How do we evaluate the value of face-to-face contact?
In the last few weeks, the focus of the MOOC debate seems to have shifted to an important question: Exactly what is the value of face-to-face contact? The President of Williams College, Adam F. Falk, published a piece in WSJ claiming that contact hours with a professor is the most important factor in learning.
A recent article in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine claims exactly the opposite (with no reference to support this dubious claim): “In fact, one of the core tenets of traditional learning—that face-to-face interaction between teacher and student is critical—is actually of almost no value, according to meta-analysis of education studies.” The very next paragraph starts with: “Meta-analysis shows that the other most effective educational tool is one-on-one tutoring.” So the tutoring is only valuable if it’s not face-to-face?
The below article by Walt Gardners raises a more reasoned critique of Falk’s WSJ piece. The question hasn’t been resolved one way or another for me, but it’s certainly one of the key questions in the debate over the value of MOOCs. What is lost when face-to-face contact is removed? How are on-line media forms best used for learning?
According to Falk, the curriculum, the choice of major, and the GPA do not predict self-reported gains in these critical outcomes nearly as well as “how much time a student spent with professors.” In other words, a professor can be a dud in the classroom and yet still be effective in helping students achieve the stated goals. How is that possible? I don’t doubt that the relationship between professors and students is an important factor in learning. But that’s not what Falk argues. Instead, he asserts that it’s the number of hours a professor logs with students after the bell rings that counts the most. I fail to see what that has to do with instruction.
The rebuttal is that not all learning takes place in the classroom. Fair enough. But “personal contact” can mean having coffee and talking about the latest fashions. ‘Im sure thats a pleasant way to spend time, but how does that translate into, say, being able to write effectively? I assume that the time spent with students does not involve tutoring because Falk never uses the word. The irony, of course, is that when teachers in K-12 complain about the need for small classes so that they have a better chance to know students and design lessons in line with their needs and interests, they are seen as making excuses.