Are Professors Obsolete?

We economics professors like to point out – or at least I do – that downsizing is a good thing. Aren’t you glad that blacksmiths were downsized because of the automobile? But we don’t like it when this argument is turned on us. Steve Pearlstein writes:

Every year… there are thousands of college professors who twice or three times a week offer what is largely the same basic lecture course in a subject like molecular biology or Shakespeare comedies. A few of these professors offer the kind of brilliant lectures that fill auditoriums and provide the kind of educational experience that students remember all their lives. Many of the rest offer something that ranges from mediocre to awful….why don’t we identify these extraordinary lecturers, put their lectures on CDs, and sell them to universities that could supplement them with faculty-led tutorials or discussions?

Pearlstein points out that Mark Taylor, a Williams College philosophy professor, and Herb Allen, a Wall Street financier, tried to do just this at Williams College but not surprisingly the faculty resisted and vehemently voted the idea down.

The response from educators when presented with ideas like this is that students need face-to-face interaction with faculty, CDs can’t answer questions, material has to be kept updated etc. But none of this is really convincing. I teach Econ 101 well, but it’s not obvious, even to me, that students would not learn as much with a DVD of Kenneth Elzinga or Timothy Taylor or the late Paul Heyne, to name three great teachers of economics, supplemented with live tutorials and problem sessions. Needless to say, the latter scheme, would be cheaper.

I think that we faculty will manage to beat back these ideas for another ten to twenty years but eventually the benefits of the technological approach will become overwhelming. When this happens teaching will become more of a winner-take-all superstar market and wages for the rest of us will fall.