Monday, November 01, 2010

Online learning: the rock star tour

Over at The Chronicle, there's a special section on Online Learning. Some of the writers are all about "education should be free! cheap!"--but you'll have to take my word for it. Most of the section is behind the subscription wall. (Cue ironic Colbertian raising of one eyebrow here.)

A lot of it is stuff that bloggers have been talking about for a long time: don't use a technology unless there's a pedagogical reason for it. Lots of information is available online. Prepping and teaching an online course takes longer. These are all good ideas, and the articles are good, but you get the drift.

But I was fascinated by the commentary by Dalton Conley, vice provost and dean of the social sciences and a professor of sociology at New York University, who is out to sell a book (also not free). His piece is "Steal This Education: Abbie Hoffman said a revolutionary's first duty was to get away with it. Now you can." It's the old Abbie Hoffman "steal this book" argument, although I'm surprised he didn't bring up Matt Damon's speech in Good Will Hunting that says the same thing.

After Conley rehearses the same old, same old about how no one ever changes a lecture in 10 years and how useless it is to lecture in front of a class, he has this to say:
By freeing me from standing before 200 students to teach "Introduction to Sociology" each fall, the new project will allow me to spend some time at our study-abroad site in Florence for a weeklong workshop, then visit our Abu Dhabi campus, and perhaps stop at NYU in Shanghai for a third workshop before heading back to my curates in New York.
In short, it's online learning as a rock star tour.

Now what I want to know is this:
1. Does he have a concert rider that prohibits green M&Ms and specifies a pool table backstage at every concert?
2. Who grades all those papers?
3. "Curates"? What is he, the Pope?
4. Who pays for all that travel? NYU must be a rare, blessed island of academe with no money troubles.

More seriously, think about it this way: if teachers are indeed like rock stars where short bursts of impersonal attention will suffice, then maybe he's right. After all, wouldn't that put education on the model of listening to music at home and then going to the occasional concert? Why do people go to concerts, anyway, if they can get the music at home? Isn't it to share an experience? Doesn't the fact that the person is in the room make any difference?

But what if you're one of those students in a large lecture that wants to walk down the stairs and speak to him after class? Do you then say "Wow, I can't wait to ask him this question when he's here on April 25?" Or do you just email him and get a curatorial reply?

Thoughts?

[Edited to add: If you're going to do online education and build the university's brand, this would be a good way to do it, I guess. I just took exception to the idea that it was necessarily a better way than being there in person.]

4 comments:

reassignedtime said...

What's unclear to me (from your description; I couldn't be bothered to go read it) is how this model gets us away from "lecturing" (or at least a banking concept way of communicating material to students) or how it does anything to make sure that teachers are changing up their courses. In my experience, online delivery methods encourage an instructor *not* to modify her course once it's up and running - that's where the pay-off in online teaching is: increased prep time on the front end and then the course "runs itself" for a few or 10 years thereafter to make up for that huge front-end investment. (Not saying that all people do that, or that it's the best way to teach online, but I do think that is how it often works out in practice.) His world tour sounds a whole heck of a lot like David Lodge's version of academic life in *Changing Places* and *Small World*.

Bardiac said...

I want a world tour! But I like green M&Ms!

I think the "curates" are the priests who did the actual parish work while the rector was off in his main parish, since he had the living of several parishes, no? So, he's going to occasionally visit the adjuncts? TAs? who are doing the work of grading and answering questions, while he goes off and wanders the world.

I think you're critique is on the mark. My sense is that programs that can charge a bigger amount for online courses will use that to make as much money as possible, and largely figure that the students taking them won't get much anyway (in terms of networking, learning to talk with folks, that sort of thing). But as long as it brings in plenty of money, then they can eventually just have the grading drones, because we'll all use lectures delivered by some famous guy X, even years after famous guy X is long dead. :(

undine said...

Dr. Crazy, I don't think it does get us away from a lecturing/banking model. It just moves that model into a more overt performance mode, as far as I can tell. I agree about changing a course once it's set: the incentive may not be there AND the gurus who run the online part might not allow it, as Clio Bluestocking wrote about some time ago. Maybe David Lodge wasn't a satirist but a prophet.

Bardiac, that's it exactly. I thought "curates" was an interesting word because--well, talk about anointing yourself the high priest of knowledge! Yes, he's going to visit occasionally while building the NYU brand (my words, not his) and enhancing his status abroad.

Ink said...

I can't stop thinking about this. I think that some profs now are still lecture-centric and often have TAs to grade the papers. So those things are still going on. (Not in our department, it should be noted, where we grade all papers ourselves and are forbidden to make any tests that would be scantronnable, which I think might be a kind thing to offer once in awhile, actually.) But this does sound like a wholly new DISTANT interaction experience for students.