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I had a conversation over lunch with a professor friend the other day about whether online classes are the future of academia -- at least for basic, quantitative classes like Calculus, which is one of the two classes I'm currently taking online.

I'm really loving taking calc online. At first I thought it was an OK substitute for taking it in person, but a lot of things about an online lecture class are better. For one thing, I can pause the lecture to do a problem myself and then unpause to watch him do the problem on the board, which is great practice. Second, I can rewind the lecture if I didn't understand or got lost in my own thoughts. Third, I can watch the parts of the lecture I already understand at 3x speed, which is so much nicer than being bored while he goes over things I already understand. It's also great to be able to watch the lectures whenever I want, which means I can work ahead in one of my classes if I have two assignments due the same day. We always tell students to do that, but often homework relies on a lecture they haven't had yet, in which case they're stuck.

At first I thought the online forums would be no substitute for asking questions in class, but in many ways they're better. I wouldn't get to ask many questions in a 97*-person class, which is what my calc class is. If the class were in real life, I'd get my questions answered by my friends in the class. In the online version, though, I get access to all the conversations classmates have had about the problem sets. Whenever I get stuck, chances are that someone else has gotten stuck in the same place and already asked my question. I can just read the replies they got, instead of making some poor TA go over the same problem over and over. (As an added bonus, the professor and TAs can read all the conversations the students have had, which must help when an academic integrity infraction is suspected.)

A downside occurred to me today, though, and I'm curious what you all think about it. Here's what I wrote to my friend:
It's a big time-saver for the professor that he can reuse a lecture year after year with different students. However, that means that he doesn't get the opportunity to experiment with teaching the material different ways and to figure out which ways are most effective. That seems bad in the long-term for professors' teaching skills.

If we imagine a future in which all college freshmen in the world (or at least the English-speaking world) take the same online calc class with lectures recorded by the best calc professor of all time (MIT's open courseware has calc lectures recorded in 1970!), then that's also a future in which nobody is learning how to teach calculus to other people. That just seems weird. I don't like the thought of having nobody, or a very small number of people, experienced at teaching calculus.

Then again, did bards make the same argument against the evils of recorded music? Did it bother people that we'd lose most of our campfire storytellers when books were invented? I think overall it's probably better to give everyone access to the same amazing recordings of Mozart than to leave us all stuck listening to our mediocre church pianists' renditions. (Church pianists might disagree...) Would it be OK for the same thing to happen to teaching?
* Just rechecked and it's up to around 145. Nice to know I wasn't the last slacker to add the class.
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