Throughout my teaching career, my preparation for a course and my delivery of a course changed little. I typically selected a set of readings from the best published literature that I could find; they were often assembled into a “coursepack” of duplicated articles. Each week several articles would be assigned for reading. I prepared lectures relevant to the readings, emphasizing what I believed were the key points in the readings, and providing what I believed was a conceptual structure of the ideas to frame the various readings. I assigned exercises of various types — most often requiring the students to go beyond just regurgitating the learned material and instead requiring them to combine the concepts to make new observations or use the concepts to solve a completely new problem not yet introduced in the lectures or readings. Both comprehension and expression of the information were the goal.
While I didn’t give much thought to this aspect of my class preparation, I was really not the only “instructor” in the class. The scholars whose work I assigned for reading were helping me (admittedly without their knowledge). I assigned what I believed were seminal contributions to the field for the students to read. I often assigned work from those using different approaches or coming to different conclusions, merely to force students to grapple with the disagreements that all fields possess. Many times, I judged the articles were better than what I could produce myself for the given issue. I thought that what I was doing was “my” course, but I wasn’t teaching “me;” I was teaching a field.
A different paradigm seems to be emerging, however. Courses using online technologies tend to be shorter than the traditional 15-week course. Indeed, in our own MOOCs we are using building-block modules that are designed to be useful in other courses. One can easily imagine that this might gradually affect how the products of scholars are presented in courses throughout the world. In addition to articles and books, we can all imagine small software modules associated with their contributions. These can be simulations of findings of research or visualizations of results. We can imagine a 10-15 minute lecture from the author of the seminal work, summarizing the chapter or article assigned. We can imagine a debate between two authors in video form on the details of the controversy. Thus, I’ll be helped in teaching from these “colleagues” in the field in some new ways. The “coursepack” of the future may be a multimedia mix of modules.
As I reflect on this, the value of the instructor in this new world is the same as that in the past. The instructor will assemble the pieces of a course based on his or her expert-judgment of the key concepts, techniques, and findings of the field, with special knowledge of the student audience. The best judgments will be made by faculty themselves working on the cutting-edge of their field, permitting them to update continuously their courses as the field evolves. In that sense, nothing has changed. The instructor is the still the director of the “play,” determining each scene, but the actors may be others, acting in new ways. What’s new is that the other actors will bring new tools to help the play.
This development, in my opinion, is quite different from what is happening on some campuses — the replacement of entire courses taught by local instructors by an imported online course. Indeed, we’ve read about faculty on such campuses rejecting such moves. The importation of whole online courses from other campuses, with no local faculty input or active involvement, asserts that an area doesn’t need this local expertise (beyond the selection of the course). Further, without continuous updating of the online course, it asserts that the knowledge represented in the imported course is forevermore static.
I know of few fields of human knowledge that are completely static. The future needs cutting-edge scholars as Georgetown faculty, as did the past; it needs courses that are continually updated. What’s new is that these faculty will have exciting new ways to present the work of others in their fields, to the benefit of all students.