Neo and the Modern University

Modern technology is rendering the brick-and mortar university obsolete says John Uebersax:

Consider the following. For any given subject (e.g., Psychology 101), there are, in any semester, hundreds of lecturers delivering the course worldwide. The quality of the lecturers will vary considerably. Some will be outstanding and inspiring; some will be bland, uninformed, and unintelligible. Exactly one of these courses will be the best; the rest will be inferior.

This is true, although it is a stretch to claim that there is a single, universally best lecture. There may be several lectures that are each best for different student bodies, each of which has different needs, goals, and backgrounds. The examples provided by one lecturer to illustrate a point may resonate strongly with one group and fall flat with another. On top of this, any given course taught at different universities will be structured differently, discuss different topics, and will satisfy different needs for both the major and for general education. Thus there is no canonical course (the Platonic Form of Psych 101) that we can compare across all universities, making it somewhat arbitrary to pick which one is best. Still, none of this goes against the main point of Uebersax’s argument: most university professors are not the best lecturers in their subject, and with modern technology, it is very likely that for most universities there is a better lecturer outside the university walls.

This type of argument is fine as far as it goes, but it draws on the ubiquitous view that teaching is synonymous with lecturing.  Ubersax recognizes other valuable roles for professors, but former students, and even many professors seem to believe in the Neo School of teaching, where learning is a matter of effective (and perhaps charismatic) information transfer:

Unfortunately, it is nearly as unrealistic to expect to learn just by watching a lecture as it is to learn by direct information upload. Learning requires being actively engaged with the material and receiving expert feedback on the mistakes made.  We should view professors not as a lecturers but as coaches, involved in both ground-level, meaningful contact with the students and in high-level strategic planning. At the high level, the faculty has learned to sift through the mounds of historical and contemporary scholarship and to select and distill  information to make it accessible to students. The faculty should also plan appropriate learning activities, which may well include requiring students to watch excellent lectures outside of class. At the ground level, the faculty should give regular, quick, and customized feedback, letting students know when their attempts at understanding the material have fallen short (and hopefully teaching students to eventually make this assessment on their own). Of course, it is clear that most professors do not teach this way.  Exploring the reasons for this is beyond the scope of this article, but the following are possible reasons why the Neo School is so prevalent:

  • apathy: lecturing is easy after the first couple times teaching a course,
  • time constraints: faculty have insufficient time to plan an effective course,
  • tradition: professors’ professors always lectured,
  • socialization: the safest way of getting tenure is unquestioningly doing what your senior colleagues are doing,
  • lack of training: few professors have ever learned how to teach,
  • financial constraints: lecturing is cheaper because it allows for higher student-to-faculty ratios, and
  • institutional expectation: the administration expects faculty to lecture for about an hour per week per credit hour.

In summary, this article has reached three conclusions:

  1. The traditional mode of teaching via lecturing (the Neo School) is inadequate.
  2. Faculty are responsible for creating courses that promote learning.
  3. Learning requires real interactions between teachers and learners (and this requires a sensible student-to-faculty ratio).

To be sure, effective teaching and learning requires much more, but these criteria are useful as a minimal litmus tests for proposed reforms in higher education.

In the interest of generating discussion, you are invited to answer the following questions:

  • Do you agree with these criteria?
  • If you are a student, how do your classes compare to the descriptions in this article?
  • How would these criteria apply to online learning?
  • How would these criteria apply to Western Governor’s University?
  • How do the criteria apply to other educational reforms you may have heard of? Does the litmus test seem to give sensible results?
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