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Thanks for the techno-fix!

March 7, 2013

8206217650_df55272d4cHis condescension is astounding. Not to mention his apparent ignorance about the real obstacles to better university teaching. In his column in yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman kindly informs us that MOOCs (massive open online courses) will finally force professors to improve their pedagogy.

“Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of ‘time served’ to a model of ‘stuff learned.'”

“The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.”

Friedman seems to think that most university classes today consist of a drab professor droning on from yellowed notes, while bored students nod off while staring at the clock. That’s a fun stereotype, and maybe some faculty still teach that way. There’s certainly a lot of room for improvement. But the university landscape is extremely diverse, and my guess is that for every “sage on the stage” there are many more instructors who give dynamic interactive lectures and push their students to become actively involved in classroom discussion.

I agree with Friedman that good pedagogy emphasizes learning by doing. Or as Friedman puts it, with characteristic job-market anxiety, “The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know.” Whether the course is microbiology or ancient philosophy, students learn best through exploring how and why knowledge makes a difference in the world. But that isn’t news to most faculty.

There is also much to say, as Friedman insists, for a “blended model” that “flips the classroom” by asking students to watch online lectures at home, thus freeing up time for more discussion in the classroom.

But the notion that MOOCs are the solution to our alleged pedagogical malaise is not only insulting, it also amounts to a naive techno-fix that distracts from more fundamental obstacles to improved pedagogy. As in an earlier column on this subject, Friedman says nothing about the massive defunding of public higher education, the replacement of tenure-track positions with second-class contingent faculty appointments, or the economic burdens on many students that require them to work long hours at low-paying jobs, thus having less time for study.

Addressing those issues would do a lot more to improve university pedagogy than Friedman’s breathless bluster about canned online lectures by a few superprofessors.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    March 7, 2013 10:09 AM

    I’m always amused by the “wow, we can watch lectures at home” because of computers argument. We have had TVs, VCRs, and DVDs for years and there is a reason they have not become a core pedagogical tool. If this approach worked, students would have already been buying cheap, burned DVDs from their bookstores for years.

  2. Ben permalink
    March 7, 2013 3:50 PM

    Though I’m glad you’ve engaged with these arguments to refute them, one thing needs to be mentioned: This is Thomas Friedman we’re talking about. Subject of this particular torching:

    Like Marx said of Proudhon, the solution for him does not lie in public action but in the dialectical rotations of his own head.

    • March 7, 2013 4:17 PM

      Thanks. I like the point about Friedman’s penchant for mixing metaphors.

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