The Digital University: the Problem of Motivation

October 3, 2011

New York Times columnist Bill Keller has an op-ed piece in today’s print edition called “The University of Wherever.”  (Keller is a former managing editor of the Times.)  He considers a new university model in which technology would make possible high quality education everywhere, whenever, for a fraction of the current costs.  That utopian conception is hardly a new one.

What makes the piece interesting is his discussion of some efforts and some ideas of Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford Professor of robotics who is siezed with the possibilities of such a digital university”

Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me. …. The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity.

Keller notes that Stanford President John Hennessy is intrigued by Thrun’s conception, but adds:

“Hennessy is a passionate advocate for an actual campus, especially in undergraduate education. There is nothing quite like the give and take of a live community to hone critical thinking, writing and public speaking skills, he says. And it’s not at all clear that online students learn the most important lesson of all: how to keep learning.”

I have a different worry.  I can imagine that a digital university could work well for students who already know that they want an education and are motivated to pursue it.  What’s much harder to imagine is how we deliver an effective, mostly on-line education to the very much larger numbers of students who aren’t already motivated, who don’t see the point.  Most students don’t come with that motivation pre-installed.  It is for these students (whether in the United States or Uganda or Uruguay) that personal interactions with a teacher prove to be critical.  Those interactions are essential for making education an interesting and compelling project in which to devote one’s energies. Of course the content of learning is important.  But it is encouragement and challenge, not content, that are the most important things teachers provide.

Once a student is motivated to learn, I believe the possibilities of the distributed on-line (and less expensive!) education are quite substantial.  But I don’t believe that the utopia of a digital university is taking the challenge of motivation fully into account.

 

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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