Can We Replace Professors With Computer Screens?

Quite possibly, but an education just from YouTube videos would miss the true point of a college education.

This past February, as one of the keynote speakers invited to contribute to a lively forum sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), I presented a bold challenge to my fellow professors that has since been quoted many times: "If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be."

Some were very alarmed at this statement, assuming I meant that all future learning should be online. But that wasn’t my meaning at all. Instead, I was insisting that if, as a teacher, at any level you are no more interactive and responsive than a YouTube video, then your institution and your students should save your salary and go with the cheaper—and probably more entertaining—online version instead, and offer the greater public good of making your course available to those around the world who don’t have the resources for the rare privilege of physically attending an American university.

The fact is the American university system is regarded, worldwide, as the best there is. If you are a wealthy citizen of China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, or many countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, or Europe, your dream is to send your child to the U.S. for a college education. A glance at the number of international students at U.S. campuses today confirms that higher education is truly the one area where the U.S. has a highly favorable balance of trade.

At the same time, the U.S. is rapidly squandering its most vital national resource. While everyone is rightly worried about the high cost of a college education, what needs to be pointed out vigorously is how much that rising cost relates directly to the decline in federal and state spending on universities. State universities are barely supported by states anymore and federal support of higher ed is also declining, as we can see from the detailed reports issued by the Delta Cost Project of the American Institute for Research. Similarly, corporations have divested themselves on a grand scale of the labs and think tanks they formerly supported.

Universities have taken up the role of supporting the expensive labs and high tech facilities necessary for the basic research that fuels innovation, with corporations often supporting targeted, potentially profitable projects but not the enormous ongoing costs of infrastructure and personnel required to yield those more practical outcomes. Christopher Newfield documents these relationships in Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the University and in the sequel .

Can profs be replaced by computer screens? Yes, a lot of them can be. Even at this early stage, several of the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) created by major universities including MIT, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and others provide better actual platforms for motivating learning in some technical subjects than do profs simply lecturing in a 600-person lecture class with a midterm and a final graded by a TA. But not every MOOC is Carnegie-Mellon’s brilliant statistics course and not every classroom has 600 students texting as a boring prof drones on. Both are stereotypes. And since every workplace survey says communication skills, critical thinking ability, collaborative skills, and ability to understand diverse cultural contexts and acuity at diagnosing problems and finding creative solutions are the most prized qualities in future employees, one wonders how one would ever learn those through MOOCs, even those accompanied by peer-learning components.

So what is the key difference between online education and face-to-face, residential education? The late John Strohbehn, the provost at Duke, used to say parents are willing to pay a lot to have professionals turn their 18-year-old kids into 21-year-old adults. Almost everything about the intensity of college and the multiple pressures of studying, social life, work life, and extracurricular leadership activities is part of what leads to that development process from being a teenager to being ready for an independent adult life. Especially for middle-class America, with its over-protected, over-regulated teens and helicopter parents, giving up on universities means educational disempowerment (youth unemployment is high but far higher for those without a college degree). And it also means a major change in the very structuring of parenting.

I know people (and occasionally I’m one) who would much rather watch a sporting event on TV away from the crowds and with the benefit of instant replay. Rock concerts, too. But to put being part of the crowd out of reach of your child is a decision that one has to take very seriously. And if we extend that to all live events, what does it mean if only the 1% ever gets to participate firsthand? The great Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen writes about the "race between education and technology." He argues that in times of huge technological change, you need the benefit of extensive education to keep some kind of equality in society. If you forfeit education, you increase the amount of inequality radically. In the U.S. today the pay of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is more than 200 times that of the average worker. By comparison, the German ratio is 12 to 1. If the U.S. continues to defund education and devalue its worth, our ratio is destined to get higher.

We may think crushing debt is the worst legacy we’re leaving the next generation, but there are far worse problems our youth will inherit. With our shrinking tax structures, we have allowed the infrastructure of our roads and bridges and mass transportation systems to crumble over the last 40 years in the same way that we have let the university support system collapse. Those are the real disasters we’re bequeathing: physical infrastructure ever more on the verge of collapse and a dumbed-down citizenry in a high-tech global knowledge economy that will become more, not less, competitive in the years ahead.

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  • Muvaffak Gozaydin

    Today 15.June.2014 I wish people comment today regarding onmlinde courses from elite universities. Not MOOCs . MOOCs is a nonsense .

  • Professor Autar Kaw

    This quote she talks about is a just a new variation of when an RPI dean said, " if a cd rom can replace an instructor, it should". Nothing new here. Brick and mortar campuses do have to become places to convert kids to adults minus the drinking and sexual assaults.

  • Ilhan GOZAYDIN

    You think "ONLINE Education means to replace the professors with a computer screen ".
    Fortunately you are wrong.
    But I am amazed the wisdom you have the way you analyzed the economic system of the USA for the last 40 years .
    Shrinking tax structure
    Crumbling of  roads, bridges, transportation systems
    The same way education is collapsing as well .

    Others are the result of collapsing of education system .
    Therefore first we have to correct the education system.

    Today that has been found . MITx + Harvardx
    Top schools with the wealth of knowledge of 150 years and more
    Provides the top education at a small fee, since it attracts millions .
    All online that means people can work fulltime while going to school and finance their small  fee .
    Their target of  1 BILLION students for the world is my dream .
    Only missing link at this point a degree after certificates . I am sure they will do that too .

    Please do not mix up MITx  initiative with any other online education in the world .
    First course of MITx has shown that MITx online works perfectly. But still there is room for improvements. MITx online is not an online 1300 colleges offer in the USA .
    Let us support  MITx .

    That is the very right model good for the world and USA

  • gericar

    Any "trend" that leads to on-line courses is adverse to education. It doesn't matter if the "professor" is from MIT or your local for-profit diploma mill or how entertaining he or she might be on the screen. We could have Colin Firth or John Stewart just read the lecture, that would be real entertainmnet at least. This is not education in any sense of the word. It is credits for money. I think we are loosing sight of the difference in the pursuit of the ever adored "business model" more efficiency makes more money....  I have an undergrad degree from a time when we used parchment and goose quills.... and am enrolled in an online  Master's program at a reputable state university. If people who teach these classes actually had to talk to a student they would faint. Just email please. It is the 10th week of class and we are about to have our second "lecture" and if you can type the question you had two weeks ago quickly enough, and in one sentence..... you might get it answered. The world is full of non-traditional students these days and it isn't just the kids that are being short changed when we call watching television education. I have had some mediocre professors, we all have. So what. I am not always a stellar student either. If we can just move forward together and have some engagement in the learning process I am happy. We are in the age of the baby and the bath water. Our pursuit of more for less is not only doomed but unhuman.   

  • Ilhan GOZAYDIN

    Dear Gericar
    You are right none of those online degrees and courses offerred by  1300 colleges are  any good .
    Including  for profits and state colleges . And the course you took .

    In order to teach something one has to have wealth of knowledge in the first plase .
    Wealth of knowledge cannot be gained in 1 or 2 years even 100 years .

    MITx + Harvard x  has wealth of knowledge of 150-300 years . It is their assests.
    Now they are willing to share their assets. What an honorable action.
    It is not a business as you say . It is a social responsibility.
    But the wisdom they have makes the initiative a very sustainable one .
    If they charge only $ 10-20 per course , when they reach to their target of 1 billion students they will make $ 10-20 billion per year, yes every year .

    Quality has proved itself. I wish you were one of the students attending the first course 120,000 of them.
    Many received their certificates as well after a very very strict exam .
    Comments regarding quality are thousands .
    Please take an online from MITxin next September .

    Plus whole world will be indebted to USA.

  • gericar

    Thanks for your response. Especially with the part where everyone is indebted to us...they might forget our obvious flaws. I think you are talking about a class "of interest" I can be interested in a class taught by a professor at Harvard but when I take it and get my certificate... what do I have. I learned something maybe a lot but to what end where does this fit into my "education." Surely a degree is a collection of courses toward an end. I become educated as an engineer, by taking the courses the people who know about engineering think I need to know, not by picking and choosing things that are interesting at the moment. And I am not sure where wisdom comes into this. I wish! Like Apple, we are not necessarily better we just have better advertising.

  • John Sarvey

    Davidson points out the very critical distinction between the mere acquisition of knowledge and concepts that can be achieved through online delivery of courses vs. the larger, broader concept of student development.

    What technology is enabling within higher education is the sort of commoditization of what can be commoditized. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. When things become commoditized, it results in much higher efficiency, lower costs, and a more rational market. Having students sit through mediocre lectures is an inefficient and costly use of their time and that of the lecturer.

    What is largely missing from trendy conversations about higher ed and MOOCs today is attention to those aspects of a college education that are not able to be commoditized, or not as easily. As Davidson points out in the article, many parents expect their children to mature and develop throughout college. That cannot be achieved through online courses. And what contributes to student development? Surely in-person interaction with faculty contributes. But it's also interaction with peers and even other non-faculty adults on campus. It's the total experience, not just the coursework. Does it cost more? Absolutely. A substantial portion of tuition today helps to create and maintain the environment and opportunities for students to have all kinds of experiences -- residential, leadership, community work, internships, organizational participation, arts, music -- etc. These all contribute substantially to a college education.

    So much of the conversation in society today is about college degree vs. no college degree. However, as more and more students attend college, it is becoming increasingly apparent that not all college degrees are the same. One might argue that just two years at Harvard probably convey more lifetime opportunity benefit than a completed degree at most colleges and universities. If I'm interviewing two candidates for a job or graduate program and one attended a residential college/university and had a rich array of college activities and experiences and the other earned their degree entirely through an online program, it is crystal clear which one I'm going to take.

  • Ilhan GOZAYDIN

    You are right.
    If any parents can afford for all those expenses for
    creation and maintaining environment
    Residential experiences ( ??? )
    Arts music etc
    Varsity sports

    together with lectures for 600 students at a time , midterms and finals graded by TA
    let them send their kids to residential colleges. Nobody forbids them to do so .

    I am an employer for the last 40 years . I never hired any person graduated from any unknown colleges in the USA except Stanford, Harvard, Yale , Berkeley, Princeton  Pennsylvania, Caltech ..
    But today I would hire almost 100 % of MITx graduates.
    We will see what will happen.

  • Humaira Hamid

    "A substantial portion of tuition today helps to create and maintain the
    environment and opportunities for students to have all kinds of
    experiences -- residential, leadership, community work, internships,
    organizational participation, arts, music -- etc. These all contribute
    substantially to a college education."

    Wonderfully put, John. "Extra-curricular activities" is a term I loathe; I'd much rather refer
    to them as high-impact involvement opportunities (leadership, co-op,
    internships, intramural / varsity sports, residence life, student staff
    positions, student clubs, campus tradition events, etc... the list is
    long!). They make up such an important part of the college / university

    Being a recent university grad that was heavily involved in student development, student affairs & campus life, specifically in the latter half of my undergraduate experience at UBC, I can attest to the incredible opportunities available to me outside of the "formal learning structures" of lectures / discussions / labs, and their unquantifiable effect on my development into the person I am today. Simple example: I watched, time & time again, the buzz in the informal learning spaces (e.g. libraries, cafes, galleries, gardens, pubs, gyms) and how oftentimes they were where the "real" subject-learning happened - not to mention developing those ever-exalted business soft skills that workplaces are looking for, which Cathy was so good to mention. We are wired for connection (think back even to Maslow's monkey experiment); that same sense of support, engagement and community on campuses can't quite be replicated by MOOCs & tech - given that lens, what higher education institutions provide can't be replaced by a screen.

    It's really about embracing the technological revolution that's storming the world (wide web) and looking at effective education reform. Critics are always quick to point out what doesn't work, and I say sure, if there's a better way to do it, let's change it to integrate tech, online learning, digital media - insofar as it augments the deep learning process. But let's not forget about all the other pieces that ARE working in today's college & university structures. I'm a strong believer of the 'flipped classroom' model. Effective implementation of changes to traditional pedagogy will necessarily need to embrace technological innovation at its very core structure, not just superficially (e.g. let's show a YouTube video at the beginning of lecture. Tech integration done.) It will also necessarily need to harness the key strengths of face-to-face, classroom learning & teaching and bring them to the forefront - because a professor is so much more than the floating head dispensing information, and each of the 100s of students are so much more than passive information receptacles. Cultivating knowledge is a two-way, human process.

    School and "student development" is, in large part, human development; in the end, the books, tests, grades and structures are just a small part of the bigger "higher education" picture. Somewhere, I feel like a substantial portion of people - parents, educators / education admin, employers, students - have lost sight of that. My hope is that the general population can shift their lens to focus back on that bigger "why". Only then will there be clarity on what and how needs to happen re: "computers vs. teachers" and the bigger underlying issues.

  • Wize Adz

    This is going to create more tiers of education.
    The in-person college education will probably still be "the best" education, and it will likely still be required of some people.  However, these experiments with massive online courses have shown that these can have a hugely positive impact.  These experiments have also shown that there are a rockstar professors can really make these classes work.
    I work at a public (land grant) institution of higher education(for now) and, while this might be disruptive to me personally, it's hard to see how bringing education to the masses can be anything other than a good thing.  Sure, the online education may only be 90% as good as a traditional college education -- but, if it allows people with families and jobs who didn't have the opportunity to pursue a traditional college education to better their knowledge and their communities, then it's an awesomely big win.

  • Wize Adz

    This is going to create more tiers of education.

    The in-person college education will still be "the best", and will likely still be required for those on the PHD track.  The experiments with massive online courses have shown that these can have a hugely positive impact, and there are a rockstar professors can really make these classes work.

    I work at a public (land grant) institution of higher education(for now), and this would be disruptive to me personally.  But, it's hard to see how bringing education to the masses can be anything other than a good thing.  Sure, the only education may only be 90% as good as a traditional college education -- but, if it allows people with families and jobs to better their knowledge and their communities, then it's a big win.

  • Tony

    Human beings represent all that is un-natural on this planet. Most of us care for solely ourselves because we either have it so good from the start that we never see the struggle, or we make it out and never look back at where we came from. We break the circle of life unlike any other species on Earth and continue to disregard the natural ways in which we survived before the technological boom. You are your brother's keeper, whether you like it or not. Think outside yourself and what is good for you. Unearth that sense of community. There is hope, have faith.

  • Numa Duma

     You analysis is without merit, To claim that Human beings are unnatural on this planet, exposes the fact that you might not be generally intelligent to the world natural. My simple question to you , Mr, Unnatural, what is natural to the planet. Your absence or your presence? To assume you have a clue what is good or bad to the extreme you profess, is borderline arrogant navel gazing.giving rhe notion that you infer that human beings are not welcome on your earth. Anyway, whatever , humans will continue to run the world, if they ruin it then it was supposed to be, Nothing is an accident or a mistake. If you do not like humans, fine , marry trees and animals or even the air. Don not go Loco and schizoid on the masters of the universe or you find your self straight jacketed in a 6x6 padded cell.juiced up yo your eyeballs and watched through a key hole