FriendFeed and Twitter are a terrific source of articles about how New Media technologies are Changing Everything. The latest example is Sebastian Paquet’s The Fate of the Incompetent Teacher in the YouTube Era, in which he declares that the recorded lectures of Salman Khan are the beginning of the end for bad teachers:
Even assuming, conservatively, that Khan’s calculus videos are only slightly above average, roughly half the students taking calculus this semester would save time and pain by watching his lessons instead of paying attention to the mediocre teaching happening in front of them.
And I’m not talking about students who don’t have a teacher, or eager minds who are stuck in a class below their ability level. The latent demand for this kind of stuff is huge.
“But these are just videos, not a real flesh-and-blood person you can interact with!” True. But I maintain that a great video compares favorably with a live, but bad, teacher in a classroom setting. You can’t interact productively with a bad teacher anyway.
I’m less convinced. Nothing against Khan– I haven’t watched any of his lectures, to be honest– but this isn’t really anything new. Students have always had access to better explanations than are provided by bad teachers– they’re called “textbooks.”
The parallel isn’t exact– reading and listening are different learning styles, etc.– but the basic structure is similar. You have teachers who are inexperienced or just plain bad, but the students have access to a quality explanation written by experienced teachers and tested by use in tons of classrooms. So, why do we still have teachers, when students can simply learn from textbooks?
Because while there are plenty of examples of autodidacts who teach themselves some subject simply by reading books on the subject, for most people, the explanation is only a small part of the process of learning. Whether it takes the form of a lecture or a textbook, the “this is how it works” explanation is only the first small step. The really essential part of the educational process comes when students try to apply what’s been explained to new problems. Even a very good lecture just gives you the outline of the subject. To really understand something, you need to apply it.
That’s always the hard part. There are lots of very good books out there, most of them explaining their subjects significantly better than the average lecturer. We haven’t abolished classes in favor of self-directed textbook reading, though, because lecture isn’t where the heavy lifting is done. Most students learn more from taking courses than from reading on their own, because students taking a class are forced to do homework, while most students reading textbooks on their own don’t do the problems. This is even true of students “stuck in a class below their ability level.” I might go so far as to say that it’s especially true of those students– I haven’t been teaching all that long, but I’ve given a goodly number of B’s to students who felt the class was beneath them.
The vast majority of the students who say they aren’t learning because of incompetent teaching are lying. Mostly to themselves, but certainly to whoever they’re complaining to. I’ve been on both sides of the classroom, now, and looking back on my own education, I have to admit, I’ve done the same thing. Most of the times when I complained about the quality of the teaching, and blamed the professor for my failure to learn a subject well, the real blame fell on me– I was not putting in the necessary effort. More inspiring lectures might’ve created the illusion of greater understanding, but without putting in time and effort outside of class, the end result would’ve been no different.
So, while Sebastian waxes rhapsodic about the Shiny YouTube future, including gems like:
Some of the poor teachers will look so bad that their students will simply laugh and walk out if they can, or tune out if they can’t. They will only show up in class to get evaluated.
I am highly skeptical that this model will ever pan out. YouTube lectures may very well provide a useful supplement to some classes, but at the end of the day, lectures are a small part of the learning process. The number of students who will actually learn a subject primarily by watching video on the Internet is pretty small.