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Five important words

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When Steve was an undergraduate at Harvard 50 years ago, a young government instructor repeated the same admonition whenever he handed back an assignment: “This is not good enough.” Those were the five most important words any professor ever said to him, and as a college teacher himself for many years, Steve has tried to follow his mentor’s model.

Demand excellence. Young people live up to the expectations adults have of them. If we expect them to be diligent, enthusiastic and generous, most of them will be. Just this week, Steve received a note of apology from a student who got a C on a paper.

“I should have spent the time necessary to produce a well-analyzed and researched paper,” he wrote. “I’m glad you called my B.S. in your comments, and you can be assured that the next assignment will have little in common with the [previous] paper.”

This exchange is relevant to a critical issue facing higher education. Tuition costs and student debt are rising rapidly, while state support for public colleges is dwindling. Many experts are looking to online courses as a prime answer to this fiscal crunch — and with good reason.

Digital delivery systems can transmit more information more cheaply to more students than any brick-and-mortar classroom. Clay Christensen of the Harvard Business School calls online courses a “disruptive innovation — an innovation that transforms a sector from one that was previously complicated and expensive into one that is far simpler and more affordable.” With only a touch of hyperbole, he says online education “carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs.”

All true. But online education will never replace the priceless value of human interaction between a caring teacher and a curious student. That young Harvard professor did not write those five memorable words in an email or post them on Facebook. He delivered them live, many times, and backed them up with a passionate and personalized concern for his student’s progress.

Higher education has to do two things at once: adopt the most innovative initiatives available while preserving that most ancient of traditions, the sort of face-to-face relationship that literally changed Steve’s life.

The financial crisis is real. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that state aid to public colleges has dropped 28 percent in five years. That means fewer acceptances, bigger classes, higher tuition bills and closed computer labs. Twenty years ago, fewer than half of all college grads left school with loans; now two-thirds do, and they owe an average of $26,000 apiece.

That’s why the promise of online classes is so powerful. The potential savings are enormous. But the possibilities go well beyond economics. A student who listens to a lecture online can do it on her own time, in her own way. If she doesn’t understand something she can rewind and replay the prof — something that never happens in real time.

The cleverest teachers don’t just talk, they build into their courses the chance for students to answer questions, analyze problems and provide feedback. And in an ideal setting, which is only possible in wealthier schools, online lectures are combined with what are known as “flipped classrooms,” where teachers utilize the information gathered from students to respond to their concerns and clarify their confusion.

David Bell, a French professor who heads Duke’s online learning program, told the Duke Chronicle: “We have never had that kind of data about learning trends before, and I think that’s really, really the crux of it. We’re going to do a better job of presenting things in the learning environment than we did before.”

Good news. But the “learning environment” is not just about imparting information. In the Age of Google, any bit of data is available to any student anywhere in the world with a few mouse clicks. Learning is also about analysis, communication, critical thinking. And those skills are best imparted in the direct exchange between professor and pupil.

Moreover, the “learning environment” does not end at the classroom door. Teaching is also about counseling, encouraging, motivating. The most common — and most important — comment Steve hears from past students is, “you believed in me.”

The digital world is no substitute for the real world. Social media is no substitute for social life. The best teachers will always look you in the eye and pat you on the back and say, “This is not good enough.”

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.)

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