The Crimson reported a few days ago that Harvard was now teaching a poetry course in which students were not allowed to ask questions for the first hour, so as not to interfere with the filming for the HarvardX version of the course. On reading that I had a momentary reaction, a vague sense that Harvard had crossed some educational Rubicon, and that sometime in the future someone would point to this little article as a hinge point in the history of higher education.
But I pulled back, for a variety of reasons. There are lots of lecture courses in which students do not ask questions anyway. This professor was making a point of having a much livelier conversation with the undergraduates for half an hour after the recorded portion of the lecture, which is a lot more than I or many of my colleagues do. I do my own experiments in online instruction, through the Extension School, which makes video recordings of my lectures available to distance students, and while I don't discourage questions (and my mic doesn't pick up students' voices very well), I am conscious of small changes in my teaching style---there are certain kinds of jokes I will risk making in a class that is not recorded that I won't make when the lecture will wind up on the Internet. Reports are that the poetry course is fabulous, and the production values are very high; as an example of questionable pedagogy, many other courses would be better targets. And I may also have hesitated a bit because the professor is married to Larry Summers, and I was not confident that my judgment was impartial.
So I let it go; maybe there is no Rubicon there. Maybe we crossed it years ago. Maybe this is just a streamlet and the big river crossing is yet to come. Or maybe there is no discontinuity at all, and the various instructional modes will all wind up complementing each other in the best possible way once a few experiments have been evaluated.
But when Professor Mary Lewis (no relation) wrote in this morning's Crimson, "surely the world’s best and brightest students don’t compete mightily to get into Harvard only to become mere backdrops to Harvard’s world stage," it sounded right, and I was glad she said it. She reminds me that my own decision to start teaching a flipped-classroom course, rather than trying to go the MOOC route, was in part a reaction to my fear of MOOCification, and was driven by the rewards I get from hearing chatter in the classroom, from bantering with students, from seeing light bulbs lighting up over their heads. "[W]e need a college-wide discussion," Professor Lewis goes on to say, "of how to maintain our pedagogical values in the brave new world of online education." Amen.