Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Obsolescence Question. From Inside Higher Ed.

By Jonathan Rees

When’s the last time an ice deliveryman visited your home? Have you ever talked to a telephone switchboard operator? Thanks to new technologies, these once-common occupations passed into history many years ago now. Bank tellers and travel agents are not completely obsolete, but substantially fewer people are employed in these lines of work than in the past for similar reasons.

Will new developments in Internet-based communications technology do similar things to college professors? Perhaps people like me will face the same trouble finding employment that newspaper reporters or piano tuners face nowadays. Or perhaps MOOCs will eliminate the need for professors almost entirely, allowing students to flock to courses offered by a smattering of "super-professors" while computers, graduate students and adjuncts do all the grading that once occupied so much of an analog instructor’s time.

Read more.


  1. Just like courses on television replaced the professoriate?

    1. Or teaching machines or progammed instruction or correspondence courses or some other magic bullet that actually works miraculously, in the way desired by politicians and educational administrators, and really is less costly than the tedious daily efforts of human beings. Proffies will go the way of the iceman and the switchboard operator when someone, perhaps by genetic engineering, invents a new breed of students who, entirely on their own initiative, are disciplined, can be trusted always to do their homework honestly and to maximum educational benefit without cutting corners, and can learn independently right out of the book (or whatever they'll be using) without help or examples or labs or practical experience or wanting to be involved in research.

      What worries me is that far too many politicians and educational administrators think that what he have now is "good enough," as this article mentions. It's therefore essential that those of us who have tenure use it, to best effect, always.

  2. This isn't a danger. The stampede to internet teaching is the danger. The focus on "customer service" is the danger.

  3. I actually had my students think about this in response to Farhad Manjoo's series in Slate. I asked them if the careers they were preparing for were vulnerable to robot replacement (funniest answer: the accounting student who said that in no way could bookkeeping be automated), and also whether they thought MINE could. A surprising number of them had fairly sophisticated responses to this question, mostly focussing on the idea that human contact or interaction being an important focus of the jobs (psychologist, sports trainer, outdoor leadership person) meant that it was hard to get a robot to replace them. All of them agreed that while some aspects of teaching could be automated, that what they valued about the experience of university was the personal attention from the prof.
    Now, you can read this as a) sucking up and b) snowflakery of the "everything is about me" type, but all those administrators so gung ho to move classes online clearly haven't asked students what they want.

  4. Besides which, doing classes online properly is just as expensive as doing them face-to-face. You can cut lots of corners in traditional classes, too, to make them cheaper, but the quality drops like a rock when you do.

    The advantage of online classes is not that they are cheap but that they expand your pool of potential students. They also seem to encourage snowstorms, but there are plenty of those in face-to-face classes as well.


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