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Remember, back in school, that professor who was an absolute genius but couldn't teach his way out of a paper bag?
And did you ever have a teacher who was truly masterful at transferring his or her knowledge to you?
There is a wide chasm between lecturing and actual teaching. The current cultural fascination with online education and MOOCs ignores a stinky, slobbering elephant in the room: online classrooms -- inherently lacking that human touch -- have great potential to further reduce the quality of the actual learning that happens among students.
Admittedly, online education is still riding a bubble of praise. Some people praise free online campuses such as Khan Academy. But after watching a few dozen of their recorded lectures, I found them immensely dry. The more difficult the subject matter, the harder it was to focus and really LEARN. This ultimately dooms the pendulum from swinging wildly towards recorded online lectures, for the purposes of teaching complex, collegiate subjects.
And what about fascinating organizations such as TED? Surely TED's success guarantees that online education will someday replace in-person classes! It seems like everyone I know has praised a TED Talk. If you have, think deeply about what really made the TED Talk magical. Sure, the presenter was engaging and the graphics may have been slick. But the most critical piece of a compelling TED Talk is the subject matter's innate "interesting-ness" -- the most viewed TED Talks are about unfairly fun topics such as Sixth Sense Technology, How Schools Kill Creativity, and The Science of Happiness. I call these topics "unfairly" fun because the average MIT professor does not have the luxury of always teaching intriguing topics -- someone has to teach undergrad accounting, calculus and biochemistry. And there are exactly zero TED talks on these subjects. So, even the legendary TED Talk is not a panacea for us to strive towards.
What do real MIT students say about what they want in a classroom? Check out the attached survey, where MIT students were asked about "Factors Used to Decide on Lecture Attendance" (source: http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/184/breslow.html). Three of the top four reasons for ditching class have to do with a subpar professor:
(1) Poor Quality/Clarity of Lectures
(2) Lack of Relevant Examples
(3) Lecturer's Inability to Engage/Entertain
Simply moving to online education will not solve these paramount problems, and it may make them worse.
If MIT wishes to dominate the online education space, we must make sure that our professors TEACH not just LECTURE. Globally, we must bring the following core values to our EdX platform:
(1) Train and Incentivize MIT Professors to Teach Better
-- There are many books out there on honing your craft as a teacher, so I will not bore you with recommendations. Suffice it to say that even the DRIEST of school subjects can be taught in an engaging fashion. I am a Sloan alum from 2004, now a sales & marketing executive at a large standardized test preparation firm. I have taught GMAT courses to thousands of pre-MBAs at Goldman Sachs, Google, and McKinsey. Employing timeless principles of engaging teaching, I get overworked investment bankers, engineers, and management consultants to eat out of the palm my hand, because their brains literally hurt from all the learning done in our classroom. And they absolutely love it (references here: http://www.linkedin.com/in/ericjcaballero/), despite the boring subjects tested on the GMAT.
-- Set up a formal teacher training program, where part of a professor's bid for tenure is dependent on student evaluations. This avant-garde idea is not new but yet has, sadly, never been seriously considered by any Ivy League institution; but change is about to be thrust upon them. As quality education becomes more available to the masses online, higher education will become more of a buyer's market than at any other point in human history. Combine that possibility with the proliferation of professor rating websites, and you have a recipe where college applicant rockstars will be empowered to make informed predictions about how well they will actually LEARN at different universities. And if it's a close call between choosing MIT or another top institution, our teaching reputation may put us over the edge.
(2) Insist on a High Degree of Interaction
-- Every online student must have their microphone ready at all times and a lot of cold-calling should occur per session.
-- Whenever possible, Professors should foster cross-communication between students. For example, when Student A asks a question, Professor X should see
whether Student B can help answer it. The less a Professor talks, and instead gets all students involved as co-teachers, the better.
(3) Be Student-Centered
-- When about to teach a powerful lesson (or deliver a punchline to a quant problem), don't just give the answer away. Employ savvy Socratic questioning, that empowers the students to figure it out themselves. If the professor always dictates the light bulb moment, the student will be less prepared to create their own light bulb moments during their final exam, when they are left alone to their thinking. A good coach at the gym, while spotting you on the bench press, should allow you to struggle significantly with the weight, the entire time, not make things easy on you. Mind muscles work the same way.
-- Build in flexibility into the daily curriculum. It should not be about getting through every single PowerPoint slide. Allow the class to adjust the flow (a bit) to their pace and their interests. Read/poll the (virtual) room. My worst professors always failed to do this.
-- When a student brings up a counterpoint that the professor cannot sufficiently answer, the professor ought not fake it and stumble through a desperate response. Instead, a great professor confesses that he does not know the answer, gives public praise to the student who stumped him, and asks whether anyone in the classroom may know the answer. This is teaching tactic is immensely empowering for students but one that is used by less than 1% of professors, I imagine.
If MIT will focus on delivering a truly extraordinary LEARNING experience online -- and not focus solely on the widgets of the technology platform or the lecturer's impressive resume -- then MIT will offer amazingly compelling online courses, where Harvard, Stanford and all others will fail to do so. And that may turn out to be a wildly disruptive game changer for our beloved alma mater.