Larry Summers is a very smart and very powerful man. And has a lot of wise things to say about education. But one of his notions (which is also shared by Bill Gates) deserves more scrutiny. Summers has argued recently that colleges and universities should back off on hiring faculty because they are content experts. Instead, they should show their students the classes of the best professors in the world. The inevitable result, in his thinking, would be smarter students all over the world since they had all learned at the feet of the best professors. Let's call this view the "best course model."
Now you can see the appeal of this idea. Why not, after all, make the best education possible available to the most students possible? And why limit access to the best professors to the small group who manage to get accepted to the universities where they teach?
Attractive notions, both of them, but hardly likely to result from some sort of massive national screening of courses taught at Stanford, or Berkeley, or Harvard. Why?
- Faculty at prestigious universities are rarely the best teachers of their disciplines. They are, instead, the best researchers in their fields, who teach an occasional course for undergraduates. This is not to say that all professors at top universities are poor teachers (think, for example, of Michael Sandel's course on justice), only that the question of quality, which is assumed in the proposals of Gates and Summers, is actually quite complex, and is unlikely to be resolved by picking courses offered by "the best professors."
- The main motivation behind this notion is prestige, and prestige is rarely a good motivator for learning. Think, for instance, if through some sort of process it was determined that the best physics teacher in the world was at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah. How many colleges would select his/her course as the basis of their own physics courses? Hardly any, if we can extrapolate from the world of textbook publishing, which is dominated by texts from faculty at top universities (or by textbooks written by committees of faculty from top universities), or from the world of open content learning, which is dominated by the content offered at MIT, Yale, and Stanford, not that shared by faculty at regular colleges and universities across the globe.
- Learning is not guaranteed to be the result of watching lectures taught by the best professors in the world. What evidence we have about learning suggests that it happens in active learning settings, where students are responsible for puzzling through problems, struggling through assignments, critiquing each others work, putting theory into action in the community, etc. In other words, watching the "best" courses is likely only to replace a very small portion of what has to happen in order for students to learn. The bulk of it will still have to happen in the interaction of students, teachers, course material, and the real world.
- Many of the best courses are idiosyncratic, and apply only in particular settings at particular times. Try to imagine, for example, what the best freshman literature course would look like. What would its content be? Which books would students read? What would they write? Which theories of literature would be welcomed? Which would be shunned? Or try watching the lectures from "basic" courses at MIT and Yale. Many of the professors are wonderful. And most make choices about content which faculty and students wonder about. Gates and Summers can be forgiven for assuming that agreement on content would be a simple thing. Their fields--computer science and economics--may have a more standardized set of assumptions about the content of introductory courses. But most disciplines don't share that level of agreement. And past the first few courses, even the most standardized disciplines give way to specialization based on the interests and assumptions of the faculty who teach those courses.
- Standarization, not excellence, is likely to be the outcome of widespread adoption of the best course model. Now Summers is comfortable with a centralized, standardized model, since it is the model that most respects the worlds in which he leads. But as long as education is about helping real students with real aspirations reach those goals, and the varied goals of their institutions, the best course model is an impediment to the development of students as learners and as people.