About 50 years ago, a US economics professor by the name of
William Baumol, analyzed certain activities that had not
experienced any productivity gains for long periods of time.
These activities included such things as opera, theater, and
education, among others.
He pointed out the production technology of education had not changed much over time. The typical process involves one worker (the professor) standing in front of about 50 consumers (students) and delivering a service in about 60 minutes (the lecture). The output is one lecture per hour to 50 consumers. This process and this rate of output per unit input has not changed much in a century and a half.
This is very different from the experience of most manufacturing processes over the same period. Enormous productivity advances have been experienced in virtually all manufacturing processes with the result that today's worker produces far more output than his counterpart from even 50 years ago. All this has happened with the help of new energy sources (such as electricity) and new production processes (mechanization and automation).
Goods and services that do not experience productivity gains over time tend to become very expensive and to disappear unless they supported by public subsidies. This is part of the reason why opera and theater and education are sustained by public subsidies in most western societies.
Does education now stand at the cusp of change? I believe that it does. To understand how, it helps to conceive of the delivery of education as consisting of three distinct parts featuring different roles for the teacher: generation of knowledge (teacher as researcher); delivery of information (teacher as lecturer) and the conversion of information into knowledge useful to the student (teacher as discussion leader and facilitator).
It used to be that all three parts were delivered by one individual, the master or professor. Since about 100 years ago, the easy availability of textbooks has meant that the first part could be done by someone else and the other two parts could be handled by the classroom teacher. And now, the spread of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other online information sources suggests that the second part can also be done outside the typical classroom and only the third part needs to be handled in the classroom.
Many would argue that the third part of the education process, the conversion of information into knowledge useful to the student, is the most important part of a typical classroom experience and that is why face to face encounters between teachers and students is a must. I agree. That is why I think the classroom experience will be redesigned so that the time spent on a lecture is replaced by time spent on discussions and facilitation by the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher of the future must be very good at the third part. Students can access the first and second parts elsewhere and that too in a way that is better than what may be possible in a given classroom with a given teacher.
All this requires a fundamental rethink of the role of the classroom teacher. There will be resistance from many sources. This is to be expected since a major profession is finally about to experience change. But resistance will ultimately be overcome by the great productivity advantage available to any academic manager who delivers education services in the manner suggested here, by separating the classroom teacher's role as lecturer from his or her role as discussion guide and facilitator.
New digital technology and MOOCs promise a great jump in education productivity. A typical classroom teacher can only handle 50-100 students in one lecture while a MOOC can be delivered to thousands, even millions. This is already happening. Many university teachers have set up MOOCs with enormous enrolments. Aggregator services such as edX, Coursera and so forth provide access to MOOCs, some for free and for a modest fee.
Why would we not want our students to benefit from the best lecturer in the world for free or even a modest charge? Why should we not redesign what goes on in a typical classroom so that our students can benefit from online sources of information?