Sunday, February 06, 2011

Will Computers Replace Professors?

This past week in one section of my macro class we read a chapter about technology and how people respond to it from the book The Economics Of Macro Issues. It mentioned Luddites, people who destroyed industrial equipment in England in the early 1800s. They were weavers who lost their jobs to new machinery. See What is a Luddite? by Steve Anderson at Utah State University.

Today, the New York Times had an article called Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension by Randall Stross. It raised the question of computers doing the teaching, making it possible to do away with professors. Here are some excerpts:

"“We should focus on having at least one great course online for each subject rather than lots of mediocre courses,” Bill Gates suggested in his 2010 annual letter for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Developing that best-in-the-world online course — in which students would learn as much, or more, than in an ordinary classroom or a hybrid online class — requires significant investment. The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, which has developed about 15 sophisticated online courses, mostly in the sciences, spent $500,000 to $1 million to write software for each. But neither Carnegie Mellon nor other institutions, which are invited to use its online courses, dares to use them without having a human instructor, too."

'Separately, many universities have put free videos online featuring their best lecturers. And Academic Earth, an aggregator Web site founded in 2009, makes the lectures easy to navigate. It says it offers 150 full university courses.

But even when lectures are accompanied with syllabuses, handouts, sample problem sets and other aids that Academic Earth has for some of its courses, is the experience really complete? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology also shares the raw materials of courses in its OpenCourseWare program. For the benefit of autodidacts who aren’t M.I.T. students, it strives to publish materials online for every M.I.T. course. But students cannot interact and do not receive vital feedback about their own progress that an instructor or software provides.

“Unlocking the Gates,” by Taylor Walsh (Princeton University Press) is a recently published history of M.I.T.’s online venture, as well as those of Columbia, Harvard, Yale, the University of California, Berkeley, and others. Comparing the book’s case studies, I found that Carnegie Mellon seems to have made the most progress in developing fully self-contained online courses. Anyone can use them free, with the proviso that Carnegie Mellon doesn’t offer credit.

But course credit can be earned at other institutions if instructors send their students to the site. Students pay nominal course registration fees, generally $15 to $60, and Carnegie Mellon sends data about each student’s progress to the instructor at the student’s home institution.

Carnegie Mellon, however, does not use these online courses as replacements for its own humanoid instructors. “Any tuition-driven, private university would have a hard time being the first one to make a change as drastic as offering an entirely automated course,” Ms. Walsh told me recently."

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