What is the Value of Face Time with a Professor?

Thomas Friedman wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about a new online education company called Coursera, which will be offering online courses from a wide variety of Universities across the country. This is an important new trend in education and hopefully one that will help to equalize education opportunity in this country.

I wrote a blog piece earlier this year about the free MIT and Harvard online courses being offered through MITx. For the most part, the MITx courses will not offer a degree or certificate upon completion. The Coursera program appears to offer a little more, including certificates of completion and the option of linking students to potential job openings.

While I see a lot of potential in this new model, a brilliant fellow blogger Hugh, who was a philosophy professor for decades, commented on my blog post. He noted that a large part of an education comes from the interaction between students and their professor, and between students.

Hugh has a great point. We discussed that perhaps a hybrid model could be created with a mix of online and in-person learning. When an online program is offering courses for less than $100 a course and many institutions are currently charging about $40,000 per year, what is the true value of that face time with a professor and classmates?

What do you think? Do you think that schools will be able to continue to charge the exorbitant rates that they are charging now when faced with this new type of competition? Do you think that this type of online learning will take off in the United States? Do you have other ideas to make access to high quality education more affordable?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading.   


Filed under Career Planning, Education, Income inequality, Youth Leadership

27 responses to “What is the Value of Face Time with a Professor?

  1. Having graduated from college all of a year ago, I think there’s definitely something to be said for being able to have a face-to-face interaction with your professor. I can’t remember where I read this, but someone said recently that if there was no benefit to seminars, colleges would have died out with the printing press. Having said that, a lot of interaction with students could be facilitated through video chat, instant messaging, etc., and this will only get better with time. This definitely provides a great way for people to get an education without the high price tag. As for the value of face time, I’d say it would depend on the expected future income of a student who had it compared to the EFI of one that didn’t. No idea how to measure that, though.

    • Thanks for the comment! I wonder if there will be differences in income based on this, or just differences in knowledge and experience. Maybe over the long term that will impact incomes. I will be very interested to see how this evolves. It could also help a lot of working people who need to study during non-traditional hours. Very interesting and exciting! Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      • Ah, I should have been more specific. I’ve heard about employers treating online degrees as less valuable than degrees from a ‘physical’ college. I’m not sure if that’s only for a certain type of online degree, but I could see how that might lead to different incomes.

  2. Karl

    Hi Jennifer!

    I think face time with a professor CAN help learning. It CAN even be irreplaceable. But a lot depends on the professor. Some really don’t do the interactive conversation thing. Some can do it, but they don’t have time or opportunity to do it. I had one professor in law school who read his lectures word-for-word, exactly the same, year after year. In fact over the years, students had assembled a printed “verbatim” every word he said. It was a little uncanny to read along as spoke. I just had another professor who could easily have have been great in conversations, but the class was large and to cover the material, he couldn’t allow too many questions. He also had just been appointed dean, so he didn’t have time to hold office hours.

    Add to that the fact that prices for university educations are going up rapidly. Add to that the fact that they generally have not been asked to justify those costs. The accountability push seen in K-12 hasn’t made its way into colleges.

    So I think there is a fair amount of waste in the traditional university setting. As in anything, there are a few incredibly productive educators, but most sort of chug through it, and not entirely because they want to. Young professors, the ones who do most of the actual teaching are under great pressure to produce scholarship. My sister-in-law was actually told she needed to stop talking so much to students and advising so many grad students. It was hurting her scholarship (and thereby failing to enhance the prestige of her already prestigious university.)

    Further, interaction with a professor is great for teaching certain things and not for others. It is great for teaching how to think critically, how to question, how to make arguments, things like that. It is not really useful for things like rote memorization, which is still necessary in things like languages.

    So I think it is entirely healthy to offer what is perhaps a second-rate education at a tiny fraction of the price, perhaps midway between self-guided learning through books and tutorials (cheap but extremely unstructured) and traditional university courses (expensive and highly structured, and highly variable in quality.)

    There is a concept from economics that says if you offer a range of products at various costs, you are more likely to please a wide range of people, and thereby make more money.

    And that approach lines up with a competencies-based approach you are finding in industry, where instead of looking for an employee with a college degree, you look for one who can demonstrably perform the actual specific skill you need. You see that in the various computer certification programs (some certificates are more valuable than actual degrees, it seems). Where there are no certificates, some organizations are using tests (“instruments” in the parlance) borrowed from the social sciences, or even creating their own. There is no reason why that approach couldn’t work in medicine or law, for example. If somebody knows everything a doctor does, why shouldn’t that person be a doctor? Some people worry that that approach fails to recognize higher level skills, the kind you hopefully get from a broad liberal education. I would respond that it isn’t clear that liberal arts students are actually learning those higher level skills, and anyway, if a job does require those skills, industry will pay to find or develop those skills, even if they are vague and hard to define. The number of professional “leadership training” programs is mushrooming, even though it isn’t clear that they actually work.

    Face time with a professor is expensive for the institution and the professor. For greatest efficiency, that time should be reserved for the professors who are best at it, the students who will benefit from it most, and the subject that requires it. I think professors should be trained in face-to-face interactive education, and the best should go on to actually do it. And that truly excellent service should be made available only to students who could take fullest advantage of it. If the rest can learn merely to write clearly and perform basic math, that will be an improvement.

    Actually, now that I think about it, writing may be a special case: a low-level skill that nonetheless requires some with a human being. I don’t see software right now that can do that, not even very advanced stuff like Watson (who played and won at Jeopardy.) There might be a call for thousands of miserable grad students to stop teaching history or whatever and start teaching millions of hapless college students how to write a clear sentence. I have a friend who teaches legal writing at a mid–level law school, and she finds that typically, about half of the class doesn’t know how to use a comma. And these are actual law students, something of an elite cadre, who all made great grades and presumably had plenty of face time with their professors.

    Anyway. 🙂

    • Awesome comment, Karl! I agree that some professors don’t have time for interaction with their students outside the classroom. In fact, I have heard more complaints about that fron people who went to the Ivy League, pricier schools. And it does seem like there is some room for reform in higher education. I’m pretty excited about the potential for these types of online programs, but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  3. Ahh…got it. That makes sense! It will be very interesting to see what weight employers give to these various types of degrees.

  4. It does seem that many of the large lower-level classes in most colleges and universities could be taught on the internet. That would save universities a great deal of money and free-up the professors to teach upper-level classes. It’s not clear that students get much out of large lectures with 200-300 students in them as things now stand. I don’t see why those classes couldn’t be just as effective on the computer: they are, in many cases, mostly about conveying information. But the real thinking and learning comes in smaller classes with people talking to one another at the upper levels. In this way, it might be possible for students to save considerable amounts of money and the universities to free-up the faculty for smaller, upper division classes. Teaching assistants could be available to respond to questions on-line and that way help to pay their way through graduate school. Something like this might be a start, at any rate.
    It does seem to me that this is the wave of the future, and the best we can hope for is some sort of compromise.

    • Hi Hugh! Thanks for your comment. I really like that idea! I do remember a lot of classes with too many students where interaction with the professor was not realistic. But watching the Michael Sandel classes showed what a teacher could do to engage students and encourage students to learn from each other and from their professors, despite the size of the class. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, as usual!

      • Hi Jennifer!
        I don’t see why lectures couldn’t be recorded or delivered live on the internet by scintillating lecturers like the one you mention. And testing could be done by machines. But this would have to be at the lower levels and at the upper levels there would have to be active interaction between those in the class. In this way, colleges could eventually become two-year colleges and universities with only upper-level classes offered on campus. This would save students a great deal of money and the colleges could cut their costs as well. It wouldn’t be as good an education as four years of small classes with other students and lively instructors. But it might be what is coming. Something to think about…

        • That would be a great proposition to make to universities; just get all those signatures from students and professors and see what happens!

          newsofthetime, I have a bit more to say on this great topic you are sharing so will come back later with more thoughts.

          I want to say that your blog has quality content and is easy to read. Really good subjects to talk about thanks to your choices.

          I also want to say that you reference The New York Times quite a bit, are you affiliated with them somehow, or do you intend to only write posts that are inspired by the magazine?

          Thanks so much for visiting my blog and liking one of my latest posts, I enjoyed coming by.

          • Thanks so much for stopping by and for the wonderful compliment. No, I have no affiliation with the New York Times other than worshiping their work. 🙂 I do try to find content from other news outlets, but for me, The New York Times is the tops! I think at first I thought I might only do NYT stories, but I do occasionally branch out. And I agree, Hugh – you could really be onto something with your idea. Maybe a second career? Thanks again for your sweet comment! I am new to this and really appreciate it!

    • I wonder if one on one time with professsors could increase in this model or if small cohorts could be developed for the in-person time. I do worry about how technologized (if that isn’t a word it should be) life is for young people these days. Something has to happen to require more interpersonal interaction for kids, in my opinion, to help them develop into high functioning adults. I wworked for a great organization called Amigos de las Americas that really helped with this. You shouldd check them out at http://www.amigoslink.org. It’s a great little organization whose value is even more in tthis technologized society.

  5. Pingback: What is the value of face time with a professor? « thinking the unthinkable

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article! And I have to say that I agree with Hugh on education being about the interaction between professors or students. I’ve taken a couple of on-line courses and to be honest I’ve discovered that I’m one of those people who really needs to sit in a classroom to learn and I need a professor to stand in front me and explain things. I never put much effort into my online classes because at times it didn’t feel like it mattered and I missed the interactions between professors. Also a thing that I hated with online classes was discussions because you never knew if people were getting offended by your comments since you couldn’t see their reactions to what you were saying.

    Also relationships between professors and students has a lot to do with what you give into it. When I was in first year I barely visited a prof during his/her office hours, however when I got to second year that changed and in my last year I was at their office hours on a weekly basis and I greatly benefited from that. But I do agree that a hybrid model can definitely work, even I would be willing to try that out.

    Once again Thanks for writing such a great article!

    • Thank you for your kind compliment! And for reading and responding! I honestly would not have thought much about this if it were not for Hugh’s excellent comments on a prior post. I thought that online education could be the great equalizer that could help make an education more affordable for more kids – and my father is a professor, so shame on me! But I completely agree about the need for that interaction with a professor, if only to ensure accountability. If I didn’t need that I would be both fluent in Spanish and a fantastic guitar player. In part because of the lack of oversight, I am currently neither. Thanks again so much for your comment!

      • You’re welcome and thank you for following my blog! I think online education is a good tool in the sense that it forces you to ‘educate yourself’ using unstructured time, but it’s hard to get used if you’re accustomed to having an instructor talk in front of you. I think universities should maybe take the time to introduce online courses in the first year as mandatory maybe? Or even provide like an in class guide to online learning instead of sending emails because I think an instructor can help with figuring out time management issues and give tips on proper etiquette for online discussions. I haven’t had the best online discussion experience because I’ve been attacked for my opinions and I understand that it’s hard for TA’s and professors to moderate discussions, but you can figure out a way to deal with that right.

        • Good idea. I wonder if the kids entering college are so used to being online that they would not have such a difficult transition as I would. Although I do think the human component is critical and something that can be missing in the day to day lives of kids these days. I like the idea of first year classes being taught online and having more interaction with professors aand fellow students later. This would entail some cultural shifts, as in the current tradition many students experience their first taste of living away from home, etc. in their freshman year. And it does seem that high schools would have to adapt to prepare kids for this type of self-initiated learning. But I think it is a promising idea and hope Hugh turns it into a reality! Thanks again for stopping by.

  7. Pingback: She Works Hard for the Money: Should Universities Do More to Prepare Students for the Workplace? | newsofthetimes

  8. This is an interesting question, and some interesting thoughts above. As a young prof who has just taught his first online course – basic stats for two students at a satellite campus nine hours away – I can say that the online experience cannot replace real face-to-face learning. We learn when we interact with ideas, and this requires the ability to respond and have feedback. While statistics may seem like the sort of course that one could lecture on, many of the ideas are subtle and counter-intuitive, requiring the students to process them in the light of their own experiences and worldviews.

    That said, many large lectures are no more interactive than an online video. The advantage here is that different people learn differently – some are visual, some auditory, some theoretical. Personally, I cannot absorb info from textbooks, and I wish I had had online lectures not to replace face-to-face interactions but to replace textbooks.

    The solution I’d propose is to eliminate large undergrad lectures (more than 30 students). It’s not just students who hate them: profs do too, for the most part. TAs could supervise small discussion groups, and course materials could include pre-recorded online lectures and textbooks, with students able to choose what works for them. Teaching time of professors could be reserved for advanced courses with fewer students.

    • Alan makes some excellent points! But the idea is to lower the costs of education which have risen precipitously in the last few decades. Reducing the number of students in classes is ideal but very expensive — even if taught by TAs. It would be my personal choice. But I do believe that online instruction is here to stay and we need to make the best of a bad situation. That is why we need some model that combines online instruction (as Alan suggests to replace the large lectures) with small discussion groups. Whatever “delivery system” we choose, there must be an opportunity for students to interact with the instructors. But with online instruction, they don’t get a chance to interact with other students, which is a real loss.

      • I wonder how you and Alan and others could turn this idea into action? I wonder if there are federal funds available to pilot something like this, since it could have the potential of saving money and still achieving good outcomes for kids. Thanks for thinking through this in such a thoughtful manner. It is an exciting idea!!

    • Thanks so much for your comment! It is really great to hear from Professsors like you and former Proffesors like Hugh. It is clear that both of you care deeply about your students and want what is best for them, which is inspiring. I have to agree that online courses are not ideal – I know that type of learning does not work well for me. And I think that kids have many fewer opportunities for interpersonal interaaction than I had when I was younger. I have to believe there will be a price tot pay for this. But I do like the cost-effectiveness of this new type of learning. I think you and Hugh are really onto something with the idea of saving interactions with professors for the more advanced classes. Hugh even wrote a post on his blog laying out the plan in more depth. You should check it out. Maybe you two could turn it into a reality. It does seem to be the wave of the future. Thanks again soo much for reading and commenting!

  9. Hi Jennifer!
    You really struck a chord with this blog, didn’t you?? It’s nice to read all the thoughtful comments. But Alan will have to go it alone. I don’t have the energy any more. I have written a book on the subject of education as well as a number of articles. And I fought an intransigent administration for many years. It is exhausting. There are many issues that need to be addressed in higher education, but something like this would be a step in the right direction.

    • My guess is that we are not the only ones with these opinions, and that slowly academia (or at least the best of academia) will arrive at solutions like we’ve suggested. In the meantime, we will have to put up with hard-headed or money-obsessed administrators. Not that we can ignore financial consequences, but there’s a tendency to undervalue things we can’t give a precise value to…

  10. I can imagine the educational heirarchies and tradition could make initiating change difficult. But I do think you are onto something and we can say it was our idea when someone else makes a fortune implementing it! 🙂 Are there any initiatives that you all are aware of that encourage professors to exchange these types of ideas, which can turn into meaningful change for the system? Some of this seems like it will simply be necessary changes for basic survival.

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