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If We Profs Don't Reform Higher Ed, We'll Be Re-Formed (and we won't like it)

If We Profs Don't Reform Higher Ed, We'll Be Re-Formed (and we won't like it)


Although normally a pretty upbeat and optimistic person, I end a lot of my different talks these days with a pretty scary, even dystopic slide:    "IF WE PROFS CAN BE REPLACED BY A COMPUTER SCREEN, WE SHOULD BE.”


That gets people’s attention.   And it makes people mad.   My meaning is often misunderstood at first—and that’s what I want.  I want profs in the audience to be outraged that I’m saying they can be replaced by a computer screen.   And, if they think they are not replaceable by a computer screen, I want them to articulate why. 


If they can make a good case for what they add, then my conditional statement is answered negatively:   No, I cannot be replaced by a computer screen because of . . .       Making that case accurately and persuasively (to the public, to legislators, to donors, and mostly to our students)  is the single most important thing any professor can do because, if we don’t, it will be made for us.  And we won't like the result. 


*   *   *

At the end of this post, I'll include some positive ideas for what we can do to address the issues of higher education reform, on an individual classroom level and on a larger institutional one.  I'll include a few examples and some links.   But most of this blog explains the "why we'll be replaced by a computer screen" part of this conditional.  To simply claim "online education is bad" does not help make a case.  This is an attempt to add some texture and depth to the conversation.


There are at least four reasons why, now, a lot of attention is being paid to replacing profs with computer screens.


(1)  Too many students worldwide want to go to college to be able to accommodate them all.  This is one of the valid and important reasons for Massive Online Open Education.   There is simply no way that existing institutions of higher education worldwide are designed to meet the needs of millions of people who need the advanced skills, training, and complex thinking that higher education offers and that our digital age demands.  The worldwide baby boom makes the numbers too larger and current costs make education prohibitive for millions of potential students.  MOOCs could (and this is a provisional, the jury is still out) could help address a world-wide educational shortage that many of us have been predicting for decades.  In India, for example, of the 500,000 students qualified to take the entrance exams for the national system of Indian Institutes of Technology, only 2% get in.  Scores for many of the rejected students gain them admittance into Ivy League schools in America.   But this is only an option for the top-scoring students and the wealthiest ones.  China’s top university, Peking University, has a .5 percent acceptance rate (compare that to Harvard’s 5.9 percent acceptance rate). ( http:// )    Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs) is partly designed for a worldwide community of qualified students desperate for a higher education but to whom it is not available in other forms.   For those students, a computer screen offers hope of a college degree they have no chance of obtaining otherwise.   


MOOCs have the potential (if we do it well) for making higher education available globally to those who cannot afford it.  In this particular sense, MOOCs are not a threat to conventional U.S. brick-and-mortar education.  They offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits.  Is it the best form?  Is it truly interactive?  Does it decenter learning in the way contributive knowledge-sharing sites such as Wikipedia do or does it simply reinforce the hegemony of elite professors at elite U.S. schools?   Those are all valid but different questions we need to be asking.


(2)  College in the U.S. costs too much.   There is some truth and then a lot of hype about how MOOCs will "solve" the problem of education in the U.S. costing too much.  To date, it is hard to see how MOOCs will do anything to reduce the cost of U.S. education although, implicitly, that is what is being promised.  Far too much of the MOOC conversation mixes apples and oranges.  We need to be careful to separate out the different reasons for the high cost of higher education today.  For public universities, a good part (but not the whole) of the reason for exploding and prohibitive tuition costs is we’re no longer willing to subsidize public education as much as we once were as a society.  This is true for K-12 as it is for higher education.  Lower taxes mean less money for education.  But lower support rates for public education are not the only reason for high costs.  We also have, since World War II, transferred research costs from industry to the federal goverment and to higher education.  Much of higher education is built on research cost recovery.  As federal dollars dwindle, higher education is left with more and more of the bill for research efforts, especially in basic research, that, in the end, are necessary to a technological society and an expanding economy.   Those costs have been defrayed by higher tuitions.  In addition, good education is a craft and is a very expensive proposition and, in the U.S., elite private education costs a lot because expectations for what it provides (from research and travel oppotrunities to amenities to sports teams) are at an all-time high.  People complain about the cost of private universities, but the waiting lists for elite private high schools that feed into elite private universities is longer than ever and tuition at the top ones is just about the same as at elite universities, in the 30K+ range, even without the whole apparatus of the research university.    The tuition cost of elite colleges is actually rising less or comparable to other elite services for the 1% (tax lawyers, hedge fund managers, country club fees, plastic surgeons, orthodontists).  However, for the rest of us, college costs too much.  MOOCs are, at present (but probably not for long), a way around those costs for some people who cannot afford to go to college.  Whether a degree from a MOOC will yield the same lifelong employment benefits as a degree from brick-and-mortar college is yet to be determined.  And sometimes the education on line is of abyssmal quality--but so is some face to face education.


College in the U.S. costs too much for many people--and sometimes it is well worth it, and sometimes not:  Is online education as satisfying as taking a class face to face?  Depends on the class.  I loved my HTML5 class from Udacity. And the individualized machine-generated feedback in the statistics class offered by Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative was superb and inspiring.  Here’s an open secret:  many doctoral students enroll in the statistics courses required by their programs, courses taught by dull and uninspiring lecturers, but then take the free OLI statistics course, which is strategic and problem-based and graduated to one’s skills.  They then ace the final exam in their actual program (the one for which they pay tuition).  The prof thinks he’s a genius, but he’s been replaced by a computer screen.  But what about the humanities, you might say.  They cannot be replaced by a computer screen.  Well, a busy university-based psychiatrist friend swears by the “Difficult Poetry” MOOC he is taking for personal pleasure, writing the papers, offering feedback back on papers by his peers.  It makes the morning commute sail by.  If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be. We need to acknowledge that, maybe even embrace it, work with the machine not, in knee-jerk fashion, against it.  In certain circumstances, with certain kinds of learning, including integration of ubiquitous learning into the routines of our everyday lives, online education can be transformative. 


(3) Online education promises to be lucrative to for-profit institutionsOkay, this really worries me.   One of the prime motivators for the MOOC conversation right now is that a lot of investors are interested in it---and not for valid educational reasons and not for reasons of quality and experiment and interactivity but because it is seen as the next frontier of high-yield (and often goverment subsidized) investment, the way prisons were in the 1990s.  Another reason we profs should be worried, very worried, is that, right now, Forbes and lots of other business venues are convinced that online education is the next rich investment area.


Many existing for-profits, online and face-to-face,  have already used Pell grants to their advantage. But for-profits have been under a lot of scrutiny lately from the Obama administration and some investors think MOOCs might be the next big thing, now that for-profits are being regulated and watched scrupulously.  The Harkin Commission on for-profits reveals stunning, damning numbers.  There’s been pushback on those by for-profits, but not any significant refutation.  As a rule, they cost more than public education, result in more debt, and have a lower graduate rate.  Yet our taxes supported $5.4 billion in Federal Pell grants for public institutions but a whopping  $7.5 billion to for-profit colleges.    Because the Obama administration is tightening rules on how tax dollars go to for-profits, many investors are looking next at online education.  Those are the same folks who finance political campaigns.  They have power.  They have pull.   If we do not make the case for what we do to the public, we will be replaced by computer screens.  Because there is a lot of effort in that direction from powerful sectors.   But even for-profits exist for one valid reason:  many of the kinds of courses offered by for-profit universities are not now offered by universities, colleges, or community colleges.  Or they are offered but community colleges cannot accept all those who would like to take them.  No matter how good a business proposition, no matter how persuasive their recruiters (and for-profits spend an outsized amount on publicity and recruitment), for-profits would not exist if students could get the same education for the same many elsewhere.  In many cases, they cannot.  Many of the newest fields (such as an array of Web design and data-base courses that most university-based Computer Science departments consider beneath them) and the fields where there is a crucial job shortage (such as home health care) simply are not offered or available at public universities.  If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be. 


(4)  Our current educational system (kindergarten through professional school) is outmoded.    I believe the principal reason that we profs need to articulate what we do well and why we do it is because, in many cases, we are not very convincing and we need to “heal ourselves.”   By that I mean, there are lots of bad and scary external reasons we will be replaced by online education and for-profits if we do not articulate our mission well, but the scariest is internal, not external.  We have a crazy, indefensible system of often senseless and disconnected distribution requirements; we have rigid majors and minors which serve the professional careers of lots of distinguished professors but often are not current and do not prepare students for their futures instead of our past; we tend to do a very poor job of helping students learn how to learn (a complex skill demanded by a world of rapid change where, according to the U. S. Department of Labor Statistics, Americans now change careers—not jobs but careers—four to six times); we often have students work in collaborative teams (including in labs), but rarely spend time on the kind of management training that, in the business world, we know collaboration demands; we often cut costs by lecturing to massive numbers of students even though we know that, although the best lectures can be inspiring, even those have a very low retention or applicability rate; and we have a ridiculous form of assessment (the multiple choice test) that undermines a lot of the platitudes we espouse about individualized face-to-face learning.  (For an excellent adaptation of the multiple choice test to better learning, see Jonathan Sterne’s ingenious workaround: )  I know English Departments that have lost 50% of their majors and have responded by making their majors even less relevant, more requirement-bound than before.  You can look at the catalog and have no idea the Internet was ever invented.  On the other hand, I know Computer Science departments that also act as if the Internet hasn’t been invented. 


If we can be replaced by a form of education more suited to the real needs of students in 2013, we should be.   And I don’t just mean technical skills but social and intellectual and crosscultural, creative, inspiring interactive learning for lifelong success in any and every field.  


I believe all educational is vocational. It is the responsibility of educators in every field to take seriously their role in supporting students in their quest for their vocation.   A “vocation” is a “call, a summons” and Wikipedia defines it as “an occupation to which a person is specially drawn and to which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified.” It should be my job as an educator to do everything I can to help my students to a satisfying, socially-constructive, and fulfilling vocation.

Unfortunately, the organization of most universities has, traditionally, been about my vocation as a professor, not my students'. One positive benefit I see from the exponential rise of for-profits and from MOOCs is that it does make us justify and explain what we do and how we do it.  That means,  more and more of us who care about teaching are finding that our universities, too, are placing increasing emphasis on that component of our contribution.  But we still have far, far to go in transforming the scattered requirements and the sometimes thoughtless-pedagogy that organizes university teaching on a macro- and micro- level, on the level of requirements to graduation and on the level of how we teach in individual classes.

*   *   *   *

Because this is a pretty negative piece, I want to end with a positive.   All around me, I find amazing, truly amazing, professors and amazing universities (not all of them top-ranked), that are experimenting with new ways of organizing curricula and new modes of teaching.  These are individuals, groups, networks (like the 10, 000 people now on, institutions, and organizations (MLA, for goodness sakes, is a leader here!) that everyday show not only that universities and professors cannot be replaced by computer screens but, indeed, one function we serve is to help our students (and one another) navigate the exciting and perilous new worlds of being present and represented online in a new form of interactive, contributive, connected global virtual and actual culture.   The "hybrid pedagogy" (yes, that's a shout out to our friends at Hybrid Pedagogy) of our lives means that, face to face, we can strategize the best new ways of learning, sharing our knowledge, and having an impact in the world beyond the university.


I have spent the last 18 months almost constantly on the road, visiting schools, universities, colleges, community colleges, for-profits (there are some good ones, some bad), organizations, science centers, humanities centers, corporations, nonprofits, and departments of education around the world.   To list every great person, course, program, center, or institution I've encountered would take days, maybe weeks.  It's inspiring.   All of them understand the new challenges of living in a connected interactive age.  None of them is replaceable by a simple computer screen.  All are taking seriously the challenge of teaching to the future, not to the professoriate's past.

At Carroll University in Wisconsin, for example, I was excited to find that “culture” and “cross culture awareness” have been embedded into the design of all courses, from freshman composition to the array of health and medicine courses that are the hallmark of that university.   Its enrollments are rising while other schools in the area are falling, and I wonder if it isn’t because it has found the key to the arbitrary and self-defeating divide between STEM and society (as if science and technology can ever be practiced without an awareness of cultural imperatives, histories, traditions, and prejudices).   And I have to admit that I am very proud, myself, to teach at a university that offers many different ways for students to engage research, to apply what they learn in class in real world settings, and that rewards teaching as well as publication.   Lots do.  We have to do a far better job of showing what and how not only to the public and to parents and donors—but to the students themselves and to one another.    

If you are doing something exciting in your classes or at your university, I hope you will let us know.  We need to share this information.


In the meantime, here are some links to some of the collaborative, connected, peer-to-peer methods I’m trying out in my classes, some of them adapted from management training workshops I've been part of to intellectual collaboration in the classroom:

 Guidelines for Peer-to-Peer Feedback:


Guidelines for In Class Public Student Blogging:


Sample Contract for Contract Grading:


And the ongoing public blog our students are contributing to the class I’m co-teaching with Dan Ariely,  “Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social History.”


Join us!   And see what happens over the course of the semester.  We’ve designed this class as a “Meta-MOOC,” a class about what and how one would take content and turn it into a public online course.  The students are in charge, thinking about what they think an education is, how they can turn content into learning, and how they might assess the result.   We hope you will contribute.  We hope you will participate in this journey. 





Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 10,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :




Thank you for this post. When learning to teach online courses, one of the most valuable take-aways is to leave the eTeaching traning session with a fierce determination to add personal, professorial value to the online content. An online course without a "real" professor (just a screen) should feel VERY different from an online course with a living, moderating, leading instructor working directly with the students. The question How can I add value to the student experience? is one we can all benefit from revisiting before, during, and after each course we teach - online or not.

I leave your post with a question, though: If we teach our students to use peer-grading and peer-critique, aren't we also working toward making ourselves (as instructors) obsolete? The question of where and how we add value is a deep one. If we add value as instructors with our professional (and one might hope at times 'expert') critique and grading, are we not outsourcing that to the students themselves with systems like peer grading? Though peer collaboration is incredibly important, as a graduate student, I find a thrilling enjoyment in listening to an expert professorial lecture. I choose courses so that I may learn from the professors; I choose courses so that I may benefit from the critique and thinking of those I am fortunate enough to be able to learn from. Peer collaboration can be organized variously - through working groups or PhD labs, for instance - but a few hours a week working directly with an academic idol is irreplaceable. We must find a way to facilitate in-class peer collaboration without losing the value (and the sheer excitement) that a good professor can add to his/her class environment.

Vast and important things to think about here. Thanks!

Amanda Starling Gould


Thank you for this very thoughtful post and the provocation.  In my experience creating peer-evaluated and contract graded and collaborative and peer- or team-led classes, they take far more work than me just getting up and lecturing.  In fact, the downside of all this student-led teaching is it takes a lot of time from the teacher.   I worked with Kaysi Holman, my colleague, for two weeks working to set up all the infrastructure for our class.   There is a different relationship in class, but it is no less guided and intense . . . far heavier on the back channel, more interactive.  


Also, in a  peer-led class, one is working against 16 years of training in being the "top of the class."  Returning to the preschool "plays well with others" takes so much time.   Corporate recruiters I work with say it now takes two full years, whereas it used to take one, because competition is so tough no one knows anymore how to admit they don't know something.  That constitutes "failure" now.   Making a cultural as well as an intellectual change is a tall order.  We're not obsolete yet.


Thank you for this really important exchange.  Great to think about these things together. 


Hi Cathy and Amanda, I'm just going to echo what Cathy just articulated (I was typing this response when she replied ... but then you know at least two people were thinking about it): that choreographing peer-to-peer feedback, grading, and other students-as-teachers class work requires the expertise of a teacher who can navigate those very difficult dynamics and enable students to learn how to evaluate their work, and then pull it off. Every time I try to arrange a series of peer-feedback workshops, I find that there are technical errors in the way that I constructed the task in my directions and I have to backtrack and try new ways to make it work each time. We always make it work (to quote Tim Gunn) somehow, but It takes a lot of mental acrobatics. It's also heavily dependent on classroom dynamics and the personalities of students and their ability levels for the task at hand. (That said: I'm interested to try Cathy's guidelines this semester! It's a great time to be thinking about this, right before classes start.)

On the "master/grasshopper" desire in class: Though I'm done with grad coursework, I also loved taking courses from the experts. But the dynamics in grad seminars are easier to understand: graduate students understand that there is a Jedi/Jedi-in-training relationship in seminars, and we love it. I think there's a trickier balance to strike as a graduate-student teacher of an undergraduate course between establishing your ethos so that your students respect you as a "teacher" -- we *should* know more than they do about the topics we teach and how to organize a course, despite our liminal status as pre-professionals -- while, at the same time, enabling students to teach each other in a way that has the potential to jeopardize our ethos if we're not careful about it. I find that while I am, as Cathy said, fighting the urge to be the "top of the class" and to let go of the reins a bit, I am also trying to establish that I'm a person students should *want* to hold the reins in the first place. This is a lot easier for me now than it was when I first started teaching, but I still always fret over ensuring that my students feel/trust that they are going to learn from my class and the things we do therein.

And to circle back to the question of the screen: avatars can't respond as sensitively or versatily, I think, to the shifting dynamics and needs of a class - dynamics that are brought to the fore when there's a grad-student-teacher, IMO.





I'm a PhD student at UNC Information Science who will begin teaching Programming to graduate students next year.  Our program is interesting in that it walks a line between 'professional' and 'academic'.  In this professional MSIS and MSLS degrees, we deliver both practical skills and content and a grounding in scientific methodology and rigorous thinking.  Despite this, I think we sometimes never make it to 'vocational' as you have [re-]defined it: to help students find a "call, a summons”. 


I won't be able to enroll in your class this semester due to a schedule conflict, but I will be following online activities of the course with interest.  My sense of why my course will be more valuable to my students than a computer screen is very much tied up in physicality.  By using the Raspberry Pi, a small, $35 computer, as the textbook and workbench for the course, students will have a tangible connection to what computing is.  In my teaching I'll emphasize the history, theory, and culture that surrounds the physical artifacts of computing we encounter every day.  My hope is that the combination of context and immediacy I can deliver in this way will help students acquire programming skills more rapidly, with less cognitive load, than would otherwise be possible.  The face to face transmission of knowledge, skills, and culture surrounding computers and computing is, for me at least, the potential value of the classroom over the screen.  I'm going to give the resources you posted on peer feedback, blogging, and contract grading a thorough read.  I think they all could be very fruitful in a a course like INLS 560: Programming.  


So I am focusing on how to deliver effective classroom education, and trying to deliver value beyond a MOOC such as Harvard's Computing 50 or the many other online resources out there.  But I think it's important to envision how we can effectively utilize computer screens (i.e. the Internet) in seeking to not be replaceable by them.  Your meta-MOOC is an example of this, and there are so many possibilities to explore.   At HASTAC 2013 in Toronto, Tessa Joseph-Nicholas and I will be presenting a demo of a site we're designing called Syllahub.  It's conceived as 'GitHub for Syllabi', a place where instructors can create, copy, reuse and remix open course materials, just like programmers do with open source code on GitHub.  I'll write a longer post about this soon, but we hope that this can be a tool for disseminating and evolving course content for everyone.  It will both help higher education stay relevant and disseminate knowledge to everyone in equal measure.  It also very clearly demonstrates that the value of higher education is not the content, but the experience and instruction of being on campus and in class. 


Imagine teaching a course or a workshop by first finding and 'forking' a lesson plan that another professor wrote (perhaps for a course you took in the past).  You could then freely modify the slides, readings, and activities, or even add new content.  Such additions would then be available for the original professor to 'pull' back into the course- but only if he or she chose to do.  And a third professor looking to teach that same course could see, choose from, and add to the growing content created by you both.  The system would automatically track versioning, authorship, and licencing information, taking that headache out of it.


There are serious challenges we'll face, from design to programming to copyright to the plain old 'if we build it would you use it' question.  But this is our attempt at using computer screens on the 'back end' of teaching to keep from being replaced by them.  The people in your class will be prime examples of potential users of and contributors to this project.  I'll write a longer post on this as the semester progresses.  In the mean time, thanks for pushing us to ask these hard questions.  The answers will be both crucial and exhilarating to find.


I've always been a fan of face-to-face interaction rather than communication via a block of text over the web. Video calling may be an alternative, but at best, it is an inferior substitute, unable to convey much of the crucial nonverbal cues and things like eye contact that is so important.

Now I do find that online communication is efficient in many cases and does away with the hassle of physical distance. And as noted, it is groundbreakingly dispersable. If a lecture is the same in class and as a video on the web, then there appears no need to be in class. If education is simply the communication of knowledge, then professors can indeed be replaced by a computer screen. In a math course I took in college, I stopped going to my lectures because they weren't working for me, and instead learnt from a professor at MIT online. My grade rose after I stopped going to class.

I go to one of those exorbitant private universities, and there have been courses which I never attended, thousands of dollars unrealized if tuition translates to class hours. But I have learnt perhaps a semester's worth of material in just a couple of hours in a professor's office, and that's the value I find in attending such an institution. I have access to these brilliant minds, and to have my questions answered and to be challenged with so many more under the full attention of a professor, I think, is the most excellent education.

Of course, the student needs to struggle with the material first, and there discussion with fellow classmates only widens the horizons. However, there have been many times I've been lead astray by the theories of peers, and though discussing a problem for hours in a group is one way of learning, in terms of efficiency, five minutes with a professor is likely to yield the same result.

So can professors host office hours online? Perhaps. But it would be a hefty obstacle to find a stock of brilliant professors to provide the time and effort to pay attention to thousands of students, not to mention the communication barriers.

I also wonder how students would be evaluated via MOOC. Some would argue that the current test-based evaluation system in many universities is flawed, and I can't see it working any better online. I would also be curious in a study that compared the effectiveness of conveying knowledge in person versus over the web.



After taking a course at Duke University on the challenges to US higher education (, I learned that too often, universities lose sight of their responsibilities as places of learning and education, and instead, pursue what is most lucrative and not necessarily what is best for the student. It's not completely the fault of the administrators at these institutions; the ever-growing number of college rankings affect a university's reputation, so universities must conform to the categories used to calculate each institution's position on the lists. Oftentimes, this means that a university must invest heavily in research to help its reputation among its peers, and ultimately to make it to the top of the annual lists of rankings.

Faculty members who pursue research for their own interests and/or as a result of the increasing obsession with college rankings rob their students of a rich academic experience. Students need the support of their professors to dig beyond the course material and to challenge their ideas and assumptions. In the words of President Richard Brodhead of Duke University, "discovering the use of knowledge is education." We can gain knowledge through reading a textbook individually in our dorms, but often times, we need someone older and wiser than us to help us understand the application of what we've learned. So long as MOOCs are taught by engaging professors who empower students to learn about a variety of disciplines and how to apply this information, we can say that online courses can become the future.

My college experience has largely been defined by just a few professors who not only taught me everything from sociological theories to management skills, but who also were there to chat with me over coffee about how I can use what I've learned to create value for my community and self. MOOCs need to be platforms upon which students and professors can actively engage in personal dialogue and reflection.

When I graduate in a few months, I won't be remembering sitting in class being taught by my professor, but I will remember all the conversations when we sat one-on-one and engaged in true learning through discussion and reflection.


Thanks Cathy, insightful as always. It strikes me that something missing from these conversations is the training students need in understanding and conveying what they learn in our classes (a point I've stressed elsewhere). As Michael says, faculty can help students use what they learn to benefit themselves and their communities, but this help shouldn't come over coffee. I really like your view of "vocational," but I'm not sure students always see things that clearly. I teach in an English department, and I think very few of my students come in with the belief that the class will aid them vocationally -- even I strongly believe it can. So as we train students in peer evaluation, we should also help them evaluate their own learning.

And here's where I think online learning comes in: ultimately, it shouldn't be the instructors who determine the extent to which classes move online, but the students. Whether teaching face-to-face or online, we should make sure our students know what they're getting from our courses, and can convey it to others. (This is important for all fields, but since few people outside academia challenge the vocational benefits of engineering, it seems more important for the humanities).


These are wonderfully insightful comments.  I love having students talk about what they have learned in class and I love the idea that one thing we need to do is help students---many of whom have not yet lived out in the world beyond school (although some so-called "non traditional students" bring that perspective) think about everything as contribute to their vocation.    In the Google Oxygen survey of all its own employment, hiring, promotion,etc data, everyone was shocked when "technical mastery" didn't even make the top 10.  Communication skills, collaboration skills, being able to speak and work persuasively to lead, being able to generously accept and give feedback and praise, and so forth: these are what made up the top skills that ended up in advancement, promotion, and raises. 


On the other hand, that time over coffee is pretty precious and hard to imagine duplicated online.   But, yes, every class should be overt about how it contributes to the vocation of life beyond school.  Students should not have to guess why something is important.  That should be the faculty member's job, in every way, including the most self-serving of ensuring that "we cannot be replaced by a computer screen"!

Needless to say, the other priceless aspect of face-to-face education that online communication doesn't quite replicate is the actual interactions and interpersonal experiences students share with one another.  Community is a huge part of why one goes to college in the first place.  



At the heart of this article I see a variation on the classic struggle of man versus machine. Author Ian Ayres best writes about this struggle in his book  “Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart”,, which shows how in the battle between equation and expertise, data analysis outmatches intuition. In fact, Ayres tells of how a statistical algorithm more accurately predicted Supreme Court decisions than 83 legal experts ( For the professional whose job relies on giving “expert” advice, this is a scary idea: why hire the consultant when you can run an algorithm for the same result at a fraction of the price? It logically follows that computing power should threaten professors, experts in their field, too.

Does this mean that we are Luddites at heart? Not necessarily. I’ve certainly never heard of anyone complaining that we can now order pizza from our smart phones. But when technology threatens our jobs, people become immediately defensive.  In this situation, I think it’s important to recall a famous story about Milton Friedman:

“At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.””(

Technology doesn’t eliminate jobs; it rearranges the workforce composition. If we want to keep shoveling with spoons, then keep higher level education as is. But if we want to make real progress, I agree that higher education must be dramatically reformed.


The key word is in the title - IF professors can be replaced by machines, then they SHOULD be, and that's a big IF! Technology has been replacing jobs for years, so this isn't a new debate; MOOC is simply the next step and era in a long series of debates. 

The development of technology has had both positive and negative impacts on education and learning since the beginning of time. As soon as the printing press made it possible to mass publicize the written word, human memory capacity has shrunk. On the plus side, the ability to record information has increased our capacity to research and analyze massive amounts of data. The world wide web, wikipedia, eBooks...they're all just new and improved versions of the original printing press. Collectively, the human race seems to have decided that the ability to share large amounts of information across the globe is worth the tradeoff, and that is why we continue to incorporate new technology into education.

Similarly, MOOC is simply the next step in making information and education widely available to anyone who wants it (and can afford it). Technology has typically made education more efficient only to the extent that it is needed. It's nice to be able to log on to Sakai, download the power point slides for a lecture, and take notes on them. But if I decided to skip class and rely solely on class notes, well, I would probably fail the class. And if that isn't the case, then the fact is that the professor has made him/herself irrelevant, and technology is not to blame for that.

One valid concern is the commercialization of education. Online course learning certainly seems like it could be lucrative for investors, and the danger is that students will be held at the mercy of a business whose main pursuit is to maximize profit margin. But knowledge has always come with a steep price tag - I'm sure the textbook industry has financial statements to prove this. If MOOC is exploitation, then maybe books in general are, too.


I am one of the students lucky enough to be enrolled in Professor Davidson's "meta-MOOC" this semester at Duke. I am already certain it will be a unique and unparalleled experience, but I am still not sure what to expect. The experience will be slightly paradoxical: our professors will be "proving their value" to us by empowering us with the responsibility to shape the course and determine its success. I predict that this experience will be invigorating and comforting, but also intimidating and foreign. And I assume that many professors and academics are just as torn as students like myself -- both excited and anxious -- in response to the call for reform that is being discussed by Professor Davidson and others. In spite of this uncertainty of the courses outcome, I am taking this class because I am certain that the status quo in education is unsustainable. As a second semester freshmen, I know all too well the doubts many of my peers and I have about the value of our education. Is it worth the investment? Am I being equipped with the vocational training for jobs that already exist or am I truly being prepared to adapt to a world where most job opportunities I will have don't exist yet? If I am sitting in a large lecture class where my professor will never know my name, what is the point (especially if I can take the same class for free over the internet)?

I still fervently believe my college experience will be irreplaceable and worthwhile. Yet, the doubts of many in my generation cannot be ignored. The once iconoclastic culture, which preaches college is diminishing in importance, necessity and value, is becoming less iconoclastic and more widespread. And so, I would just like to echo Professor Davidson's sentiments (I promise this is not just because I am in her class). The value of a professor -- and of a university -- needs to vindicated through reforms and innovations, or else we run the risk our university system growing far too antiquated, and not nearly malleable enough to embrace the new technologies and ideas that will shape my generation.


I am humbled by the insights and sincerity and the concern of you students---and this is why I wrote Now You See It,  and why I am writing this to reassure you:  we are listening.  That's why Dan Ariely and I are teaching this course, and why many of us at Duke are being as responsive as possible to what we are hearing out there in the "real world" beyond the university.   This class was designed very much with that world beyond the university in mind.   It was also designed with the idea that our job as educators is to help prepare students for THEIR future, not our past.   I believe students who co-create an education for others--this Meta-MOOC where students in a very luxurious face-to-face class are actually going to be pushing the boundaries of what a public online class might look like--will also be learning new skills that can only be learned by the process of transmitting those skills. 


This is very John Dewey in its design:  you learn differently when you pass on your knowledge to others, you learn more deeply, you learn better, and you learn how to learn by thinking about the best ways to teach someone else what you know. 


When I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, we pushed, far earlier than most universities, to create innovative new programs (everything from Information Science + Information Studies to the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience to the Program in Global Health and many more) that were designed to be responsive to present and future needs---not to some historical past.   I was the first VPIS at Duke or at any university.  President Nannerl Keohane created the position back in 1998 because we all knew were on the cusp of a major, global change and we wanted Duke to be there.  Pres Keohane kiddingly once said my job was "to break things and make things" but I took that charge seriously.  My territory was any program that didn't work in the existing system, programs that crossed all the school and departmental and disciplinary boundaries . . .  and my job was to make them work.  That happened because dozens and dozens of faculty, administrators, staff, and students knew this was necessary.   You may know that accreditation groups always do surveys relative to peer institutions and Duke is more collaborative, team-based, and experiential than many or even most of our peers.   But that was something we really tried to design into the curriculum. 


For example, very early we realized that STEM without social, cultural, and humanistic perspective wasn't much good.  Global climate change?  It doesn't matter how many scientists give evidence, if politics and culture say humans cannot change the climate, policies will not change that help to save the earth for future human habitation.   We have six signature interdisciplinary institutes at Duke charged with cross-cutting integration of research and teaching across the curriculum.  

We're also very student-oriented, with 75% of classes designed for 25 or fewer students.  How fortunate is that? But now we have to think about what this amazing human luxury, so rare even among elite institutions, makes different in the classroom.   This term, we're experimenting with a student-created MOOC.  But here's a little secret (this is especially for you, Matt):  everything you learn in the course of making your MOOC will be a lifeskill that will help you in your future.  We are using the best research on the problems humans have knowing themselves (attention blindness, change blindness, etc), to come up with collaborative methods where, as humans, we can help one another be a little more effective, at least in the new interactive global workplace, if not  (alas!) in our private lives.   


Again, to the students who have been brave enough to write in response to my post:   I promise you that, if you invest time and energy in this course, the result will be life lessons you will return to many times in the future.  The class is an "experiment" but it is not an experiment with your future.   Even if the MOOC doesn't turn out, the process is based on research, lots of testing with executives, professors, students, and others.   I'm also on the Board of one the big MOOCs and the research we are doing on the highest levels informs the structure of this course.


All learning is a gamble and an investment.   That's what learning is.   If you don't risk, you don't learn.   Part of this class is about the science and the art of risk taking . . . but your safety net is a very, very structured set up; an amazing instructional SWAT team of professional videographers, MFA arts students, a certified online learning instructor, plus two profs of some reputation who are staking their reputation on you and your future.   That you students can already write these blog posts makes me know you are in the right place at the right time.   I certainly know that am.   Thank you.  Most humbly, thank you.


p.s.  And this blog post was designed to be cautionary and a bit scary.  Here's the next one, that is quite optimistic--inspired by you, my students:





Dearest Colleagues,

I must apologize for not participating in a forum like this before now. I had been extremely busy (over-extended) launching N1 projects as well as keeping up with my own contingent teaching and writing. I have offered some thoughts on Professor Davidson's provocative and timely piece already here. I look forward to continuing this conversation by way of a philosophically deceptive yet simple question, one that finally articulates my central frustration as someone who has happily taught in f2f (terrestrial) and DL (digital) classrooms:

What are the root causes (myths, misperceptions) of the conflict between terrestrial and digital learning?

As a sort of praxis exercise, I hope to speak directly to this matter in the Seminar 365 at N1. I cannot help but think the perturbations, anxieties, and deepest resistances to digital education cannot be found somewhere in these first drafts, discovery moments of DL.

Have a wonderful term.



Cathy, you really nailed it with this essay. Change is here, and if the people who care about students and learning don't step up and drive it, we're not going to like where it goes. Thanks for your work!


That's totally right, Michael.  If we just cry that the "sky is falling, the sky is falling!" we don't leave ourselves much space for fixing our house,  protecting what we want to protect, and fixing up what needs fixing.  We get paralyzed by our own fear and confirm our helplessnes.  Not good.



It is a very good analysis.

But you do not mention at all " as if online is not in this country for 20 years by not so good colleges and for profits at $ 1,500-3,000 per course. Now those online students reached 7 million out of 18 million HE students .

They are also credit and degree awarding courses .

Quality was not good. But still people paid and went those programs . Sad.

Now there is online by elite universities providing online courses at the best you mention

" if  professors will be replaced by a computer screen "

Professors were replaced by computer screen even by bad online courses for 20 years  and high prices

Now elite universities are providing online courses much better than old ones. First elite university has the best knowledge accumulated  in 100-350  years ( Harvard ). Plus new online by MIT Harvard has many features being interactives, animations, simulation, many new feautures . They have the sources to make those onlşine even better every day.

They have many research facilities to work on online technology and teaching . It is not static  lile old for profits online .

1.-     GOOD ONLINE together with degrees from elite universities definitely will be a threat to convential  education.

         Now elite professors offer elite courses  from elite universities .

        If  elite universities start providing degrees 4000 colleges in the USA will be closed within 5 years .

2.-   You say " research makes HE expensive. "  Not true . researchs are financed by the indutry and government

3.-   You say " humanities cannot be replaced by MOOCs ( You say computers )  "

        No humanities also can be taught beautifully by GOOD MOOCs by elite expert universities , not by anyone .

4.-     Yes I am also very much afraid of FOR PROFITS   regarding MOOCs . In fact MOOCs were started by elite non profits

         first, but for profits immediately monetised it .

        I do support only one MOOC  non profits  MIT Harvard berkeley  They can be solution for the HE

        in the world not for profits MOOCs.

        I urge edx to provide degrees as soon as possible . Rest will be closed within 2 years . But I appreciate their marketing

        abilities .




Dear Cathy,

Many thanks for this provocation.  I was particularly struck by the passage:

We have a crazy, indefensible system of often senseless and disconnected distribution requirements; we have rigid majors and minors which serve the professional careers of lots of distinguished professors but often are not current and do not prepare students for their futures instead of our past...

It brought to mind a question currently preoccupying many in the historical profession, namely how do we incorporate training for non-academic positions into graduate programs traditionally designed to produce university-based scholars?  The fact that many established historians call non-academic careers “Plan Bs” speaks volumes.  Of course, as a new member of the proverbial club, I now share the blame and burden of reorienting our collective focus.  Indeed, there just aren’t enough tenure track faculty positions for everyone.  So how do we equip students such that they will be competitive candidates on multiple and varying job markets?  Finding solutions will require us to address many of the concerns above.  And as you rightly point out, the stakes couldn’t be higher - for students and the profession writ-large.


Dear Cathy,

It was a delight reading your blog. Being a student from India, I was able to identify with the problems that numerous other Indian students face. I myself am doing my PhD in History from Duke University,after having done my Masters and undergrad from India. I myself have been enrolled in correspondence courses while in India and have always been a great advocate of online courses, for students who are unable to get admission to the top universities. Universities like Indira Gandhi National Open University(IGNOU) in India, have excellent course materials, that are prepared by Professors from some of the best Universities in India. Student assignments and evaluations are also of the regular university standards and in my opinion, it is an excellent option given the small acceptance rate in some of the top universities of India. I myself have done a Certificate course from there which actually helped me to hone my skills and perhaps my admission to Duke University, was partly because of the skills, I acquired from such correspondce and part time courses.

Ajay Thomas


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