06/09/2013 04:23 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2013

My Teacher, the Robot

So here's the question: Would you rather watch your professor from the back of a massive lecture hall or on your iPhone? No pressure, but how you answer this question may determine the future of higher education.

A little context: I've been spending a lot of time thinking about MOOCs (those free online courses that enroll lots and lots of students). And Kevin Carey, a really smart guy when it comes to the future of higher education, just wrote about his experience taking one of those MOOCs. His conclusion? He was impressed, saying that professor Lander (or "Robot Lander," as he called him in watching the MOOC videos) "is pretty great."

So let's be clear: MOOCs (or robots) can't replicate deep learning. They won't replace a profound question from a thoughtful professor or mimic a dynamic seminar discussion; they won't excite the weary or prod the recalcitrant student into action.

But, to be honest, not much of higher education does that either. Most teaching is pretty dry, delivering basic information in lecture-style formats. Most students are unengaged, and far too many drop out.

So the issue is not an either/or: dynamic professors or robotic technology. The basic question is whether I'm going to learn fairly boring stuff sitting in the back of a massive lecture hall or watching it on my tiny iPhone screen. Neither way is great, but, trust me here, there is no pedagogical Shangri La somewhere at another university down the road.

In fact, as Carey points out, more and more courses are going to be "taught using a technological foundation, at a higher level of quality than what students currently experience, for less money. Not all of it, certainly. But a lot more than people realize or want to admit, and the percentage is only going to grow over time." That's exactly right.

And that "technological foundation" is what is going to stream across your iPhone. That tiny screen lets you watch the lecture at your own pace, whenever and wherever you want. You can hit the "pause" button to answer a text from a friend or hit rewind to listen to a certain argument one more time. Sure, some of you will chose the traditional lecture hall because it feels "normal" or it forces you to come at a regular time or you just like seeing your friends.

But here's the thing: if just 10 or 20 percent of you chose the iPhone as the answer (and in general, the research suggests that it is much more than that who decide to skip a lecture if it has been recorded and put online), then all of a sudden I have done something drastic. I have created a way for professors to use their time differently, to better engage students, to hone and perfect their lectures, to explore new ways to demonstrate the really difficult ideas.

Put otherwise, I have put a robot in charge of the basic instruction so that the faculty can truly teach the deep stuff. Robotic technology saves dynamic professors!

Now, I'm not going to lie; many folks think that once technology takes over, there won't be any professors left. I hear that. But I would rather place my bets on thinking about how to use the robotic technology rather than pretending it doesn't exist. I'm not going to delete Google Maps from my iPhone because I have a paper map crunched up in the glove compartment. Similarly, I will embrace the robot, my teacher, as far as it can take me. And so will every other person signed up for free trying to learn something new. It won't make me or them fully educated. But it will change how all of us who work in colleges and universities think about the process of teaching and learning. That is big stuff and, yes, the future of higher education.

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