A common cultural trope of the incompetent teacher is one who plays videos for their students on a regular basis instead of lecturing and overseeing in-class activities and projects. Yet that’s exactly the kind of education one Republican senator would like to see college students receive.
During a recent appearance on WisPolitics, a state political news service, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) suggested that the country could save money on higher education costs by cutting back on instructors — and instead allowing students to learn from Ken Burns videos and the internet.
“If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?” Johnson said. “You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.”
Johnson also criticized what he called the “higher education cartel” and said he wanted to know why, if “we’ve got the internet,” there need to be different instructors to teach the same subjects in the first place.
“…Or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape…?”
Professors would probably challenge the notion that they only “kind of know” the subjects they’re teaching and must be interchangeable with professors. And in his advocacy of learning primarily online, Johnson forgets that the research shows that many students are put at a disadvantage when they don’t have in-person interactions with professors.
The Columbia University’s Community College Research Center produced nine studies on the subject of online learning that consistently show that students enrolling in these classes are more likely to fail or withdraw. It’s unclear how Johnson believes students will benefit from the supposed cost savings of online education when they aren’t successful in their classes. The center did find that students in hybrid classes, where there are elements of both online and traditional classes, were not at a greater academic disadvantage compared to students in fully traditional classes.
But as one professor who taught both online and traditional courses noted in The Fiscal Times, there are many downsides to an online-only education. Students may not be able to stop the lecture to ask a question so they can keep up, the connection to the professor isn’t the same, it’s more difficult to build study groups, and multiple-choice exams are often favored in place of essays, which may put some students at a disadvantage, the professor wrote.
Professors of different economic backgrounds, genders, sexual preferences, races, and ethnicity also bring different approaches to the table. Students of color may be interested in a less Eurocentric approach to learning about world history, for example. Last fall, a Columbia University student wanted to switch classes with a white student so that she could take her class on Contemporary Civilizations from a professor of color. Would students from different classes and schools have intellectually stimulating debates about the effects of major historical events on different groups of people if they all had the same professor or a handful of professors to choose from? Perhaps not.
Of course, none of Johnson’s comments are surprising given Wisconsin lawmakers’ approach toward teachers’ labor rights and higher education funding. State support of public higher education dropped to an all-time low in the 2015–2016 fiscal year, Politifact reported, and schools across the University of Wisconsin system have been forced to cut courses, laid off staff, and reduced student services.
Ken Burns tweeted in response to a Huffington Post story on Johnson’s comments:
I'm here to support teachers, not replace them. https://t.co/AXaSE0z0uD
— Ken Burns (@KenBurns) August 23, 2016