I recently stumbled upon a site called "Rate My Professor.” It’s been around for the past decade, but under my radar screen, because I’ve been out of academia for awhile. To me, it’s a sort of “academic Yelp.” Students sign in and rate their professors on a scale of 1 to 5 in four categories: Easiness, Helpfulness, Clarity, and Rater Interest. They are also free to provide a short commentary. After going through the reviews of various professors, some chosen at random and some whom I know, my immediate reaction was that this site must be under the radar screen for the poorly rated professors as well. Students, particularly undergrads, can be pretty brutal in their assessment of professors. Perhaps one of the offsets to bad reviews is that I sometimes found a connection between the harshness of the students’ comments and their spelling or grammatical errors. For example: ”This professor is horrible and doesn’t deserve tenor (sic).”
I’m not writing to defend professors or belittle the student comments. Indeed, if I were a professor and out of a sample of 50, 47 students felt I was well below par (to put it mildly), I would be concerned and would try to do something about it. But at the same time, based on my limited sample of student comments, I would say that if you discounted the “tough grader” or “requires too much work” factors in their comments, the student assessments of the low-ranked professors would actually be higher. Nevertheless, for those with low ranking, I still found a lot of “can’t teach,” “very confusing,” etc. etc. Believe it or not several students commented that one professor, who I happen to know, actually falls asleep (or at least appears to be asleep) while up in front of the class!
So besides sharing my initial impressions of this site, what is my point? My point is that the debate between live, face-to-face and virtual or video classes is purely academic. Today’s technology definitely allows us to provide high quality, virtual or non-face-to face education in a cost-effective way. Administrators and faculty should not be trying to defend the “direct human interaction” value proposition (see my previous blog on this). Instead they should be trying to improve the quality of teaching, easing into retirement those who no longer have the enthusiasm to give it all they’ve got in the classroom, and giving more support to professors who want to try new methods of teaching besides traditional classroom instruction. In turn, students should realize that over the long run, a high GPA is not the end-all of higher education and certainly not a guarantee of success in life. (Easier said than done I know.)
In summary, here’s my advice to any professor who wants a good “Rate My Professor” score: 1. Know your material and be as clear as possible in your presentations 2. Inject some humor into your lectures 3. Don’t play favorites 4. Be clear and consistent about your expectations of what is required to do well in the course. And of course, give everyone an “A!”
"Direct Human Interaction." This is what the provost of a prestigious private college told me was the "value proposition" of an institution of higher learning that costs a student $60,000 a year. Many institutions of higher learning, notable among them the Unversity of Phoenix, have long offered online courses at far lower cost to both students and themselves. Only recently, big name universities such as Stanford, Harvard, and MIT are offering selected online courses taught by their own professors for free. How far this trend towards non-traditional forms of education delivery will go is unknown. But there is no doubt that this move is a direct assault on the primary method of teaching going back to Socrates. Do students need to have a direct face to face (no fair skyping), interaction with their professors in order to get a high quality education?
Leaving aside the pedagogical argument for a moment, we can easily see that the economics of providing education outside of the traditional classroom environment are compelling. Arthur C. Brooks, a former professor at Syracuse University talks about “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” (received from Thomas Edison College, NJ) in yesterday’s NY Times. Thomas Friedman, author of "The World is Flat" also weighed in on this phenomenon in an article in the NY Times a week ago. His thesis is that online education from reputable institutions offered at nominal or no cost will give access to quality education to millions of hungry learners around the world. This in turn will eventually provide their respective countries with human capital to help propel their development and growth.
For those seeking another prespective on the debate between proponents of the “direct” and the “indirect” delivery of education, I invite you to go to a site that I only recently discovered a few weeks ago: Rate My Professor." This site, started over a decade ago, contains the personal feedback on the classroom and office-hour performance of thousands of professors across the country by millions of their students. Out of curiosity, I poured over the evaluations of dozens of professors (some selected at random and some whom I knew). I will discuss what I found in my next blog. In the meantime, here is what was reaffirmed by my review of the student reviews of their professors: regardless of the setting of the teaching and learning experience (e.g., in a classroom or in a webinar or chat room) what counts the most is the quality of the professor (knowledge, dedication, enthusiasm, motivation, etc.) as well as the desire of the student to learn. More on this next time.