The Death of Teaching … and Birth of Learning

By Dan Butin and Sanjoy Mahajan

Forget disruption. This is the age of chaos in higher education. First MOOCs. Now Sweet Briar. Seemingly every day brings a new moment where we must confront the reality that we no longer know how to control nor predict what higher education will become. And with this lack of control comes a flailing for next steps, any steps, in an attempt to secure our future.

We suggest that there is a way to understand such chaos that can shed light on what we should do. Namely, what we are experiencing is the death knell of teaching. And what will determine the fate and role of colleges and universities in our society is whether we can transform the death of teaching into the birth of learning.

The abrupt closing of Sweet Briar College can be thought of as the extreme, though logical, response of an institution that could not—or did not want to—reinvent itself when confronted with an unsustainable business model of a tuition discount rate higher than its graduation rate. They could not envision a way to embrace a new-world educational model in their old-world setting.

And in a sense they are right, for online courses all too often feel more like mail-order education from the 1800s than the education revolution we have all been waiting for. Those big bad MOOCs, for example, first seen as disrupters of everything in their path, have instead fizzled out as they have turned out to be “Lectures-R-Us” scaled up online for millions to drop out of. They have revealed that most of what we consider as education—be it online or in that 200-person lecture hall in the regional or elite university down the road—is just the ping-pong transmission of information from professors’ PowerPoint slides to students’ lecture notes back onto the end-of-semester exam.

This is parrot learning. Our best students, from MIT on down, are really good at mastering the mechanics of getting the right answer, mimicking everything from the basics of the five-paragraph essay to the complexity of differential calculus. But force them out of such predefined patterns, and time and again, we watch our students flail at demonstrating the habits of mind and repertoires of action that would show that they have learned.

And that’s our best students. The truth is that colleges and universities have never been great at education. We are much better at choosing students already competent in such mechanics of mimicry and giving them four years to mature as they attend a potpourri of courses and a cornucopia of parties before they receive a diploma that signals their “success.” This “selection bias” effect is most clearly seen by the atrocious graduation rates at institutions outside the top tier and by recent research that makes clear how little most students learn in their years in college.

So the old-world model of teaching is unsustainable and the new-world model is sterile. The question is what is left.

What’s left is our commitment to helping students learn. For the death of teaching is upon us. Let’s call this the MOOCs 2.0 phenomenon. The underlying technologies—cloud computing, adaptive learning, learning analytics, the gamification of instruction, intelligent tutoring systems, stealth real-time assessment—have all dramatically improved. There is now enough research to demonstrate that online courses are comparable to face-to-face instruction. New-world teaching has become “good enough.”

So why hire an adjunct or graduate student to teach the exact same thing that can be delivered online by a Harvard professor for pennies to the dollar? MOOCs 2.0 can 1) dramatically decrease costs, 2) increase access, and 3) maintain the so-called quality we expect of higher education. This “iron triangle” of education—where you can seemingly only have two out of three—has been broken.

The rallying cry of the old-guard professoriate has traditionally been that if we could be replaced by a computer, then, by god, we should be. The problem is that if education is viewed solely as the adequate transmission of academic knowledge, then we will indeed be replaced. That’s because in the next few years, digital learning technologies will continue to dramatically improve and, we predict, become significantly better at such a transmission model of education. Many of us, whether we like it or not, will be out of a job. The closing of Sweet Briar just underscores that point.

But it is exactly in this moment where an answer may reside. For what has been missing from this entire story is the obvious yet profound realization that education is not the transfer of information but the transformation of knowledge. It is obvious in that this transformation is why we want to send our kids to those colleges with tree-lined academic quads. It is profound in that almost no one in higher education knows how to do this in any coherent or systematic or sustainable way.

Until now. For what we know (and what Sweet Briar intuitively knew as well but did not know how to act on) is that there is an upper limit to the power of technology. That limit is the “chasm of good enough.” Digital learning technologies will supplant much of the current stand-and-deliver models of education simply because they will be better at delivering and assessing specific academic content. But such technologies will never be able to jump the chasm from shallow to deep learning in order to foster those “aha” moments of insight or doubt. They will not be able to pinpoint that error in a student’s stream of thought and nudge them to think about the problem more systematically. Or point out the implications of the error (or solution) and its real-world impact. Or help reframe the problem entirely. Technology is a tool and cannot on its own support students’ careful analysis of and engagement with a complex and ill-structured world. That is what new-world faculty are for.

Unfortunately, most faculty today don’t jump this chasm either, for we have been far too focused on our own teaching rather than on students’ learning. And that is why we must embrace this technological revolution. For in the death of traditional teaching, we can begin to do our jobs by helping our students learn. Thus rather than curse technology and all that it represents, let us praise and foster its ability to transmit information so that we can help our students transform it into knowledge.

Dan Butin is associate professor and founding dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy. Sanjoy Mahajan is associate professor of applied science and engineering at Olin College and visiting associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.


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