Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The ever-threatened lecture

Storm clouds are gathering over university lecture theaters. Course materials are available online (eg MIT’s OpenCourseWare), and students are increasingly learning on the web. If everything you need is online, why sit in big room with two hundred sleepy colleagues at some ungodly early hour?

The economics are also ominous. Jonathan Aronson was explaining the financial side of universities to me the other day: the key, as I understand it, is short-changing freshmen and sophomores in order to teach seniors and graduate students. Professors spend very few hours per student on first- and second-years, so that they can give personal attention to more advanced students. The big bucks for Departments are in teaching large classes, so they pack them in tight.

This feels like a raw deal if you’re a freshman. Students have found an alternative. More and more undergraduates are enjoying the better student/teacher ratios in community colleges for a couple of years, and then transferring back to universities. If freshman enrollment tanks, university finances crumble.

That lectures are old-fashioned and that students dislike them is not a new insight; the dons in Cambridge figured this out in the middle of the 16th Century. In his wonderful imagined biography of Christopher Marlowe, Rodney Bolt writes

“Attitudes to study underwent a radical change in the years before Kit arrived [around 1580]. Instead of merely lamenting the fact that lectures were so poorly attended, the authorities addressed themselves to the reason for the decline, and realized (about 100 years after the event) that the accessibility of printed books meant that students were no longer reliant on lectures for basic information. This revelation led to a new approach in which college tutors (rather than lectures) played an increasingly important role in a student’s education …” [1]
Attendance at lectures is optional in Oxford and Cambridge to this day. The real teaching is done in one-on-few tutorials. It’s expensive, though, and few institutions can afford it – hence the large lecture theaters in most places.

The boom in online tutoring may bring the costs down. A Google search on the term “online tutoring” turned up more than 700,000 hits today. The kinks are being worked out with high school students and language learners. Global communications will push down the prices tutors can charge. Voice over IP will be key. Face-to-face interaction is impossible to replicate, but everyone has experienced the deep emotional engagement one can get with a telephone conversation; VOIP can make the connection even deeper by offering better-than-phone sound audio.

What remains of the university? The place itself and the students, I think. Cambridge didn’t dissolve into tutors scattered around the town, receiving students in their homes; the community of teachers and students living together continued. Though one can now network online as well as in the pub or common room, students and their parents will continue to pay over the odds for a place-centered, face-to-face experience and the social network it brings.

The future of professors and teaching assistants is less clear. Some resident scholars and a few academic celebrities will survive, and advanced teaching will be face-to-face. However, lecturing and entry-level tutoring will be outsourced off-campus. We may expect a painful transition a few decades as universities are hollowed out into a bi-modal age distribution: young students and old professors, with less and less on-campus work for graduate students and associate professors.

Replacing the old professors when they retire will be a challenge, since the young talent will have gone off to industry. There won’t be successors with academic track records ready to take over. Perhaps former post-grads will be lured back from commerce in their late forties to teach the next generation, thus providing a twist to the old Shavian quip:

Those who can, do. Those who have done, teach.

[1] Rodney Bolt, History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe, p 50