How Entertaining Does Education Need to Be?

News and views from academia.
March 5 2014 12:49 PM

How Entertaining Does Education Need to Be?

Taking a class and watching Scandal aren’t the same thing.

Female college student napping, not entertained
She’d be awake if her classes were more fun.

Photo by Photick/Sigrid Olsson/Thinkstock

This article originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

I’m wondering how “entertaining” my classes should be.

On the one hand, being entertained is a good thing. If we are entertained, we are enjoying ourselves, and making class enjoyable probably goes a long way toward getting students to show up.


I do OK on this front. The end-of-semester evaluations seem to say so. RateMyProfessor, for what that’s worth, backs them up.

The bar for being an “entertaining” teacher is actually pretty low. Once in the room, the audience is captive. Students expect boredom, so if there’s even a glimmer of mirth, the appreciation is outsized.

As I think about this, though, I realize there are different kinds of entertainment, or perhaps that there’s a difference between entertainment and engagement.

My wife and I have been binge-watching Scandal. Set in Washington, D.C., it tells the story of a political fixer played by Kerry Washington. It’s a procedural mixed with a conspiracy thriller, mixed with melodrama that would make a daytime soap opera blush. It’s is frequently laugh-out-loud ridiculous, and the show’s relationship with verisimilitude is like Donald Trump’s relationship with his hair. It resembles something real, but it isn’t fooling anybody.

But the pace of the plot twists and surprises makes the show “entertaining” as a diversion at the end of the day when we’re tired and relaxing.

It’s a terrible show; I love it. I rely on the “on the last episode of Scandal” recap at the start to remind me what’s gone on.

The Wire—David Simon’s exploration of Baltimore’s drug trade, politics, police force, schools, and newspapers—is my favorite television show ever. I suppose it also is entertaining, though I’ve never thought of it that way because it is something different, something additional. It is engaging and absorbing. I’ve watched it through from first episode to last four times, going deeper into the experience each time.

The Wire asks me to consider the world I live in, even though my couch in Charleston, S.C., is a long way from the Baltimore housing projects. It makes me want to write an essay on its worldview, or even a novel borrowing its characters.

A recent IHE blog post by Joshua Kim, about how he dropped his massive open online courses, or MOOCs, from edX and Coursera in exchange for binge-watching House of Cards, caused me to think further about the limits of entertainment, and how higher ed doesn’t really want to get into that particular arms race.

As Kim notes, the MOOC lectures need to compete with “entertainment” on his smartphone, and the “distraction” of a compelling TV show wins over a lecture on Alexander the Great every time.

Kim asks, “Should we worry that the exponential growth of compelling distractions will end up crowding out studying?”

In talking with my students, I think that ship has already sailed. The distractions of their screens have long ago claimed their attention outside the class and, unless instructor vigilance is practiced, are prevalent inside the classroom as well.

But I’m thinking about Marshall McLuhan and his observation that “The medium is the message,” and about how that might be yet another caution against our hypothetical MOOC-y future.

Successful MOOCs will be the ones that draw eyeballs, audience. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, acknowledges this when he suggests that it may be desirable for celebrities to deliver MOOC lectures. He thinks that students would “enjoy” the material more if it were delivered by Matt Damon than Anant Argawal.

Maybe so.

But enjoyment is not engagement. Making it through a MOOC—meaning watching all the videos without dropping out—is not the same thing as learning.

The emphasis on entertainment over engagement is just another indicator of the corruption of education by consumerism that Nate Kreuter so thoroughly illuminates in his recent essay on the “customer mentality.”

And it’s a losing strategy. “Entertainment” requires a constant ratcheting up in order to keep the eyeballs glued.

The plot twists on Scandal get more absurd with each episode. A revelation that would’ve dropped jaws in season one gets yawns in season three. The show is already burning itself out. You can almost feel the buckets of sweat coming out of the writers room.

Matt Damon lecturing will give away to shirtless Matt Damon lecturing. We will also have Scarlett Johansson versions for people who prefer that visual.

But what do we do when shirtless Matt Damon is no longer sufficiently stimulating? Shirtless Matt Damon juggling chainsaws. Next class: shirtless Matt Damon juggling flaming chainsaws.

This is what worries me about the techno-utopians who claim virtual education is a “good enough alternative.”

It isn’t actually an alternative. It’s something else. Scandal and The Wire may both be television shows, but anyone who has seen them knows they aren’t the same thing with the same intentions or the same effects.

The student comments on my classes say how “entertaining” my lectures are, except I never lecture. The centerpiece of my class periods is the oldest ed-tech we have, the Socratic dialog. I believe the reason my students find the class entertaining is because they are doing 50 percent of the talking and 100 percent of the thinking.

Physics professor Bernard Fryshman reminds us that even in this digital age our students are “analog beings” in need of “jostling” in order to learn.

I agree. That’s what we’re doing in class, my students and I, jostling each other. We can do this because we’re in proximity.

I’m not Matt Damon. I’m not even a superprofessor. But I’m present, and I’m paying attention to them, and that’s what matters.

John Warner writes the Just Visiting blog for Inside Higher Ed.


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