Who needs a prof?

Students turn to their laptops for free online courses from Ivy League scholars

Last year, I was obliged to take a course as part of my undergraduate political science degree. It was described as political game theory. I was thinking, “Like Russell Crowe doing John Nash in A Beautiful Mind?” But instead I got Victorian Britain and pre-Confederation Canada. As disappointments go, this was roughly equivalent to receiving coal for Christmas. But I needed to make it through the course, so I did what many others have done: I turned to the Internet. There, on a site called Academic Earth, I learned everything I was later tested on from Benjamin Polak, a professor of economics teaching at Yale, whose full course on game theory was videotaped and posted online, complete with worksheets and exams.

I used only Polak’s material for all my assignments and exams. And so I wondered: why was I paying for this class when I got a better education online and for free?

Sites like Academic Earth, Open Culture and iTunes U have immortalized lectures and debates of top academics from Yale, MIT and Harvard in the form of free, downloadable videos and podcasts, easily available on a laptop or iPhone. It’s instant Ivy League for the masses. “It may be a better resource for some students than a textbook,” says Polak, adding that he receives emails responding to his online course from all over the world.

Polak didn’t intend his course to be a substitution for real-life instruction at other universities. But students of general undergraduate courses like Poli 101 can and do turn to online resources like Academic Earth and even Wikipedia to learn much of their classwork. Classmate Geoff Costeloe studied solely for his upper-level political science exam this way. “I didn’t even buy a textbook,” he says.

It’s not just the proliferation of online information that encourages students to abandon their professors—it’s the structure of the classroom. “Clearly, to be effective you need face-to-face interaction and a more intimate environment than lecture halls with 300 to 400 students,” says David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Robinson says that while university enrolments continue to rise, there isn’t the same increase in the number of professors, which means “we do need to look at the quality of education.”

In the United States, there are similar cracks in the instructional facade. Universities “have an obligation to get their heads out of the sand,” says Julio Ojeda-Zapata, technology journalist for Pioneer Press, publisher of a raft of suburban newspapers in Chicago. He believes academia should adopt an entrepreneurial spirit to equip students with tools that prepare them for the business world. “College campuses are clinging to an archaic method that is being discouraged everywhere else,” he says. “I’m a little concerned about sending my son to an expensive four-year education that may be of little value.”

Some educators are calling for a radical change. Since 2006, Carl Wieman, a Nobel physics laureate, has been working at UBC to reshape science education. Wieman has oriented teaching methods away from memorizing facts—a method that Wieman says was made “obsolete since the printing press”—and toward complex, problem-solving exercises with an expert approach, facilitated by the faculty. “Now, you look in the classes,” he says, “and instead of students sitting there text messaging, falling asleep or not showing up to class, they are engaged.”

Similarly, William Rankin, an associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University, has been a primary mover behind equipping students at the Texas university with iPod Touches and iPhones. The program began in 2008, and now nearly half the student body have the devices. Rankin says teachers, too, are better off for it. The faculty uses the devices to overcome time delays between tests and feedback, get immediate class input, and participate in ongoing online discussions via blogs. “The medieval apprentice model in which people learned in these very personalized ways is exactly the type of learning we can see in this initiative,” says Rankin. “I do think that in the next two or three years you will see a groundswell of these sorts of initiatives.”

So what role is left for the teacher? To be effective, Wieman says, they must be “cognitive coaches” rather than conduits of information. Rankin believes that the change in pedagogy will happen soon. “It’s comparable to the introduction of a light switch,” he adds. “It’s just going to take a while for people to figure out what this looks like and how it works.”