) free “Intro to AI” course attracted 160,000 students last year. Think about it: at a mere ten dollars per head, that course could have brought in $1.6 million. Offered twice a year, it pulls in $3.2 million, on the basis, let’s say, of a $100K investment (my wife wrote up an old-fashioned in-class intro to anthropology course for $800 twenty years ago; it’s worth noting that this was work-for-hire, in which she retained no rights whatsover). Now suppose you’re the dean of Arts & Sciences at a hard-pressed state institution, So-and-so State at Somewhere. Stanford offers you the AI course at say $10K up front and $10 per student; all you have to provide is some office time with lecturer-grade—i.e. non-tenured, minimal benefits—staff. You don’t have to provide a classroom or a professor.
When you go to the State legislature, they ask you: isn’t this good enough? Why are we spending so much money on classrooms and (dangerously left-leaning) professors, when for half the cost, or less, we can provide our students with courses from Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the Georgia Institute of Technology? You may well say, “Yes, but the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality” (Hieronymi).
Yeah, right, says the legislator. That’s what the doctors tell me too. And the cops. And the meat inspectors…
The arguments of Hieronymi and Orwin have been made time and time again. They may hold off the “tsunami” (Hieronymi, citing John Hennessy, president of Stanford) for a little while. But within a few years online courses will prevail. The providers at Stanford and other elite institutions will congratulate themselves for bringing their world-class instruction to the multitude; deans at Southwestern U and State U at Place will proudly exhibit their freshly trimmed budgets; and students will muddle along, picking up what they need to know to finish their degree and get out into the real world.
Why not the best? Because good enough is good enough, and a hell of a lot cheaper.

LinkSeptember 9, 2012 in Academic Affairs · Current Affairs · Society