Does anyone other than Harvard still need a Chemistry professor?

The answer to the question is yes, by the way. But it is a question that is now being asked (and for chemistry you can substitute various other disciplines).

But where does this question come from? Well, at a recent conference on the future of higher education in Madrid, a New York university president, David van Zandt, made the following comment.

‘I apologize to anyone here from Nebraska, but there is no reason to teach introductory chemistry in Nebraska in a classroom with 500 students. Not when you can pump in, say, someone from Harvard to give a video lecture to much smaller groups.’

He is not the first to have suggested something like this. The general thinking goes along these lines. In the age of instant internet connectivity, there is no need to have people in all corners of the world teaching their own versions of the basic academic subjects. Why not stream in lectures and tutorials from leading professors in a small number of key academic hubs? Then the local institution can add its own bit of intellectual property by following the Harvard professor’s lectures with their own more specialist courses. Students would still come to lecture theatres, perhaps, so that they can take part in the social and networking aspects of doing a degree, but their teachers will often be from somewhere else entirely – teachers they will see but probably never meet. So in Nebraska – or Scotland, or Ireland – we might end up with a much smaller number of senior academics providing original teaching, and a lot of teaching and research assistants doing the on-location back-up for the distant professor.

That’s all very well, in theory at any rate, if you believe universities are teaching centres for local students. But if you believe universities also have other fundamental responsibilities in supporting local and regional development – economic, cultural and social – and that they are the foundation for high value investment, then this model makes much less sense.

But it is clear that questions such as this will continue to be asked, and that universities need to develop a robust strategic model for development if they are to prosper in this kind of environment. I cannot answer for Nebraska (though maybe I’ll try to make a connection), but Scotland certainly needs to develop its own local intellectual property at this stage, as does Ireland. The chemistry professor will need to be in situ.

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11 Comments on “Does anyone other than Harvard still need a Chemistry professor?”

  1. Fred the dog Says:

    One of the most memorable learning experiences I’ve ever had came a couple of years ago in DCU, when the late Tom Lawrence, in the course of an audio production lecture, set up a couple of stereo microphones and demonstrated, with a very simple exercise, how an audio setup can play tricks with your mind and transport you out of the physicality of the moment and into another sphere. I don’t think this kind of experience can be replicated online, in anything other than a pretty anaemic way.

  2. Vincent Says:

    But you are the one that is extending it. Lets be frank here, full Professors giving chem 101 is a waste. On the other hand full professors doing small tutorials not so much. And why does it matter that the fellow is from Harvard even in Harvard. The Nebraska prof would equally do.
    Many are the degrees held now that were delivered with a good deal of panache over the BBC2 airwaves by beardy weirdy’s in Milton Keynes. Where a programme made in the 70′s was being shown in the late 80s.

    • Vincent Says:

      A bit of a heads up. The river next Anglesea rd has flooded houses.


      • The Dodder is always threatening to break its banks, and of course did so with dramatic effect with Hurricane Charley (in 1986?). Thankfully my Dublin home is now a little further away from the river, and in an apartment block. And not in the ground floor :). But I do feel sorry for Dubliners right now, though we’re now also having some wind and rain in Scotland… Not as bad, though (fingers crossed).


      • The Dodder is always threatening to break its banks, and of course did so with dramatic effect with Hurricane Charley (in 1986?). Thankfully my Dublin home is now a little further away from the river, and in an apartment block. And not in the ground floor :). But I do feel sorry for Dubliners right now, though we’re now also having some wind and rain in Scotland… Not as bad, though (fingers crossed).

  3. Al Says:

    Why focus on the Professor?
    What about the science labs!
    Will they be streamed over the internet?

  4. Jilly Says:

    I hope David van Zandt made this argument to the Madrid conference via a streamed video-link, rather than having flown over there to make it in person?

  5. kevin denny Says:

    Let me make a comparison with other sectors: when a domestic industry looks like it is going to the wall because of international competition, its defenders (employers, unions) typically look for protection on the basis of some unspecified “strategic” need. So we need to produce our own food, cars, fuel, weapons, pencils etc. The customers on the other hand generally don’t give a damn where the stuff comes from. On the whole these appeals to strategic concerns are pretty bogus and self-serving.
    While I don’t think the situation here is identical, some of the same arguments probably apply. If Irish students can get the best Econ 101 lectures in the world, why should they have to get me instead? Well yes we do need to build local intellectual property but there may be better ways of doing it. As Ricardo showed, both sides benefit from trade. Fundamentally, there is no difference between Nebraska & Ireland in this regard. And if Irish students faced anything like the true cost of their tuition that might make them much less inclined to go for the domestic suppliers.
    There is a question of whether students learn more from viewing something on a screen or from a live (or fairly live) academic in the room. As one says in ones best Father Jack voice: that would be an empirical matter.
    So on the whole I think it would be well worth experimenting with the model of importing lectures electronically and complementing it with local academics for small group teaching and specialist courses. It could also expand the range of courses available to our students massively since one could offer degrees in areas that would be too expensive otherwise. And if it doesn’t work: just go back to the old system.

  6. Derin Korman Says:

    I think there is a fallacy at play here. The quotation is based on the assumption that the model of the one-way transmission of information still holds valid, and is central to universities. The question should rather address new models of education that utilize widely available tools in collaboration where classes become islands of local thinktanks, addressing each others concerns and building a relevant dataset.


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