Tuesday, August 19, 2014

What's the point of a PhD?

Reading an old Slate article about why MOOCs (online classes) devalue the importance of a one-on-one relationship between professors and students, I have a few thoughts:

Sure, in the ideal case there is this fantasy that undergraduate classes are tight seminars, one-on-one with a professor who pushes you to learn more, who customizes everything to your needs. In reality, the vast majority of undergraduate education is more like the broadcast of a MOOC, a professor and his staff piping information out to students, who take it all in and produce homework assignments.  The TA (or, sure, in smaller classes, the professor) grades the assignments, and in the best classes the professor himself looks carefully at the student's output and critically evaluates it.

But Is society really better off with a group of "insiders", who learn from each other, and then produce theses and papers that nobody will ever, ever read. What percentage of PhD theses are ever read again, after the degree is granted? I bet the overwhelming majority are are never, ever checked out of the library, completely irrelevant to everyone for all time in the future. At what point is an academic PhD just a glorified blogger?  While it may be useful for them and their tight circle of colleagues, is what they're doing the most efficient way to expand knowledge?  

Compare a traditional academic experience with something like http://www.fsmitha.com/, a blog written by a “amateur” who wrote more than 1M words of history.  I can imagine a future where everything is a seminar.  You read  information jointly with a whole bunch of others who are exploring the same idea, and you need to produce new information, interacting with others who pursue the same goal. That’s what I’d like to see.