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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Where Are the Best University Teachers?

Much to my embarrassment, the University of Toronto is promoting online courses, or MOOCs [Online courses for anyone, anywhere]. These courses seem to be for information only—you can't get a university credit for them.

I'm not opposed to offering free "courses" for people who don't have easy access to a university campus. In fact, I think it's a good thing. But let's make sure we distinguish between public lectures and serious education. In my opinion, if the quality of an online course is equal to the quality of a course given on campus then all that says is that the campus-based course is lousy. We should not refer to these online examples as "university courses." They should be labelled as "public lectures."

I'll have more to say about this later but today I want to return to an issue I raised before. Is it true that the "best" universities also do the best teaching? I have suggested that the answer to this question is probabyy "no" [On the Quality of Online Courses] [Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education?].

Here's an excerpt from yesterday's University of Toronto Bulletin.
“The University of Toronto is extremely pleased to be a part of this exciting project to unlock the possibilities of open access education,” said Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost of the University of Toronto. “We are particularly pleased by Coursera’s focus on the quality of course offerings. They choose excellent universities as partners so this is a terrific opportunity to collaborate with our peers.”
She's referring to the universities that are associated with Coursera, a site that advertises itself by claiming, "The World's Best Courses. Online, for Free." How do they know that they are offering the "best" courses? Presumably it's because they are taught by professors from the "best" universities.

Is this a valid assumption? Is there any evidence to support the claim that the best undergraduate education is at the best research universities?

I can't speak for all subjects but I know a little bit about teaching introductory biochemistry and molecular biology. The best teachers seem to be preferentially located at relatively small universities and colleges. That's not surprising since teaching is often their primary job and they pay attention to what should be taught and how to teach it. They are the ones who attend the education conferences, read the education journals, and provide the best advice when I'm working on my textbook. They have kept up-to-date on the basic concepts and principles of modern metabolism, protein structure, enzyme action, and information flow and they know that teaching these concepts accurately is the primary goal. They have lots of experience and they are often the first ones to try, and test, new teaching methods.

Scientists running large active research labs rarely have time to learn about the latest ideas outside their field so when they have to teach an undergraduate course they usually rely on what they, themselves, were taught decades ago.

I have met many of these dedicated teachers from small schools. I am convinced that they do a better job of teaching introductory biochemistry than we do at the University of Toronto. They certainly do a better job than MIT, judging from the very poor quality of their online example of a biochemistry course [see MITOpenCourseware: Glycolysis, Respiration, and Fermentation].

Please, let's stop perpetuating the silly myth that the best researchers at the best research universities are necessarily the best undergraduate teachers. They may be good at teaching highly specialized, advanced undergraduate courses but even that is an assumption, not a fact. (Furthermore, it's the advanced online courses that are least likely to be high quality courses compared to those taught on the campus where students can interact directly with the experts.)


  1. Top notch professors can be v.poor teachers. In my case, when I took an MBA course on optimisation models, I was utterly disappointed by the teaching of a very highly regarded senior prof. Actually he never taught a thing in class, merely discussed a few case studies, very superficially. But his PhD students, every 1, insisted how good he was. Never understood it.


    1. What's there to understand? Most professors don't give a flying f%&* about teaching undergrads. Because they get absolutely no ROI from it. So it's all based on their conscience. Which isn't the best motivator when there are many others things with a very real impact on one's current and future income.

      Graduate students are a different thing. They work for professors directly, so naturally investing in graduate education is in professors' interest.

  2. About online courses: An online course is rarely just a set of lecture videos - most include a range of assignments and assessments.

    The real issue isn't whether online courses are usually as good as the best face-to-face courses. Probably not. The best online courses are probably better than some university courses, but that's not the most important issue either.

    The real issue is whether we want to make university-level education available to people around the world who are eager to learn but unable to attend university.

    I do.

    1. Commendable. Question: will your answer change if you felt that online education jeopardizes your personal immediate employment? (I.e., no tenure, reduced pay, real possibility of unemployment, etc).

    2. If online education is free then public universities will be in big trouble and many researchers and scholars wiil lose their positions.

      That would also be true of high school teachers. I'm surprised that some governments haven't thought of this!

      BTW, DK, you would also be out of work. Do you favor online education?

    3. Actually, no, I won't be out of work. I am what you call a highly qualified technician. Offline education destroying mortar and brick universities and their rent-seeking model would inevitably result in science being done primarily in the specialized reseach institutes. Which would, in all likelihood, strongly improve my employment prospects.

      But, alas, I don't believe that online education will replace universities - because I believe that primary goals of education today is credentialing/signaling.

  3. The real issue is whether it's possible to make good, high quality, university-level education availabe to people who never set foot on a university campus.

    I think we agree that we can match what's currently taught in most universities using online courses. We can agree that you might get just as good an education by sitting in your basement in your pajamas as you would get by attending some lectures at most universities.

    Are we ready to settle for that? Are we resigned to the fact that univerity education has dropped to such a low level that universities are no longer necessary?

    I'm one of those strange curmudgeons who think that we can do better. I still believe that education is more than just sitting in front of a computer monitor. I still think that the stimulation and excitement of campus activities is a valuable part of the education experience. But in order to demonstrate that this is true we have to reform university education.

    Perhaps we could concentrate on abolishing high schools and middle schools and moving all those courses online? Would any sane person agree to that? Why does it seem so much more reasonable at the univetsity level?

  4. Larry, we don't need to consider free online courses as a replacement for university courses. Many people who can go to university will still choose to do so. The open online courses are mainly for people who don't have that option.

    p.s. If you taught a free open online Biochemistry course to, say, 50,000 students, and half of them bought your textbook, would you still need your university job?

    1. But the really interesting subject is to imagine that online education/technological advances completely supplant brick and mortar places. Your "we don't need to consider free online courses as a replacement for university courses" is a classic case of "having a cake and eat it too". Hint: it's either education or it's not. If what you propose is not an real education but a simple patch up for the poor then fine, some charity (be it you or someone else) can take care of it. But if the online education is a real deal and becomes as good as the traditional model (and I use "good" only relatively) then surely there is no way the brick and mortar places would ever be able to compete. Meaning you lose your current job.

    2. Rosie Redfield said,

      Larry, we don't need to consider free online courses as a replacement for university courses.

      Maybe you don't and I don't but that's not what most people think.

      p.s. If you taught a free open online Biochemistry course to, say, 50,000 students, and half of them bought your textbook, would you still need your university job?

      If 25,000 students bought my textbook every year I wouldn't "need" a university job just for the money. However. I'd still need it for lots of other things, including trying to reform undergraduate education. And also to write the next edition of the textbook.

  5. I have many professors that are required to teach a course in order to do their research. I find it quite sad that teaching is more liability than rewarding to those certain individuals.

  6. I've never been to university.
    Yet i fail to understand what it matters if we are talking about knowledge.
    Schools are just to teach things and get a paper saying you understand it and hire me.
    If one has a book on chemistry then what possible difference does it make to have a teacher teaching it?
    Self motivated students in subjects of raw data, like chemistry , don't need teachers.
    Schools were for the old days where organizing the knowledge and the kid had to be done in buildings.
    Computers have made this no longer needed.

    What does it matter to have buildings?
    The only thing they could say is that the kids getting high quality teachers are getting, quickly, knowledge etc they otherwise could not get in written material.
    Also being with other sharp kids is a aid to higher ability.

    I know kids who get top marks in universities and say teachers ore irrelevant.

    The kids are more studious these days and everything is written down.
    Profs don't have anything else to add it seems. Or do they?

    There are other more important problems with high education in Canada.
    Online or on campus surely is irelevant to education or gaining knowledge.
    How can this be tested?

    1. Re Booby Byers

      I've never been to university.

      This explains why Booby Byers is so totally lacking in critical thinking skills, which he amply demonstrates in the inane comments he contributes to threads on Panda's Thumb.

  7. The biggest conceptual difficulty is that as a result of the decline of classical education and rise of progressive education people stopped clearly distinguishing between training and education. Training can largely be carried out acceptably in online formats, but real education cannot it is too much of a social process. This is further conflated because far too many students going to college are clamoring for training and then a nice job when they get out. The difficulty of this is of course that people have gotten so caught up in the signaling aspect of a degree that it would be challenging to get them to realize what they really want is something else. It would be a shame if universities truly suffered because people did a hash job of bringing back apprenticeships (in effect).

    So Robert your argument is that who needs a teacher, you can navigate and truly understand what 1000's of the brightest minds of the last couple thousand years have learned?

    1. The on line stuff is coming from a teacher.
      I'm not saying teachers don't make a difference here and there.
      I'm saying that at most practical levels they make no difference.
      What do they know that isn't just plain knowledge.
      Teachers and buildings were for a previous world where information could only be done that way.
      The world has moved on.
      if the kids just read the books themselves would they score better or worse on tests.
      The bigger law here is about how is knowledge acquired.
      The source of the same knowledge seems unlikely to matter.
      Books can equal or trump teachers.
      Why not?

  8. Let's make this clear re my MBA prof. He's a classical education type of very lofty values. It's just that he did not seem to know how to teach a course. I know a lot about how UG engg programs in the US work. And few are the schools where a professor has to worry about how well she can teach. There are no incentives to be a good teacher. Larry is absolutely right. If my children ever want to study biology in the US, I'm going to send them to U.Minn-Morris.


  9. Anonymous: Very well said re: the "training vs. education" terminology. Online training can work very well for skill mastery in some subjects; it cannot replace other types of experiences (i.e., hands-on activities such as laboratory experiments or specimen-based studies) and only some people can get meaningful one-on-one or group-to-group communications from purely electronic formats. (Some can, it is true.)

    It is difficult in purely online (esp. non-realtime) teaching to help promote innovation, brainstorming, and the like the way you can in more direct contact. It is this latter element that is enhanced by the greater immediacy of classical education.

    To add to issues that haven't been brought up:
    * For tenure-track faculty who have not yet made it to Associate or Full Prof status, teaching evaluations may well be part of the package evaluated in making the final tenure promotion decision. (It definitely is at my University). So there IS an incentive to get good evaluations, at least: whether that is achieved by actually teaching well vs. caving in to student desires or whatever is a different issue...

    * Many universities (esp. large "Research One" types) have a "shadow faculty" of non-tenure track faculty, whose names and appointment rules vary from institution and institution (and sometimes department to department in the same institution). (This is particularly true of those hired in the 1990s, when this trend was fairly common in the US). Those NTT faculty involved in instruction may have teaching evaluations as the highest factor involved in renewal of contracts.

    * Teaching well is a skill and a talent (like writing/composing, art, etc.), and not everyone is good at it. You might be able to train a moderately poor teacher to a passable one, or a tolerable one to a decent one, but you can't expect to train the average faculty member to be one of the top teachers of their University on a regular basis.

  10. As an aside, I definitely see the importance of online components to education (I use them myself!), and recognize that their role is and will continue to increase. The important thing now is to discover/recognize HOW to use them to best achieve what we want to do, and thus we have to discover/recognize what it is we want to do.

    I would have less problem with the "online for-profit universities" if they chose a different terminology. That is, they didn't actually pretend to be the same thing as a university, but instead used some other descriptor (Academies? Institutes? Something along those lines.) They are a different kind of entity, and should be distinguished as such.