Education is changing. But what’s not going away? Face-to-face interactions

By Richard Nieva , written on April 3, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s fun to speculate about what the future of education will look like. No books! No classrooms! Viewing lectures in your pajamas! 

The same fantasies of students are the same fears of some teachers and fuddy-duddy administrators: School becoming some Wild West, devoid of much structure. Well, bad news for the former and good news for the latter: Many of education's big disrupters don't see face-to-face interactions, mentorship and supervision going away in this bold new era. And by "face-to-face" we don't mean Skype. We mean students and faculty actually gathering in the same place. Good, old fashioned, twentieth century human interaction.

To many, online education is about leveraging the power of reduced in-person interactions -- not eliminating them altogether.

The place where it's getting reduced the most is in the lecture hall and the classroom. You don’t have to be a futurist to see that online video will be a central part of the learning process as schools evolve. Next-gen education startups like Khan Academy and Udacity have already put it front and center in a way that makes the streaming feed or video lecture paramount to organized education.

And while that indeed is the most efficient use of the technology, not every exchange between teacher and pupil will be through a screen.

“People have come up with these extreme scenarios where all of a sudden everything changes, but in the history of humanity, that never happens,” says Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity. His company bills itself as the future of online education. Udacity has raised $21 million in funding and has some 200,000 active students. Users can sign up and take free classes, and track their progress on the website. College students can take lower cost courses, some offering credit at their universities.

Thrun is a man who lives in the future -- he helped create self-driving cars and Google glass. You can't get much more science fiction than that. So it's telling that even his vision of education in the future involves doing the boring and housekeeping stuff online (even the, “Hi, my name is…” intros), and doing the more inherently communal stuff with a teacher in person. For example, a critique of your work would most likely be done face-to-face. “That way, you can just jump right in,” he says.

Another concern with getting rid of face-to-face interactions would be, at a basic level, the lack of some kind of “adult supervision,” allowing someone to cheat and game the system. If current events have taught us anything, it’s that anything can be hacked. From government agencies to credit card companies to news outlets, it’s all fair game for a wily hacker. So why can’t someone hack his way though an online course?

Thrun said that one way to combat cheating would be to use the proctor method for big tests. If you remember back to your SATs, the proctors were the ones sitting in the front of the room who administered the test. A student can either opt for an online proctor, where you're set up with a webcam and special software, but for more even more security, he can go to a proctoring center to sit down and take the test. Udacity already uses both types of proctors for exams administered in courses that offer college credit.

Of course, Thrun points out that cheating is an unfortunate inevitability, which happens in person as well. But as Irene Ogrizek, a Canadian literature professor at a Montreal CEGEP, points out in a blog post, the eyes of a discerning supervisor can do a world of wonder. She recounts catching a student taking an exam for another student while she was doing substitute proctor duty.

Those folks aren’t exactly teachers, and it’s a lower level of interaction, but it does illustrate the notion that, even in an educational landscape that may look very different somewhere down the road, students won’t just be left to their own devices wandering about in cyberspace. Proctoring is a small example, but in some ways the best one: From even just an operational standpoint, human interaction between student and those with a little more authority is essential to the process.

Another case for personal human interaction is the impact of mentorship. Thinkful is another online education program that focuses specifically on teaching Web development. Students pay $250 a month for three months to go through the program. But cofounder Dan Friedman, a former Thiel Fellow, says the differentiator in his program is the focus on mentors, though admittedly, not all of them are face-to-face. “There’s more to learning something than practicing in a browser,” says Friedman. “Not everything can be Googled.”

Thrun says Udacity also offers one-on-one mentorship for a pilot program it’s done with San Jose State University in California, where both organizations have partnered up to offer remedial and introductory classes. Friedman says the biggest benefit of interacting one-on-one with a mentor is being able to work with him or her on the approach to a difficult problem.

Technology has come a long way. I remember when ed-tech innovation meant playing games on my calculator. But as we innovate even further, it's good to know we'll still be interacting with people, and not just screens.

[Image courtesy: x-ray delta one]