The Long, Slow, But Inevitable Death of the Classroom

If you read enough about Robert Solow, this quote coming up is but a matter of time:

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics

http://www.standupeconomist.com/pdf/misc/solow-computer-productivity.pdf

Much the same could be said about internet based learning technologies if you tried to measure it in colleges and universities before March 2020. We had lip service being paid to MOOC’s and all that, but if we’re being honest, that’s all it was: lip service.

Things have changed around a bit since then, I think.

We’ll get to that later on this post, but let’s go back to the seeing computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics bit for the moment. Paul David, an American economist, wrote a wonderful essay called “The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox“, back in 1990.

I think of this essay as an attempt to respond to the question Robert Solow had posed – why isn’t the data reflecting the ubiquitousness of the computer in the modern workplace? Read the essay: it’s a very short, very easy read.

Paul David draws an analogy between the move away from steam as a source of power, back at the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, contemporary observers well might have remarked that the electric dynamos were to be seen “everywhere but in the productivity statistics!”

David, P. A. (1990). The dynamo and the computer: an historical perspective on the modern productivity paradox. The American Economic Review80(2), 355-361.

Adjusting to a new technology, it turns out, takes time.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.
Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Again, please read the whole thing, and also read this other article by Tim Harford from the BBC, “Why didn’t electricity immediately change manufacturing?” The article, by the way, is an offshoot of a wonderful podcast called “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy“. Please listen to it!

But here’s the part that stood out for me from that piece I excerpted from above:

“Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will.”

https://slate.com/culture/2007/06/what-the-history-of-the-electric-dynamo-teaches-about-the-future-of-the-computer.html

Colleges and universities are today designed around the basic organizational unit of a classroom, with each classroom being “powered” by a professor.

Of the many, many things that the pandemic has done to the world, what it has done to learning is this:

each worker learner could have his or her own little electric motor personal classroom, starting it or stopping it at will.

In fact, I had a student tell me recently that she prefers to listen to classroom recordings later, at 2x, because she prefers listening at a faster pace. So it’s not just starting or stopping at will, it is also slowing down or speeding up at will.

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).

When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?

Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?

In other words, in the post-pandemic world…

How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

Additional, related reading, for those interested:

  1. Timothy Taylor on why “some of the shift to telecommuting will stick
  2. An essay from the late, great Herbert Simon that I hadn’t read before called “The Steam Engine and the Computer
  3. The role of computer technology in restructuring schools” by Alan Collins, written in 1990(!)