Education as “Infotainment”: or, The One Where I Become Part of the Problem

Logo for edXThis fall a joint venture from Harvard and MIT, called edX, will make available free online courses from two of the world’s elite research universities. As the New York Times reported, the Harvard-MIT collaboration follows in the wake of a similar partnership involving Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan (“Coursera“). The development of such “massively open online courses” (MOOCs) is not new — as the Times pointed out, earlier versions by some of the same universities failed miserably in the preceding decade  — but the product now seems more sophisticated, as traditional institutions of higher learning are learning how to compete with for-profit, online schools.

That’s what Kara Miller (a professor at Univ. of Massachusetts, Dartmouth) discussed in a June piece for The Atlantic. She starts with an anecdote about a Harvard business professor who was hired by the University of Phoenix to record a lecture; he soon realized that the “students” in his lecture hall were models hired by Phoenix to make the educational experience seem more attractive to consumers. Miller concludes, “In our media-filled Internet landscape, Phoenix understands that it’s not enough to give a good lecture. You have to put on a show that wins the war of attention.”

After following the now-familiar line of argument that educational costs are rising at untenable rates and will demand a correction that dooms traditional, brick-and-mortar, face-to-face (F2F) education as we’ve long known it, Miller asks what college is actually for:

If it’s to learn — rather than drink or meet your future bridesmaids — the next frontier may be affordable, at-home infotainment, rather than ivy-covered walls.

…I suspect Harvard and MIT already know that online education — and infotainment, in particular — is where we’re headed. Which is why they will not only offer free courses online this fall, they’ll also gather data about students — an explicit goal of the project. Quite likely, that data will show that students like being entertained. And that — with a few graphics and some editing — we may be able to find a high-gloss, low-cost way of delivering education.

The seminal question is whether anything will be lost when professors start to seem as polished as Diane Sawyer and lecture halls become populated with Discovery-Channel-like graphics.

Get ready to find out.

I’ve already posted a two-part version of my 2009 talk in which I shared my feelings about online vs. F2F education, but let me recycle some of its observations and relate them to a new project of ours that sounds somewhat MOOC-like…

Radio Modern Europe logo
The logo for my “Radio Modern Europe” podcast

In part 1, I reported on my own efforts to move into something like the edX or Coursera model. While hardly massive, I did experiment with making a substantial part of my Modern Europe survey an open online course (generating thousands of downloads from people across the country and around the world), and I’ve dabbled in several other forms of educational podcasting that have similar aspirations. In that 2009 talk, I professed myself hopeful that such an educational model could help schools like Bethel expand their reach.

Indeed, one of my projects this summer and coming academic year is to collaborate with my friend and colleague Sam Mulberry in developing an online version of the single biggest course at Bethel University, Christianity and Western Culture (CWC), an interdisciplinary, one-semester Western Civ survey that considers how Christians have absorbed, rejected, and engaged with Western culture (up through the 18th century). It’s one of the pillars of Bethel’s gen ed curriculum, taken by over 600 students (our total day college enrollment is about 2900) each year.

For more about how Sam and I convinced ourselves that online CWC was a wise move, I highly recommend that you watch a talk Sam gave on the subject in May. But in brief… When this kind of idea first started floating around five years ago, we were both vehemently opposed to it. I think we still have philosophical concerns about losing the F2F element of CWC (see below), but we’ve managed to get past our first objection: that the online educators we knew were doing nothing more than recording lectures. To us, that seemed to be a waste of the possibilities of technology: if you were going online, why offer a two-dimensional shadow of a three-dimensional classroom experience? Why not seize the chance to develop something new?

Instead, we’ve taken a course whose weekly schedule features two large group (140 student) lectures and one small group (16-18) reading discussion and come up with a vastly different model, alternating (a) thirty-minute documentary films that help to move the broad strokes of the narrative forward and frame key questions for students as they dive into primary source reading with (b) students visiting “virtual museums” that we’ll design for each major time period in the course. (We’ll also have periodic webisodes in which Sam and I answer student questions, plus “office hours” and review “apps” that we’ve already been using in the F2F course.)

I think we’re most intrigued by the museum model (we piloted one this past year in CWC), since it lets students deepen their knowledge of each period by following their interests in art, theatre, science, politics, literature, etc. (I think of it as the “choose your own adventure” approach — rather than a lecture in which the professor controls the direction of intellectual inquiry.) But Sam and I — we’ve done lots of filmmaking together in recent years — are also excited to create eight or nine short documentaries that interweave narration, readings from primary sources, and interviews with 20-25 Bethel faculty. (Conducting those interviews is our primary goal for this summer, and it’s been fascinating to hear so many colleagues from different fields reflect on the big questions that we ask in the course!)

Screen capture from “The Reformation Polka,” one of our adventures in “edutainment”

And having thought about producing such films, I have to admit that I know what Miller is getting at when she contends that universities are getting in the business of “infotainment.” (We’ve called it “edutainment” in previous years, when we made animated films about Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and Galileo.) At least initially, online CWC won’t be open to the general public, only to incoming students and perhaps high school students who in Minnesota can register to take college courses early. (We have talked about eventually making a version of it open to all, particularly in hopes of providing resources to Christian formation programs in churches.) But Sam and I are fully aware that our 17-18 year old students are already experienced media consumers who may struggle to engage in the kind of learning we hope will happen if, despite themselves, they get hung up on low production values. So we’ve spent almost as much time talking about the look, sound, and style of the films as about their content.

At the same time, and for all our excitement about seizing this chance to rethink the course’s pedagogy, I take issue with Miller’s rather glib statement that “If [the purpose of college] is to learn — rather than drink or meet your future bridesmaids,” then higher education should prepare to move online. As I stressed in part 2 of my 2009 online vs. F2F talk, I doubted that learning as most of us who teach liberal arts (and certainly those of us who teach in Christian liberal arts colleges) understand it could succeed without embodied relationships taking place within a physical community.

That’s one reason that I was initially leery of doing something like online CWC. After all, it’s a first-year course that helps introduce students to Bethel, and to the close student-faculty relationships the university prizes. Would the same kind of introductions take place in a fully online course, or would we simply be producing a commodity that generates no deep attachment to the project of learning as we understand it at Bethel?

With that in mind, I sat up and noticed when I read the following comment from a CWC student on my course evaluation for this past spring:

I sincerely hope that this course never becomes an online course. I hope it continues to be taught in lectures and small groups. If it becomes an online course, it will lose its personableness. Learning from professors in class is something that this course excels at. Compared to other courses, lectures in CWC were the easiest to follow, the most clear, and the most interesting. I looked forward to going to CWC lectures. Small group was vital for my understanding of this course, and I hope that that never gets taken away…. I don’t believe that making this class an online class will help students learn better at all; I think it will make the class more difficult because it will lose that face to face time with the professors who teach the material in such an effective way.

Now, we don’t intend to do away with face-to-face CWC, which will continue to enroll the vast majority of students in the course even as it synthesizes some of the innovations generated by its online sibling. And even the online sections (taught in summer) may end up being smaller than a hybrid version that could be offered during Bethel’s intensive interim term (drawing on some of the innovations of the online model, but retaining the small group discussions in which students really get to know a professor). Moreover, while the student quoted apparently thrived in the lecture-discussion model, others with different learning styles may do better in the more self-directed online environment that we’re constructing.

In the end, Sam and I have convinced ourselves that the loss of contact time with students is counterbalanced by our ability to introduce more than twenty members of the Bethel faculty (including those in humanities departments that incoming students might not take a second glance at during the admissions process). But I take the student’s point.

Philosophically and strategically, I doubt very much that it’s in Bethel’s interest to embrace online education past the occasional experiment like CWC. For the reasons stated above and in my earlier talk, it doesn’t fit our ideal of learning as a transformative experience. Nor do I think we’re likely to win an educational arms race against the Harvards and Michigans of the world. (Though I think our faculty are perfectly capable of producing an online course every bit as good as what comes out of Cambridge and Ann Arbor, we don’t have the name recognition or resources to compete on that playing field.) My hope is that we let online education challenge us to become more innovative educators , while maintaining a distinctive, residential community that will only become more attractive to students as they see a growing contrast with the online universe of infotaining education that Miller describes.

And even as I finished writing this post, I came across another Atlantic contributor making a completely plausible argument that “the web is simply not about to end higher-ed as we know it.”

2 thoughts on “Education as “Infotainment”: or, The One Where I Become Part of the Problem

  1. Hi Chris,

    A blog comment is probably not the best place to have an extended discussion about online learning. Still, a few comments…
    Thanks for your balanced remarks. I appreciate your vision of using your new version as an alternative and summer version of the course. You don’t want to jettison the real connections of the in-person course.
    My main concern is that people will do “bean counting” and seek to replace the in-person model with online and thereby pare down the number of real instructors who are necessary. I don’t mind having such online experiments out and about, but it’s necessary to recognize that they simply can’t replicate the individual exchange of ideas that happens in a personal setting.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. I share your concern, and would never want to see the online version becoming the default option for a course like this. In the end, I’m sold on this primarily because I think this is a case where online can enrich the face-to-face course. If I dream a bit, I can even see it loosening up the most impersonal element of the course — the large group lecture — and enhancing the degree and quality of personal interactions between professors and students. (And students and students.) Though that piece of the vision is pretty murky, and will probably remain so until we’ve had a year or two to learn from the online course.

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