Friday, February 21, 2014

Thank You For Saying It, Professor Lewis

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.


  1. (Agreeing with Lewis)
    Yes there are lecture classes where students don't talk much or at all.
    Yes online courses and lectures-on-line may enable students to not come to class.
    Yes mics don't pick up students questions that well (tip-- repeat the students question before answering it)

    However, the above three points are BAD. We should try to get people
    in lecture to talk more (smaller classes? Flipped classrooms? other innovations!) rather than say `well, the students are already far removed from the professor, so lets have them not ask questions while we are taping'

    Crossing a Rubicon? This seems to indicate that there was at one time a better time. But I read someplace (it might have been Excellence without a soul) that every generation things things were better in the last one
    (the particular issue was grade inflation). It may be wimpy but I say
    things weren't better, just different.

    1. I think it is by design that the mic doesn't pick up the students -- FERPA issues. Yes, I just have to remember to repeat the question -- but every time I do that it's a reminder to the class that they are not the whole class, so it's part of the problem I am worried about.

  2. I think the critical point is that Prof. New has been teaching the course to Harvard undergraduates for some time. She made pedagogical decisions that represented her best judgment about how to teach the course. Why then should she alter the course for undergraduates in order to film it? As Prof. Mary Lewis wrote so well, Harvard undergraduates deserve the best instruction, not instruction compromised by external requirements.

    1. To be fair, the argument goes that students get to use the high-quality videos too, some used off site and so on -- that is the everyone-wins argument.

    2. Harry, I don't think the claim that "everyone wins" holds up. Students do get to ask questions - eventually. But what happens to the questions that do not get answered because the context has passed? Students do get to watch high quality videos. But what they watch is not a class in which they participated, but rather a class to which they were silent witnesses. There's just no way to spin this.