Friday, December 14, 2012

The Eugen Weber Paradox

If you follow education at all, you've probably heard about the rise of online courses and their potential for reinventing the way we teach. The idea is that we can make lectures from the best schools in the world available through YouTube or some similar platform. It's not a bad idea, but before we start talking about how much this can change the world, consider the following more-serious-than-it-sounds point.

Let's say, if we're going to do this, we do it right. Find an world renowned historian who's also a skilled and popular lecturer, shoot the series with decent production values (a couple of well-operated cameras, simple but professional pan and zoom), just polished enough not to distract from the content.

And if we're going to talk about democratizing education, let's not spend our time on some tiny niche course like "Building a Search Engine." Instead, let's do a general ed class with the widest possible audience.

If you'll hold that thought for a moment...

A few years ago, while channel surfing in the middle of the night, I came across what looked like Harvey Korman giving a history lesson. It turned out not to be Korman, but it was a history lesson, and an extraordinarily good one by a historian named Eugene Weber, described by the New York Times as "one of the world’s foremost interpreters of modern France." Weber was also a formidable teacher known for popular classes at UCLA.

The program I was watching was “The Western Tradition,” a fifty-two part video course originally produced for public television in 1989. If you wanted to find the ideal lecturer for a Western Civ class, it would probably be Eugen Weber. Like Polya, Weber combined intellectual standing of the first order with an exceptional gift and passion for teaching. On top of that, the Annenberg Foundation put together a full set of course materials to go with it This is about as good as video instruction gets.

All of which raises a troubling question. As far as I know, relatively few schools have set up a Western Civ course around "the Western Tradition." Given the high quality and low cost of such a course, why isn't it a standard option at more schools?

Here are a few possible explanations:

1. Medium is the message

There are certain effects that only work on stage, that fall strangely flat when there's not an audience physically present in the room. Maybe something similar holds with lectures -- something is inevitably lost when moved to another medium.

2. Lecturers already work for kind words and Pez

Why should administrators go to the trouble of developing new approaches when they can get adjuncts to work for virtually nothing?

3. It's that treadmill all over again

You probably know people who have pinned great hopes on home exercise machines, people who showed tremendous excitement about getting fit then lost all interest when they actually brought the Bowflex home and talking about exercise had to be replaced by doing it. Lots of technological solutions are like that. The anticipation is fun; the work required once you get it isn't.

This is not a new story. One of the original missions of educational TV back in the NET days was to provide actual classroom instruction, particularly for rural schools.* The selection was limited and it was undoubtedly a pain for administrators to match class schedules with broadcast schedules but the basic idea (and most of the accompanying rhetoric) was the same as many of the proposals we've been hearing recently.

Of course, educational television was just one of a century of new media and manipulatives that were supposed to revolutionize education. Film, radio, mechanical teaching machines, film strips and other mixed media, visual aides, television, videotape, distance learning, computer aided instruction, DVDs, the internet, tablet computing. All of these efforts had some good ideas behind and many actually did real good in the classroom, but none of them lived up to expectations.

Is this time different? Perhaps. It's possible that greatly expanded quantity and access may push us past some kind of a tipping point, but I'm doubtful. We still haven't thought through the deeper questions about what makes for effective instruction and why certain educational technologies tend to under-perform. Instead we get the standard ddulite boilerplate, made by advocates who are blissfully unaware of how familiar their claims are to anyone reasonably versed in the history of education.

* From Wikipedia
 The Arkansas Educational Television Commission was created in 1961, following a two-year legislative study to assess the state’s need for educational television. KETS channel 2 in Little Rock, the flagship station, signed on in 1966 as the nation's 124th educational television station. In the early years, KETS was associated with National Educational Television, the forerunner of the current PBS. The early days saw black-and-white broadcasting only, with color capabilities beginning in 1972. Limited hours of operation in the early years focused primarily on instructional programming for use in Arkansas classrooms

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