Will Robots and Online Courses Replace Professors?

Last week, Harvard University and MIT announced that they are joining together to create a new online platform to host courses for free. Those who take a course from the new venture, edX, will not receive university credit but certificates. Each university has committed $30 million to the project, which will be overseen by a nonprofit equally governed by both schools.

A few weeks prior, a report revealed that machines — basically, robots — grade student essays about the same as human graders.

Is the mechanization and the webication of higher education inevitable?

As everyone is too aware, college is expensive and debt on student loans now exceeds a trillion dollars. With free lectures available from professors at Ivy League universities that students around the world clamor to get into, and with robots able to take over some of the functions of human instructors, might not administrators — watching the bottom line of their budgets — conclude there is less and less a need for faculty, for professors who need health benefits, office space, sabbaticals and so forth?

Big Changes Ahead For Higher Ed

In an article by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker, the president of Stanford, John Hennessy, says that there is nothing less than a “tsunami coming” in higher ed.

Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks describes a “rescrambling around the Web” of higher education, similar to that which has already happened to the newspaper and magazine business. Harvard and MIT aren’t the only Ivy League schools making aggressive inroads into online education: Stanford University professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller have started Coursera, a company that plans to offer “interactive courses” in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics and engineering, while partnering with other elites both public (the University of Michigan) and private (the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University).

Brooks lists the positives of such a change: Millions of people will now have access to lectures by world-class faculty and the influence of American universities will only spread. Research into online learning, says Brooks, “suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning” and especially for “language and remedial education.” Students can learn at their own pace and when they have time.

But of course just listening to lectures, whether you’re in an actual lecture hall or relaxing on your couch with your laptop, isn’t all there is to learning. Brooks cites Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech who has argued that the “webification” of education “turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available.”

How Can We Blend Online and Traditional Models of Higher Ed?

Rather than playing the curmudgeon and decrying the potential innovations endeavors like edX can offer, Brooks suggests that online education means that colleges will have “to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies.” Colleges and universities should think hard and, aware that the educational landscape is being radically altered by the internet, think about how to “blend online information with face-to-face discussion, tutoring, debate, coaching, writing and projects.”

These questions are highly personal for me. I’m a professor at a small college with a number of chronic issues, including too-low student enrollment and too-high tuition for the student population we serve (first-generation college students who were often not born in the U.S.). Our faculty does not include superstar professors who are global experts in their fields. I like to think — hope! — that I do a decent job teaching my students about the ancient Greeks and Romans.

But I also think that the changes and the challenges to traditional models of higher ed that Brooks highlights should be acknowledged and embraced, while figuring out how to preserve the one-on-one interactions that are fundamental to teaching. Just as we hate getting stuck in “phone tree hell” and never getting to speak to a live human being when calling customer service, so do students appreciate having a real live teacher who remembers not just their name, major and test scores, but the particulars of their family situation or an interest in theology that is masked by their taking only computer science courses for their major.

Would you take a course at edX?

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46 comments

Duane B.
.3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

devon leonard
Devon Leonard3 years ago

It is unimaginable not to have human connection..and this includes all types of teachers..!

Success Johnson
Success Johnson3 years ago

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Success Johnson
Success Johnson3 years ago

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Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

How will students learn to interact with others on a personal level if they are simply plugged in??

Jane Barton
Jane Barton3 years ago

Robots already have, they are Romney.

Brenda Towers
Brenda Towers3 years ago

Students need tutors too!

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

thanks for sharing

Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

Fantastic! Access to the best lectures and teachers in the world! Probably not for all lessons, but most, education without all the petty prejudices of teachers and the accompanying institutional racism and classism. Kids already know that the Internet is smarter than their teachers, a lot of children go to schools where the class sizes exceed 30 students. Out of an hours class, the teacher may provide a minute or two of one- on-one teaching per class...if they can be bothered to. 
This program gives everyone with access the same standard of education, democratises it. 
This is not about if it is going to happen or not. It is and no-one can stop it. It's about if you are going to be on that train or not? Thomas Ludd would love this site full of whingers and Fuddy duddies. Fuddy luddy duddies...

Will Rogers
Will Rogers3 years ago

Fantastic! Access to the best lectures and teachers in the world! Probably not for all lessons, but most, education without all the petty prejudices of teachers and the accompanying institutional racism and classism. Kids already know that the Internet is smarter than their teachers, a lot of children go to schools where the class sizes exceed 30 students. Out of an hours class, the teacher may provide a minute or two of one- on-one teaching per class...if they can be bothered to. 
This program gives everyone with access the same standard of education, democratises it. 
This is not about if it is going to happen or not. It is and no-one can stop it. It's about if you are going to be on that train or not? Thomas Ludd would love this site full of whingers and Fuddy duddies. Fuddy luddy duddies...