Thursday, October 18, 2007

I am a curmudgeon (and so can you!)

Yesterday's NY Times carried a story about how Silicon Valley is once again booming, with market caps for internet-based companies outstripping revenues by enormous margins. The story poses the question whether this is just another bubble of the sort we saw in the late 90s, and thus doomed to burst, or whether the new paradigm has finally arrived. I lean strongly towards the first explanation, not because I don't think that the internet is a great new phenomenon, but because I think that its very newness makes accurate predictions almost impossible and to some extent, leads people to take leave of their senses.

For example, at a dinner party I attended last night, a historian whose work focuses on the early Renaissance made the following provocative and interesting claim: We are now going through a transition not unlike the one that occurred with the invention of print. At that time, university professors faced a crisis. With text now available to every student in their classes, the point of class could no longer be simply to read Virgil or some other classical author. There had to be some new justification for the class, and thus was born the lecture as we know it. Likewise today, with universities making lectures available over the web, we must come up with some new reason for students to attend our classes.

To be fair, the historian acknowledged that his argument applied mostly to large lecture classes in the humanities, but even in this domain, the claim seems to me far-fetched. Once printed books were widely available, the large lecture format was already a ridiculous means of imparting information. Just about anybody attending a university can read faster than a lecturer can talk, and so, without back-and-forth interaction, the large lecture is inferior to reading. Even if one thinks that there is something to be gained from listening as opposed to reading, relatively cheap forms of audio reproduction (e.g., cassette tapes) have been around for decades, without any noticeable effect on the way in which universities operate. Students go to class because of social norms (and in some instances mandatory attendance policies) requiring them to do so. (Except in my classes, where they happily attend to be dazzled by my ever-changing hypothetical conundrums. ;-) )

Does this mean that university education will never change substantially? Of course not. What it means, I think, is that the coming changes to university education---and to the way in which people will live more broadly---are nearly impossible to anticipate. Well, I should qualify that. It is possible to anticipate that some changes will not catch on. People who invested their life savings in Pets.com deserved what they got.

But with respect to other innovations, it's just very hard to predict which ones will take. It's too early to say that e-books will never replace paper. When someone invents an e-book reader that feels almost exactly like a book, can be produced cheaply, and is also edible (okay, it doesn't need to be edible), that product could replace paper books. For now though, I'll leave my paper copy of yesterday's NY Times under the Kozmo.com paperweight that I received free in 1999, when I ordered a rental video delivered to my door for less than Blockbuster charged in the store.

12 comments:

Derek said...

The degree to which we're committed to the lecture format is interesting. For my Bar Review course, I'm going to have to study via ipod since I'll be out of the country when classes are in session. People with whom I've discussed this almost universally think it's a bad idea, notwithstanding the fact that attending the Bar Review sessions in person involves absolutely no interaction with the teacher. In fact, I'm told that many students are simply placed in front of a TV to watch the lecture as it's being filmed in the next room.

The best answer I've gotten for why it's bad to skip the group lectures is that the social experience of learning with a large group of similarly positioned people is crucial for motivation and morale. There might be something to this.

Marc said...

I've always thought it worthwhile to go to class when I've liked something about the teacher -- his or her way of discussing a text or an idea, or of posing a question even if only to him or herself. Gifted lecturers have to be watched in person to get the real experience. Even if you listen to a recording of the lecture, it's just not the same as watching the creature in its natural habitat, doing its thing. No technology can reproduce it.

Sobek said...

"In fact, I'm told that many students are simply placed in front of a TV to watch the lecture ..."

That's how all of my bar review lectures were, because I did the evening lectures. Had I done them in the morning, maybe half would have been live, but even those would not have involved discussion.

I propose that the difference between a live lecture and a recorded one is like the difference between a play and a movie. It is very hard to explain why there is a clear difference, and yet there unmistakeably is one.

Carl said...

I propose that the difference between a live lecture and a recorded one is like the difference between a play and a movie. It is very hard to explain why there is a clear difference, and yet there unmistakeably is one.


Live lectures also afford you the opportunity to ask questions. Without the ability to interact with the instructor, I'd prefer to save time and just read a transcript. Learning at the speed of real life is pretty much unbearable when you're reduced to a passive observer.

egarber said...

I've got nothing constructive to offer here, but since I'm reminded of an Office episode, I'll rehash the scene:

Michael (the boss) visits a business school class as a guest speaker. (For those who don't know, Michael works for Dunder M, a paper company.)

A student says something like, "Sir, with technology and the internet, don't you think an old paper company becomes obsolete?".

Michael replies: "look, computers are fun for games like solitaire, but I'm gonna tell you something -- business is run on paper. You can write that down."

The camera then cuts to the students, who are making note of Michael's comments -- clicking away on laptops, not one of them writing on paper.

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