What's Missing in the Vision of Stanford’s Hennessy

How teaching will change.

March 17, 2015
I hope that you take a few minutes to read the 3/16 IHE story Not a Tsunami, But… about Stanford’s John L. Hennessy talk at ACE
President Hennessy is making the case that platforms such as MOOCs and adaptive learning will enable change in how introductory courses are taught. Today, every professor at every university handcrafts and delivers a bespoke set of lectures.  
In the future, the job of crafting and delivering these lectures will be handed off to the few professors and institutions able to invest a vast set of resources to create high quality (and data validated) teaching materials (including lectures). These digital lectures will be complemented by, and integrated with, a set of robust formative and summative assessments.  
The local professors role will evolve from the performative role most common in large enrollment classes, to a more personal and intimate coaching and mentoring set of tasks. When the local professor does lecture, it will be for shorter durations (10 minutes not 50), and on areas of the curriculum that the students are struggling. (Which are made apparent by all the formative and summative digital assessments).  
Let me provide an alternative vision.
I don’t think that the handcrafted and bespoke lecture is going away anytime soon. Nor should it. What is missing from President Hennessy’s narrative of the future is the recognition that introductory courses are not standardized commodities. The best intro courses are those where the faculty bring in their own research and their own perspectives. These are courses in with the professors situates the foundational theories, methods, and data of the discipline within the context of her own work. The lectures in a great introductory course are less an explication of information, but rather a conversation with the discipline. Professors will not want to, nor should they, cede this conversation to an outsourced provider.
Where president Hennessy is correct is that all the new platforms and technologies and open content will change teaching. This change will be most dramatic in large-enrollment introductory courses. The universe of new methods, techniques, content, and technologies will be integrated and absorbed into the creative act of large-course teaching. 
This integration is being aided by a growing cadre of instructional designers, media specialists, and assessment experts who are increasingly collaborating with faculty on course design.  These collaborations between faculty and non-faculty educators began with online learning programs (traditional and MOOCs), and is now diffusing into residential teaching.  
The reasons for all this integration and collaboration in introductory courses is quality. Courses that receive lots of inputs are better courses.  
The bar for introductory course quality is being raised, and being raised quickly, by MOOCs. Residential courses, offered for matriculated (paying) students, must offer significantly greater value than free open online courses. At every institution that visit (and I’ll grant you that my sample is not representative), the introductory large-enrollment course is being rethought, redesigned, and reconfigured.  
The fast rising quality of traditional residential introductory courses is a story that I think the educational press and pundits has largely missed. We talk all the time about rising higher ed costs, and we should. But we should also be aware of the renaissance in teaching and learning that is occurring across the higher ed ecosystem.
How would you evaluate these alternative visions?


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