Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The rock star physics teacher

For several years I have been nurturing a vision of what education will look like in the next five to ten years. I call it the "rock star physics teacher" model. In a nutshell, I believe distance learning technology is going to completely change the structure of higher education.

In the current model, a college professor gets up in front of a group of students two or three times a week and delivers a lecture. He answers students' questions occasionally. If he's a really experienced teacher, he's delivered this same lecture many times before and knows it cold. Students sign up for the really popular teacher's class, the one who makes the material fun and interesting.

That's pretty much the way its been done for the last twelve hundred years or so. But there are three very powerful technologies that have emerged that could change all of that:
  1. Video. It is now possible to record lectures. That means that the teacher doesn't have to do the same lecture again and again, year after year; if the lecture is really good, and the production is well-staged, the recording can be an even better experience than sitting in the actual lecture hall. The only limiting factor on such technolgies was the technical difficulty of doing it, and the expense and inconvience of both the recording and playback.
  2. Broadband internet. The broadband internet removed most of the technological and economic barriers of creating and distributing video. Software is making it increasingly easier to edit and produce finished videos, and streaming technologies are making it possible to deliver it for a tiny fractor of the cost.
  3. Search engines. Even if you had great content, and a way to deliver it cheaply, you still needed a way to market it. People had to know your content existed. But the likes of Google, eBay, and Wikipedia have organized knowledge so thoroughly that it is becoming easy to find very good content in the most specialized of niches. Quality information on 18th century Flemish painting is less than one minute away from anyone with a computer these days.

So, now it is possible for a really, really good teacher to record and distribute his lectures, syllabi, teaching materials, and texts to anyone in the world, for very little money. Students could tune in and watch the lectures, and then attend an online chat session with other students and the teacher himself to do question-and-answer stuff. The professor is freed from having to give lectures all the time; he can spend most of his time in small groups and one-on-one interactions with students. Online tools can make it easier to administer tests, receive papers, and deliver feedback.

So, why does the professor need a university at all? Now it is possible for the professor to syndicate himself, to sell his teaching to any school or individual who wants it. Now there are strong economic incentives to have really good teachers, because now a teacher can sell himself to thousands or millions of students instead of just a few dozen at a time. Eventually "rock star teachers" emerge, whose teaching is so good and in demand that they become minor celebrities. It is conceivable that every physics student in the country might take their introductory lecture courses from the same teacher. Or, there might be niche specialist teachers, who make modest livings offering their obscure specialties to those who want them. They might only need 30 people taking their class to make a living -- but when you can draw on students from the whole world, it's not that hard to find thirty students, even for 18th century Flemish painting.

Universities are starting to pour lots of money into distance learning programs, because they are eager to tap a market that scales much larger than their physical facilities will allow. But I think the model will eventually erode the universities themselves. Universities will become more like publishers, and teachers more like writers or actors, free agents in an open marketplace.

I think all this will bring a huge renaissance in the art of teaching. Market forces will reward great teachers, and (perhaps more importantly) wipe out bad teachers.


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