Video Killed the Teaching Star: Remote Learning and the Death of Charisma

tags: teaching, technology, online learning, COVID-19

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America, which will be published in the fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sure, you can go to the movies and get pulled into the gravitational magnetism of Hollywood stars. But we can’t all have the charisma of  a Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson, let alone of your local evening newscaster. These people are chosen precisely because they can charm you from a distance. Mere mortals — that means you, professor! — usually can’t do that.

Most of all, the stars of the screen are paid to entertain rather than to educate. Teaching other human beings requires a "conversation of the soul" — as the author and activist Parker J. Palmer calls it — instead of an exchange of images. And real conversation happens when people are in the same room, not when they’re on the same channel.

That’s the moral of the story of educational television, which was touted as the solution to an earlier crisis: the sudden overcrowding of American colleges. Aided by the GI Bill, military veterans flooded into college classrooms; by 1947, just two years after World War II ended, they made up fully half of all students. Other middle-class Americans joined them over the next decade, buoyed by the overall prosperity of the postwar economy. In 1940, only one in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 went to college; in 1958, one in three did.

How could our universities cope with this huge influx of students? One obvious answer was television, which a University of California official called "the most efficient, the most economical, and the most personalized teaching method available." A single professor could instruct thousands of people at the same time — no matter where they lived — and every student would get a "front-row seat," he added. "A televised lecture can ‘bring the instructor close’ even when the students have no personal contact with the televised lecturer," an enthusiast at New York University gushed.

Some of these students were taught via closed-circuit sets on campus; others tuned in on broadcast TV, which featured a wide array of university-sponsored courses. But most of the students concluded that television could not substitute for the human touch of the actual classroom. The medium was indeed "personalized," insofar as you could often watch at home and see the teacher clearly. Yet it was also highly impersonal, because nobody could convey their real self over the airwaves.

"Having a TV class does not add to my learning," an Ohio University student flatly declared, after taking a closed-circuit course where he watched the professor interact with students in a television studio. "I felt as if the teacher was talking to them and not me, giving a feeling that I was looking thru a window at the class."

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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