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The Educational Airplane

William Li

TEAL has passed a rough month. Clearly, students’ patience with the new teaching system has worn out almost completely. As frustrations reach new levels, the push for reintroducing the old class format, in place of or alongside TEAL, is quickly gaining support. The recent petition, signed by over 150 students and submitted to the physics department, is the latest and most visible show of active discontent by the students.

However, as I struggled to determine the position I would take in the ongoing protests, I grew only more excited about the implications of TEAL. I realized that the driving force behind the class, the innovative, if not yet revolutionary approach to teaching, goes beyond 8.02 itself, and beyond even our institution. It is a sweeping move to transform teaching philosophy. Putting aside the issue of whether the change is for the better, or whether a change is even needed, the fact that the idea carries with it the potential for fundamentally changing something so important should prompt intelligent, open-minded discussions, rather than a dismissive “TEAL sucks” attitude

I can certainly relate to the discontent felt by my classmates, and I share in their disappointment with particular aspects of the class. However, we should step back and take a radically different perspective, because TEAL is a radically different idea. Borrowing a term coined by Professor Seymour A. Papert, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory here at MIT, I feel TEAL has the possible makings for an “Educational Airplane.”

The giant leap in thought that resulted in the invention of the airplane is an analogy for the type of ideas that drive human progress. In one of his articles, Dr. Papert explains “The Parable of the Jet Powered Stagecoach.” The parable begins by assuming a hypothetical situation in the early 19th century, when travel through air was unthinkable and thus the idea was not pursued. Therefore, even if one had successfully built a jet engine, the thought would have been that it would be best used to improve the horse carriage, by attaching the engine to the coach, somehow. Without someone to propose the unheard of -- that the future of travel lies in the air, not on the ground -- all our technology would have done us little good.

From this amusing yet highly instructive analogy, we see that breakthroughs do not always come about by merely adjusting the old. Instead, it is the leaps in thought, the overhaul of traditional thinking, that brings about something truly revolutionary. Not all radical ideas can or will result in changes for the better, but without them, no progress can ever be made. While ideas may be plentiful, an idea that can make a potential move into uncharted territories is rare. Once a generation, when one of these ideas pushes through, society makes another leap forward.

TEAL is one of those ideas that can potentially lead a pioneering effort into using technology enabled learning. It redefines the role of teacher and student, restructures the standard homework-and-test curriculum, and replaces the concept of a lecture-oriented class. This is why we cannot view TEAL through our old standards and ideas about teaching, because it is unlike anything we have traditionally accepted.

Nevertheless, the complaints against TEAL are valid. In fact, it is encouraging to see that students at this institution refuse to compromise the quality of their education. Admittedly, there are many problems associated with TEAL as it stands now, some of which are quite serious. However, it is important to distinguish between problems that are inherent in this new teaching approach, and those that result from difficulties in implementing the new system. If it is a case of the latter, students should be more understanding than they currently are. New technologies, new policies and new methods of doing things have always needed a period during which they could evolve into something acceptable to society. I’m sure it took many years for the public to embrace the idea of commercial flight, even after the Wright brothers first proved its possibility.

Even if we can establish that TEAL is a potentially revolutionary idea worth pursuing, the complaint still remains that it is unfair for the more than five hundred students currently enrolled in 8.02 to suffer through the experimentation process. A common suggestion is that a choice should be offered between normal 8.02 and 8.02 TEAL. I support this suggestion only on the basis that more choice is almost always better than less. With more variety, more people are satisfied. However, I challenge those who would opt for regular 8.02 to seriously reconsider their options. For those who favor the traditional lectures, I don’t see how the taped 8.02 lectures, readily accessible online, are any less of a substitute. If anything, they’re better, since one can view them at one’s own convenience and comfort.

This brings up an interesting discussion about how in-class time should be spent. It seems to me that it would be most productive if class time were spent only on what would be irreplaceable outside of it. Under this system, recitations and labs should be strongly emphasized because they present unique opportunities for learning not present anywhere else. However, as more lectures become available online, lecture halls will become a thing of the past, replaced by the single room necessary for taping them.

TEAL fits perfectly into this vision. Its emphasis on active learning, which involves experiments, group work, and immediate feedback through the Public Response System, makes class time invaluable. Outside of class, students can learn through the abundance of resources available to them, including taped lectures, study guides, worked examples, PowerPoint slides, workshops, and Public Response System questions. It is truly amazing there are still those who can say TEAL does not offer choice, or that it leaves students on their own. On the contrary, it is one of the few classes where I can say the faculty and staff seem to be actively concerned with their students.

In order for TEAL to fulfill the promise of the great idea behind it, a lot of not-so-fine tuning is still in order. In fact, the process will continue for years. Nevertheless, I would much rather ride along on the ups and downs of a budding idea than remain stagnant.