Open Web Style Lectures: A response to Luis von Ahn

Luis von Ahn has a great post up today, thinking about his teaching and how to do it better, asking:

instead of my amateurish attempts at making good lectures that fail most of the time, and instead of repeating the same crap every semester like a broken record, why don’t I just produce really good video lectures?

First of all, I really enjoy his honesty about his own teaching:

even when I prepare a lot, the lectures are not all that great. I make mistakes, I forget to say some things, my handwriting is bad, my jokes fall flat, etc. Every semester there are maybe 3-4 lectures that I am happy with afterwards, and of the rest about 50% totally suck in my mind and 50% are just barely passable. The fact that I am considered one of the better teachers of the department is, truthfully, sad.

I know exactly what he's saying because I can say the same about many of the courses I've taught during the past ten years. That this is true is not a revelation; but that we can admit this publicly as teachers is very important, since it allows us to break with the current method of teaching that enables such poor results.

However, I don't think that he has the right idea in terms of the solution. Let's start with the problem of Hollywood-Style products and today's student. While Hollywood has produced some amazing things, its normal output is often not worth watching despite costing so much and having all the right elements. Interestingly, it seems to have nothing to do with production quality, as Chris Anderson points out:

Even the most popular YouTube clips may totally fail in the standard Hollywood definition of production quality, in that the video is low-resolution and badly lit, the sound quality awful, and the plots nonexistent. But none of that matters, because the most important thing is relevance. We'll always choose a "low-quality" video of something we actually want over a "high-quality" video of something we don't.

A few months ago it was time for my kids to choose how to spend the two hours of "screen time" they're allowed on weekends. I suggested Star Wars and gave them a choice: They could watch any of the six movies in hi-def on a huge projection screen with surround sound audio and popcorn. Or they could go on YouTube and watch stop-motion Lego animations of Star Wars scenes created by 9-year-olds. It was no contest--they raced for the computer.

It turns out that my kids, and many like them, aren't really that interested in Star Wars as created by George Lucas. They're more interested in Star Wars as created by their peers, never mind the shaky cameras and fingers in the frame. When I was growing up, there were many clever products designed to extend the Star Wars franchise to kids, from toys to lunch boxes, but as far as I know nobody thought of stop-motion Lego animation created by children.

I don't think big media has much to teach us about how to reach the current generation of students. Compare the ways big media gave us for engaging with music vs. what happens today. The hottest thing now among my friends and students is thesixtyone, which makes peers of artists and fans in the context of a social game. Now notice something else that is central to these two examples: they both happen on the web.

The web isn't simply a delivery vehicle for big media productions. Rather, it's a participatory space that shortens the distance between creator and consumer, often to a single point. Students know this because it's already how they interact with their friends, their data, their music, etc. As such I believe that the answer is to take a hard look at the web and what it does.

Luis is lucky, because like me, he's teaching tomorrow's computer experts. There's no need to spend even a moment of precious class time showing them how to use or build things on the web. They know how, or will learn simply because they love it, simply because they want to produce meaningful output.

So here's what I'd do, what I do do. Throw away the idea that you as a professor can spend "millions of hours preparing for the class" and have that time somehow translate into better learning for your students. There is no way to translate my hours of work on a topic into lasting knowledge and learning for students because it will always condense the process of my not-knowing into a consumable truth. And anything that can be consumed in 30-60 minutes is not going to last. The reason it takes millions of hours to prepare for class is that we as professors have to struggle with the material ourselves, have to move through confusion to understanding, have to find ways to say difficult things. In short, we have have to learn. By robbing our students of this learning we empty the educational experience of its most important succession: problem, failure, solution.

Don't get me wrong, those millions of hours have to happen somehow. Mastery of ideas takes time, takes effort. But why should that effort be all mine as a professor? Why do we assume that professors should walk into the classroom already fully prepared? Why are students expected to sit quietly in seats while I share what I know? Why do we not learn in parallel with our students? What would this even look like?

Much as thesixtyone enables music listeners to participate with their music and community, I believe we must turn the classroom into a collaborative project to develop the very teaching material and resources you need. Step out from behind the lectern and join your students. Provide some guidance about the types of things we need to produce this semester, and strategies for getting there. "Here are the problems we face...Here's how we could break this down into manageable bits" Instead of providing knowledge about the topic, be a resource for organizing how such knowledge will be produced. What you as a professor really have to offer is the ability to learn things, the knowledge of how to overcome failure on the way to solving a problem. Model this for them.

Next, put the tools in place to harness a class of 200 as they solve them: blogs, planets, wikis, irc, twitter, Facebook groups, Flickr, etc. The web knows how to operate at scale, even if your school's tools don't. Let them use the web to organize themselves and their work as a group. Let them struggle, fail, and succeed. Let them teach themselves, each other, and you. Turn the classroom into the place where knowledge is produced rather than consumed.

One thing I can tell you for sure about computer science students, especially those in the early years, is that they want to write computer programs (oh how I longed to touch a computer when I was studying computer science!). Let them. Instead of getting Hollywood to craft the kinds of demos or graphics students like, let your own students produce the things they actually want (remember that stop motion lego?). Let them build examples needed to teach these concepts. Let them critique and collaborate on the work, improving it iteratively. And let this process of collaborative learning and teaching become what happens in the classroom vs. formal lectures.

I think Luis rightly identifies a huge problem with the way we teach, especially how we teach difficult and (dare I say) boring subjects. We've systematically gutted computer science over the past decade, and our dwindling enrollment numbers bear witness to this. But the answer isn't to look for a 1980s type solution from Hollywood--Hollywood has its own problems remaining relevant, and we shouldn't yoke our future to theirs. The future is going to happen on the open web, not on a television. In fact, it's already here. We'd be better served putting our energies there.

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