26 February 2008

The future of teaching

TED talks have shown up in this blog a lot, because they are just so good. Below, Chris Anderson, who runs that conference, is interviewed below, and has a lot of interesting things to say.

He talks a little about the success of the TED talks, using Hans Rosling as an example (see his now classic presentations here and here), makes these interesting observations:
When you think about what that means for the role of teacher in our society, I think it's really interesting. The role of teacher now, in the last couple of decades, has been one where everyone says, "Oh yes, that's a terribly important job, passing on knowledge to the next generation," but no one of ambition, very few people of ambition, do it. Because it pays so poorly and it's hard.

That's changing, because the economics of the internet have dropped... in the last two years, it's spectacular what's happened. The de facto cost of a teacher, live, filmed, giving a talk, where you can see them in their full glory, giving, being inspiring, sharing their ideas, and so forth... The cost of transferring that to someone on the other side of the world, two or three years ago, was two dollars. One transfer, person to person. Because you would have to burn it on a DVD and mail it to them. Even at scale, the incremental cost of adding on a person would be two dollars. So, of course, it didn't happen.

Broadband internet, the online video revolution, you know, it's not just about YouTube. For these teachers as well, the de facto cost of doing that same thing has fallen to about a penny. That's so cheap that a sponsor will pick up the cost. So it's free.

So that means, we're just seeing, we're on the verge of the really early stages of this, an explosion of knowledge and the transformation of what it means to be a great teacher. So instead of going into teaching thinking, "Oh, I'm going to influence 30 people a year if I'm lucky," some teachers, at any rate, can go into teaching knowing that if they're great, they will change the world. They will have a global audience in the millions.
A long time ago, I read a comment on why university professors were often poor teachers. A mediocre researcher might be known around the world, but the reputation of the very best teacher stops at the edge of campus.

Sad, but often true. Indeed, I can only think of one professor who had a reputation for teaching a brilliant class. Don Abbott. And I do admit that my Ph.D. supervisor and some of my friends took the classes for which he was famous, but that is not how I learned of his reputation as a phenomenal teacher. So great was his reputation for his instruction that a book was published that was based in large part on notes from that class and included work from students.

But Anderson is right: now, the best lecturers can gain fame as being a superb lecturer. Walter Lewin provides another superb example.

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