Courseware that can do it all?

Thanks to Jerry for pointing out this article about the potential for courseware to eventually “replace” the human professor. (I’m not sure where the original article appeared, but Jerry’s got the full text up at Running with Scissors.)

I gotta say this kind of rhetoric just makes me want to laugh. I think it is ridiculous to suggest that even the best-of-breed courseware could “completely elliminate professors as we know them.” This is a particularly ridiculous assertion to make in the context of a liberal arts education, which at its very core supposedly values the intellectual interaction between professor and students.

That said, there is certainly a place for solely self-paced study (outside of the world of the liberal arts education?), that could certainly value from best-of-breed courseware–and I have yet to see what I would consider b-o-b courseware truly up to this challenge.

But to suggest that some savvy computer programmer in India is on the verge of making the idea of the professor obsolete is insulting and short-sited. Why not consider how the courseware could be used as a new and innovative compliment to the traditional classroom/professor? Why not consider how the courseware could facilitate certain types of knowledge attainment/skill development, allowing for professors to focus more intensely on critical thinking and intellectual development?

I find the comment by one professor that this type of courseware was more likely to be a “threat to advanced, graduate-level courses because more can be assumed of students in those courses,” particularly bizarre. This particular comment came from a math professor. I admit that my experience with graduate study is limited to the humanities/social sciences, but is it really possible that a computer system could replace a graduate-level math professor? If so, I would suggest that there’s something wrong that graduate program. I mean, isn’t the point of graduate study supposed to be intense intellectual investigation, under the guidance of and with partnership of faculty and other students?

On some level this all kind of reminds me of threats and fears that were being voiced in the late ’80s and ’90s that technology was going to replace the American worker. Anyone else remember that? What actually happened? Sure technology was able to replace certain processes in certain industries, but, by in large, it seemed to create more opportunities than it eliminated.

I really don’t think we are in any danger of ever having technology eliminate our need for humanity. Past experience points to a trend where technology alters our world and the roles we play in it; it does not eliminate the need we have for human connection–which, frankly, seems to be “the point” of, well, life.