Paul Mitiguy Interview

Question:
What do you think are the benefits and costs of online education?

Paul Mitiguy:
Number one is for folks who are living in rurual areas; it actually allows them to do stuff that they wouldn’t ever be able to otherwise get ahold of. So I’d see that as a huge benefit. Two: self-pacing; that’s an enormous benefit. Three: it’s highly interactive, so you’re getting feedback instantaneously; you put stuff in, you get stuff back; instant correction. Four, from an assessment point of view, you actually get easy assessment, so from an instructor point of view, if you want to assess 500 people, it’s really easy, because they’ve already been computer-scored. I’m assuming when you say distance learning, you mean Internet.

Question:
Virtual. Online.

Paul:
Virtual. Online. Videos. Ideally some kind of interactive question and answer.

Question:
Right.

Paul:
But with some kind of way of assessing it automatically.

Question:
Right. And you can tailor the teaching style depending on how the student reacts to a certain question.

Paul:
Yeah. And there are certain things it addresses really well, for example math (which it is totally geared for), computer science (it could be highly suitable for), and there are certain things it’s NOT suited for, for example in mechanical engineering, we build stuff. I don’t know how you’re going to build it virtually. You can build CAD… but eventually you gotta touch a machine and know how to run a mill and run a lathe and actually touch real equipment and not cut your arm off. And that’s just not accessible because people can’t buy their own tool shop.

Question:
What about community labs? Like, there is a TechShop.

Paul:
That’s great, but that’s Menlo Park, and not everybody has a Menlo Park. Ideally schools would provide that. They used to, and some of them do still, where they’d say “we’re going to have a mechanic shop, an automotive, electricity” – you know, the trades are part of the scholastic approach. If you move everything to distance online, you say, do you lose some of that? Do you lose the hands-on… think home economics, cooking: a certain amount you can watch someone else (a cooking show), and a certain amount you want someone to watch you and say, what am I doing wrong?

Question:
So, what else is lost?

Paul:
I think the community support issue is actually a big deal. Because it’s one thing to have a friend who’s online and you’re both doing it together – like, I think that’s collaborative, it’s great – but to have a mentor who’s actually cheering for you, providing some feedback, and actually giving you some assessment in a very positive way… it’s like, to remove a human, is actually a super big negative. SUPER big negative. Like, you know, humans are social animals. And the other thing I would argue is that a lot of what we do now diminshed our ability – like, if you look and consider evolution, I can tell by people’s inflection if they are happy or sad. And if I’m doing things online, all I’m seing is typing. I have no real idea of: are they excited about the topic? are they bored out of their minds? My visual cues, and all the things that have been developed by us as social animals – so much of it has been eliminated by virtual, where you have a keyboard, a mouse, and typing.

Question:
So, that might be very true for K-12 education, but one might expect that for higher education, students can move beyond that and just learn the pure material from the teacher.

Paul:
And I think that from a calculation point of view, it’s great. In the three parts that I sort of think about as calculate, context, and concept, for calculations, it’s fantastic; you know, great tools online, they’re updated instantly, you can check the calculations, and so that’s fantastic. For context – showing videos, showing where this topic is import: fantastic. But for the concepts: of how do you understand it? are you sure you get it? do you understand the concepts? … they’re abstract. It requires a feedback mechanism to actually check.

Question:
Like the equivalent of TA office hours, or…?

Paul:
Yeah, I mean that’s where human contact is so important. I look at assessment as being like, the return on investment of assessment is actually quite low. We grade problem sets; honestly it’s a waste of time: it’s an important part of grading or whatever, but it’s so… much less important than us actually interacting with human beings and watching them do problems. And watching them get stuck. And seeing how they get unstuck. And then learning how THEY think so that we can address their needs. For example, are they tactile, are they … You know, how are you going to address someone tactilily? On the computer? I don’t know if they’re a tactile learner. If they’re a tactile learning, this is a visual/auditory medium. So, are they verbal? Are they the kind of person, like, we have some students – Margaret Chapman’s one of them, she’s great – she’s a verbal. She likes to talk through problem sets. Well, how do you get that into a computer?

Question:
Is that a thing? A tactile learner? Are there people who are tactile learners?

Paul:
Yeah, yeah. I’m a tactile. Personally, I’m a tactile. I’m a tactile because actually when I touch, I learn.

Question:
I think I might be also.

Paul:
One of my signs that I … I knew this when I was taking notes in class. I would take copious notes. I’d HAVE to. I couldn’t just watch.

Question:
I’m a similar way.

Paul:
But, I almost never looked at them afterwards. So somehow that writing process made it go into my head, and then from there, I was able to go forward. I also learn by touching, feeling – that’s why I’m a mechanical engineer. I need to physically touch things. That’s why I’m not an electrical engineer – electricity is a little abstract for me. So it depends on… The other big almost negative I would say is, we talk about “innovation, innovation, innovation”, and I think that K-12 online learning offers a lot of upside potential. So I think that’s really good. The downside is if we rely on it too heavily, we lose some innovation around what we can do in the classroom. There has to be a balance. Striking that balance, I think we’re still on the upswing on online learning. I think we should be. I think more of it should happen. But it also should be metered, according to where it’s effective. Some people come to school and that’s all they do – they sit in front of the computer all day and type and type and type – and ok, if that works, great. I mean, if you look in the United States at where we need to be innovative, we need to be innovative in manufacturing. It’s much more of a hands-on, learning how to actually do stuff. And that’s not conducive to…

Question:
Right. It has its place, but it can’t be used everywhere.
It seems to me like the main advantage of online learning is that it’s scalable for not that much money…

Paul:
For sure.

Question:
… so is there anything you can think of for teaching, for example, manufacturing and mechanical engineering? Like, how you could teach that in a scalable way?

Paul:
I think that’s where, that’s why there’s some value in – whether it’s a Stanford Product Realization Lab or its the TechShop or its a high-school auto mechanic shop, there’s real value there that you cannot replace with a computer. You can supplement it, you can create a lot of information that surrounds it, and somehow support that basic structure of “we need a lab”. There’s nothing that can replace that. I do see huge value though, in, Khan Academy has done a great job of helping create educational tools that really are valuable. For drilling, for the drill environment, it’s great. On the flipside, we don’t want people just to learn how to multiply and add. That’s not innovative. Innovation means creativity; creativity means something the computer doesn’t even know yet. So you can’t ask me for the questions, because I shouldn’t even know that the question exists yet. That’s what creative IS. And so we talk about innovation; innovation is a very different skillset.