In Cisco’s Classroom Of The Future, Your Professor Is Just An Illusion
New telepresence software could let you take a class from anywhere and appear as if you’re in the classroom.
Full Story: FastCoExist
Cool. Yet, is it really cool? —Wright
Cool and not cool at the same time.
This kind of technology has tremendous possibilities, and not just for education. But sticking to education, it has the potential to have cross-institutional collaborations and make learning much more dynamic. Imagine if I could bring in a guest lecturer without having to fly him/her in. Imagine if two professors from different institutions could collaborative teach a course together, giving their students a shared experience. Imagine if students in China, the US, and Brazil could take a course on globalization simultaneously. That’s really cool.
But based on my experience in higher education, I know exactly how administrators will choose to use this technology: As a cost-saving device. Imagine 21st century technology being used to replicate static learning models. That’s basically the model. Let’s take one professor (perhaps someone with a great “brand” behind him/her) and have this person give lectures accessible to hundreds or thousands of students, on the cheap. The model presumes little interaction, little ability to discuss, and demands passive learning. You’ve taken 21st century technology and recreated the 19th century lecture and mashed it together with the early 20th century correspondence course. At some point, what distinguishes a “course” like this from a (carefully) curated series of TED talks? Or an audio (or, rather, video) book?
I currently teach a hybrid course that involves about half of my students being in another room at another (satellite) campus. Here’s the problem with that experience, and what is lost in the process: When I taught “intro to comparative” (POL 102) I mixed in lectures with small group discussions with in-class simulations with group projects. The dynamic nature of the class (strengthened simply by my being there) soon meant that we were all engaged in discussions. Because I am not there at the satellite campus, I can’t do any of the above (although I did try one group projects, with some success). If I do the interactive things with the students in front of me, I’m being grossly unfair to the other students. The simple and fair solution is to offer a “standardized” format to all students. This means lectures. And because the technology hasn’t really caught up to the vision, it means I have two choices: 1) Stand still and deliver a lecture or 2) Provide a voice-over for my PowerPoint presentation. I can’t do both. The screen is either on me or the PowerPoint (except for the students in my presence, who do get to see both me and the PowerPoint).
This produces two problems: If my presences as an instructor is reduced to a static lecture, with few (if any) questions, then the students would benefit more from my being able to carefully prepare, edit, and polish those lectures. Instead, I’m essentially giving about 27 live, differently scripted performances (that’s about one full television season, which also uses 50 minute blocks, except without any of the writers, editors, postproduction). If I focus on the PowerPoint presentation (which I did this semester), then the problem remains. Wouldn’t a carefully edited and polished video slideshow be better than a live PowerPoint presentation? In either case, a “taped” version of my lecture/slideshow would allow students to rewind, review, etc.
This semester, I even had two satellite campuses, with one single student at the third campus. That meant this student had absolutely zero interaction with any classmates. Other than the fact that this was a live performance, structurally this wasn’t any different from someone coming in on a set schedule to watch a one-hour program on a small screen in front of him. In the age of DVRs, we don’t even do that for quality television.
Don’t get me wrong: On the whole, my students (yes, including the satellite students) are pretty good. I’m not an easy grader (I do give a good number of Fs). But a lot of my students do seem to enjoy the course (or so they tell me) and they do well on most of the materials (and they’ve gotten progressively better each semester, I might add). The support staff that runs these “hybrid” classrooms is superb, and I would certainly flounder without them.
But let’s be honest. This is not teaching at its best. Perhaps it does provide better “access” to education (but so does Wikipedia, TED, etc.—and all without charging any tuition). But it puts the instructor in a pretty narrow straightjacket. Despite all the technology around me, I know that in that classroom I do my worst teaching. Don’t get me wrong. I try. I try really, really, really hard.
Perhaps some day the technology will overcome these obstacles. But it will require thinking about how these technologies can make learning truly more collaborative. Not how they can replicate the 19th century lecture and package it like a 20th century correspondence course.