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Heard: NYT Columnist David Brooks Sides With Digital Learning, Gains Critics

By on May 15, 2012
Blended Learning, Domestic, Flipped Classrooms, MOOCs, Open Source Education, Opinion, Required, Universities & Colleges

Times Square at Dusk (New York City)
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight

Gail Collins and David Brooks are two in-house OpEd columnists at The New York Times, who write about education from time to time. They take different approaches with Gail generally skeptical of online learning trends and David Brooks more favorable to them with a recent column on the topic (a writer at InsiderHigherEd criticized the column, which we also show lower down). The two columnists recently bantered about the topic on the NYT’s Opinionator blog. Here’s an interesting portion of the discussion:

Gail: … I don’t think online college classes will save that much money. The huge rise in the cost of higher education that has everyone worried isn’t due to faculty salaries. It’s mainly from building programs and administrative expenses. If anything, I’d say colleges should be spending more on teaching – reducing the number of courses taught by adjuncts for a few thousand dollars a credit hour, and increasing the number of full-time faculty members who have the time to devote to their students and course preparation.

David: I agree. I don’t think it will save any money. There will still be plenty of need (much more in fact) for face-to-face coaching, tutoring and discussion. That’s expensive. Plus, as you say, many of the new costs have to do with administration. Did you see the report showing that while in 1993 there were roughly 2.5 professors for every senior manager in the University of California system, now the ratio is nearly 1 to 1. Every faculty member gets a senior manager! If the number of administrators had grown merely at the same rate as the number of faculty members since 1997, the U.C. system would have an extra $800 million a year to devote to education.

Gail: I’m trying to envision having my own senior manager. I would definitely want one skilled in computer repair.

The theory was that the “star” professors could do their teaching online, shifting the burden of paying them to dozens or hundreds of subscribing schools. But most of the “stars” are big names because of the research they do, which often draws in government grants while providing graduate students with the opportunity to work on important projects. Some of them are great lecturers, although I suspect most of those stars are already twinkling in some kind of online or audio program. I listened to a course worth of lectures on American history while planting daffodil bulbs one year, and they were fascinating. I believe the daffodil production the next spring was also superior.

David: …. By the way, this is the ultimate manifestation of American soft power. In the 20th century our movies spread everywhere. This time around, it could be our universities.

via The New York Times

David Brooks writes in his column (“The Campus Tsunami”) last week:

What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.


Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world. India alone hopes to build tens of thousands of colleges over the next decade. Curricula from American schools could permeate those institutions.

The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.

Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies. In an online world, colleges have to think hard about how they are going to take communication, which comes over the Web, and turn it into learning, which is a complex social and emotional process.

Via The New York Times

Joshua Kim at InsideHigherEd criticizes aspects of Brook’s column:

In talking about MOOCs and online courses as interchangeable and equivalent entities Brooks is doing a disservice to both. He is demonstrating a shocking ignorance about the work that many of us have been involved in for many years to help design and teach small online courses, ones that mimic the learning (and sometimes enrollment) of a traditional seminar.

Certainly the development of open online learning is an interesting and important development. Our methods for designing and facilitating traditional online and blended courses will benefit from what we learn from these open experiences.  

Creating and teaching a MOOC is in no way identical to the work of creating and teaching a traditional online course. These online courses depend on the personal relationship between instructor and student that online learning facilitates. This relationship does not scale past a certain number (50 with a well designed courses and robust course inputs), certainly not to the level of a MOOC.   

It is this lack of scale that defines the educational opportunities incumbent in traditional learning, and it is because of this lack of scale that we invest so much of our individual and societal dollars in higher ed. A MOOC will do many good things, but it will never create the relationships and personal connections between learners and teachers that catalyzes our most authentic and meaningful learning experiences.

Via InsideHigherEd



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