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Jonathan Zimmerman says universities wrongly ignore teaching

On the first day of class, no matter what I’m teaching, I begin with the same question: Why are we in the same room?

We certainly don’t have to be. And we got another reminder of that last week, when my own employer — the University of Pennsylvania — announced the Ivy League’s first fully online undergraduate degree. It will be aimed at working adults and other nontraditional students, who often can’t get to campus.

And they often can’t afford Penn’s enormous sticker price, either, which is why the online degree will be less expensive than our regular B.A. That’s a good thing, because it will allow more students, from a wider array of backgrounds, to matriculate here.

But what will they be getting from us, besides our Ivy League imprimatur? And will it be as good — in every sense — as our regular undergraduate instruction?

It’s hard to know, because most colleges have refrained from making a rigorous or sophisticated effort to evaluate classroom instruction. I taught for 20 years at New York University, and I was observed in my classroom by a colleague exactly once, during my first semester. Since coming to Penn two years ago, I haven’t been observed at all. What does that tell you about the value we attach to judging and improving our teaching?

Sure, my students fill out rating forms about me each semester. But colleges are supposed to be about generating and disseminating knowledge, and the best knowledge says that students aren’t very effective judges of how much they have learned. Their evaluations can tell you whether the professor is engaged and available, and that surely matters. But the evaluations can’t indicate whether the students are obtaining "strong communication skills, understanding of different cultures and perspectives, and the ability to apply their knowledge to nuanced, complex scenarios with insight, perspective, and empathy." ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education