I’ve read a tremendous number of blog posts and articles about teaching in the past few months (I have a list of 27 just on MOOCs that I want to blog about). One article that particularly resonated with me was from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in the column “The Conversation”: Teaching ‘By Hand’ in a Digital Age by Joseph Harris, who teaches writing at Duke. He gives an anecdote about memorable feedback he got in freshman English, and points out the importance of this direct interaction. He ends with the following remark:
The key right of any learner is to the attention of his or her teacher. As my friend Eli Goldblatt says, “We teach by hand”—by which I take him to mean that we teach not subjects or courses but individuals. I suspect we still need to figure out how to offer online learners that sort of care and responsiveness.
In my own thinking about the value of university education and what R-1 research universities like the University of California have to offer undergrads, I’ve come to the conclusion that MOOCs and mega-lecture courses are not what a UC education is about. The value we have to offer is in high-contact courses, where undergrads work closely in labs, seminars, and individual research with faculty and active researchers. I have been shaping what I do at the University to increase the availability of such high-contact education—the very opposite of the administrative push for more on-line courses.
The applied circuits course I created and taught this year is a good example—I designed and taught the course to center around design experience in the labs, not lecture delivery, exams, or problem sets. It required me to spend time with the students in the lab to find out what their misconceptions were and what concepts they were having a hard time converting into practice. It also required me to model debugging and engineering thinking—”try it and see” became a mantra for the class. I don’t think that even very good MOOCs like MIT’s circuits course provide the necessary interaction with the students that changes the way they think. The MOOCs may work well for students who already have the desired mindset and just need to learn the theory and do some problem sets, but I don’t see them as having a transformative effect on the students.
The senior thesis seminar I’ve been doing this quarter has a similar high-contact component: I am reading 5 drafts each of 13 senior theses, providing detailed written feedback on each one, plus meeting with each student individually for half an hour each week (to practice 2-minute elevator talks, discuss their writing and their research, and just chat about the job market, grad schools, the undergrad curriculum or other topics that interest them).
While these two courses are valuable, I was reaching students only in their senior year (though the circuits course should get juniors and some sophomores in future years). That is one reason I helped the Biomedical Engineering Society create a freshman design seminar for next year, so students in their first year would not get lost in the 200–400-student mega-lecture courses, and come away thinking that MOOCs would be a better deal than the University.
Teaching by hand is hard work, time-consuming, and expensive. It does not scale up to 1000s of students the way passive transmission of information through online video does. I doubt that I can convince the UC administrators and my colleagues that this hand-crafted education is the very soul of the university, and that their attempts to gain greater efficiency through larger and larger courses is dooming the University to irrelevance. As long as they are focused more on cash flow and degree completion than on the educational effect on the students, I don’t think that we can even have a meaningful conversation.
I’ll keep teaching these “boutique” courses, though, and will encourage others to create unique courses of their own.