A recent article on Slate.com by Gabriel Kahn reports that major textbook publishers are now producing online courses at the introductory level across various subjects. These courses include the extensive materials that are already bundled with many textbooks, such as videos, quizzes and activities, and can be run without much additional input from an instructor. Some of the courses include essays that are submitted online and graded automatically. The courses are offered through colleges and universities, but they essentially the same course no matter which institution is giving the student credit.
Proponents of the courses say that the lower cost of delivering them, as compared with a traditional course that involves many hours of an instructor’s time to prepare, deliver and mark, is a major benefit. The materials produced by textbook companies has a higher production value than what any individual instructor would be able to put together on his or her own. First-year courses are already somewhat standardized across institutions, especially in disciplines where one textbook is used by a majority of universities. Given that many professors (particularly at research-focused universities) would prefer to teach upper-level courses, offloading introductory courses onto the textbook companies rather than onto sessional lecturers may make university administrators happy as well.
I think that for instructors, these textbook-company courses should serve as a real wake-up call. While I am in favour of a flipped classroom model, perhaps using some of the textbook company’s videos and quizzes, anyone whose course could be replaced by software should be taking a long, hard look at their teaching methods. I believe that my job is not just to deliver content and assess students’ memorization of said content (and I agree that software could probably do those tasks), but also to personalize the content for my each group of students, inspire excitement about the subject matter, encourage and advise students, model a scientific way of thinking, and provide meaningful feedback on students’ progress. Maybe looking at what the textbook companies are offering in terms of online courses should give us a push toward focusing on those things that only real instructors can provide, and away from standing at the front of the room (or sitting in front of a webcam) delivering a speech.