The harm of distributing lectures online

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At the beginning of the quarter, I promised myself that I would attend all my lectures. Which I did manage to do — for about three weeks, until accidentally sleeping in one day. However, in this case missing class wasn’t catastrophic. I simply watched the missed lecture from the comfort of my own bed. The reason I have this luxury? Two of my classes are recorded and posted online by Stanford, for Stanford students only.

With recorded lectures, my stress surrounding class and work time has significantly decreased, as I now have better flexibility and can make my schedule fit around my needs. I don’t feel like I’m missing much either. In large lecture classes, there’s a very low probability that I’d ask the professor questions. In fact, I feel I’m able to learn better by rewinding, slowing down or speeding up the recording as needed.

As I indicated, having online lectures has mostly positively changed the way I go about my daily and weekly schedule. But it has raised many questions for me, as I’m sure it has for other online-lecture viewers. Watching lectures from bed, half lying down in my pajamas, I can’t help but wonder what the majority of my tuition at college is paying for, when I could just as easily watch lectures from back home. And moreover, when I’m confused about the way material is taught in a certain offering of a class, I wonder why Stanford and other universities bother to have sub-par professors give lectures, given the advantages of online lecture videos. Why can’t I just watch a better — no, the best — lecturer in the world teach this subject? 

At initial glance, it seems somewhat arbitrary and artificially contrived that universities still deliver the same content year after year to students, by professors of sub-par and inconsistent quality. From an educational standpoint, wouldn’t it make more sense for them to standardize lecture quality across quarters, by recording a single professor to deliver the material, and providing this same resource to all future students? If universities moved towards an online video distribution system, lecture videos could be standardized to present only the better lecturers within a university.

In fact, considering how easy it is to distribute online lectures, it would even be plausible for universities to deliver content from lecturers who may be outside the university’s scope. And this would make educational sense too. Students would learn the most if they weren’t restricted to professors employed by the university, but who were deemed the “best” lecturers in the world (where we define “best” lecturer as the person whose explanations of concepts are most understandable and thorough). Why should anyone watch or create videos from sub-par, average or even above-average lecturers, when a single video from the best lecturer will more than suffice? It is entirely plausible, and even likely, that with the increased distribution and adoption of online lecture videos, many universities would assume educational content from the same “best” lecturer or series.

The need for lecturers who are not the best in their domain would disappear, given the equal availability of the single-best lecture. However, although there is an entire economic discussion to be held regarding the occupational displacement that may occur as a result of only hiring the “best” lecturers, this displacement itself isn’t inherently bad; it is the effect of favoring the same, single teacher throughout society that is concerning.

If students across colleges learn from the same teachers, the single “best,” most-understandable lecturers, society will lack diversity in problem-solving approaches. Think of all the times that you’ve learned about the same concept twice, from different educators (perhaps once from a high school teacher, another time from a tutor or from a college professor). There are a multitude of ways for a single calculus concept to be explained. The particular way in which you are taught doesn’t just greatly affect your understanding of the current topic, or your foundational understanding of future concepts. Most importantly, it shapes the way you approach analogous problems. The real value of education comes not just in the content learned, but also in the way it develops a student’s approach to problem-solving. Hence, largely favoring a select few “best” lecturers over others, the natural outcome of open distribution of online educational videos across colleges reduces educational diversity and how individuals tackle problems — which can have drastic effects for society in the long-term.

Even the search for several alternate, better explanations of a concept to reconcile with a mediocre explanation is a problem-solving strategy that teaches one to take a multi-dimensional approach to understanding. Struggling to immediately fully comprehend something can often lead to an increased understanding through the student’s resulting, simultaneous understanding of multiple, better explanations. If a single “best” conceptual understanding is immediately presented to most students, then they will not have an incentive to seek multiple angles from which to view the problem.

Still, this doesn’t mean we should discourage the benefits of open distribution of online lectures. For one, the search for better answers may not be ideal if the student has no understanding of the concept whatsoever. In many cases, providing the “best” explanation for foundational, remedial purposes outweighs the benefits of encouraging supplementary searches for understanding. The most significant argument for free distribution of online lectures is the transformative impact it would have for people in developing countries, or those who can’t afford to attend college — basically, for the whole subset of people who didn’t already have access to an education. As one would expect, education has the ability to lift people out of poverty, serve as a catalyst for economic growth and lead to development in all aspects of society. Even for the average person who already has access to an education, making more content and resources available online could theoretically only serve to benefit them.

Ultimately, free distribution of online lectures may lead to a society-level lack of diversity of thought and problem-solving approaches, if demand only exists for the single-best lecturer. Even if open distribution of online lecture videos helps the average person to understand a concept better and a certain problem-solving approach, equipping everyone with the same approach to problem-solving is not ideal on a society-wide basis. This does not mean that we shouldn’t strive for open distribution of online educational content, especially in cases where people don’t have access to any education or need it for entirely foundational purposes — here, the immediate gains outweigh the potential long-term risks to society. But, we should be aware of the societal-level risks posed in the long term for open online content distribution.