November 1, 2011

Sesame Street and the Future of Cornell Education

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Nov. 2 commemorates the birthday of three of our nation’s most influential individuals: President James Knox Polk (1795), Nelly (1974) and the Cookie Monster (1969).

While Polk’s victory in the Mexican-American War, and the indulgent chorus of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” are remarkable achievements in their own right, the blue, googly-eyed, Omm-nom-nomming omnivore has been at the vanguard of childhood education for 42 years straight.

When Muppets creator Jim Henson copyright registered Kermit the Frog on Nov. 2, 1955, scientists barely understood early childhood and rudimentary kindergarten curricula were a shell of today’s elementary education. Only 14 years later, Sesame Street proved that exposing preschoolers to everything from letters, numbers and music to social activism and current events produced smarter students, smarter teachers and social awareness — only some reasons why a 1996 survey found that 95 percent of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three. A record 118 Emmys and almost 4,300 episodes later, we almost take it for granted that Sesame has never been in our living rooms, just on our screens.

Speaking of the vanguard of childhood education and TV screens, pending the Educational Policy Committee’s approval and ratification from Yale and Columbia, video conferencing courses in Modern Greek, Dutch, Romanian and Tamil will be available to Cornellians in Fall 2012. Picture the doing-homework-while-Skyping experience turned academic. In exchange, Cornell is considering offering Sinhalese, Bengali, Indonesian and Vietnamese, a trade that will allow all three institutions to cut costs (read: faculty) without abnegating entire programs.

Because distance-learning resembles a traditional classroom more than an autotutorial course does, it makes sense for the minuscule number of students motivated to study Romanian rather than Russian, or Tamil over Hindi, to pursue those languages by any means necessary. As setting a precedent for cutting corners goes, these high-definition classes may meander into murky territory. If “the best” Chemistry professor happens to be teaching at Oxford, will we soon fill a lecture hall with hundreds of students and a projector? If it translates to similar grades and allocates our tuition towards bigger, better buildings, why not?

But, for now, let’s deal with smaller questions. Given the self-motivated nature of these classes, the operative question may not be, “Will students listen more or less carefully to the digital projection of their instructor than an in-class teacher?” The pressing issue, as I see it, is whether students will interact more or less with one another. As a liberal arts junkie constantly enrolled in small, discussion-based classes and a former Hebrew and Arabic student, I’ll vouch that an interactive class can elevate a course from decent to memorable.

An intermediate Dutch class is already available to students using two video cameras and a flat-screen TV in the video conferencing room at Noyes Lodge tuned in to former Cornell professor Chrissy Hosea’s classroom at Yale. This semester a student facilitator proctors exams and quizzes and scans results to Hosea, ostensibly the most feasible format for evaluation. But perhaps, with no teacher in the room, students should be evaluated differently. I’ve always believed in the merits of composing papers rather than taking tests in subjects whose examinations primarily encourage memorization by any means, but this is a whole new branch of education we’re talking about.

Why not take a page out of Sesame Street’s book and quiz in-class and on-screen classmates on letters, numbers and vocabulary, then write short interactive scenes about our personal lives and current events? Sesame Street showed black and white people living together a year after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the riots it precipitated in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland and Washington. How can we underestimate the effects of exposing our most uncomfortable issues? If there’s any way to overcome questions of cutting corners, it’s conquering boundaries.

If universities figure out how to enhance courses with video conferencing, how soon will high schools already loaded with Smartboards follow suit? When will private secondary schools already offering classical and romance languages tap into this potential teaching tool, and to what degree? Put on the hypothetical shoes of an elementary school teacher discussing early American History with eight, nine or 10-year-olds: Would you sugar-coat Manifest Destiny if a class of Native American students were willing to conference with your students?

How early is too early, and how much is too much?

These are questions our parents debated when buying our first computers, cellphones and games, questions they still debate when we ask for upgrades. When we all hopefully have kids, the questions we’ll face about what kind of education to expose them to may become as complex and convoluted as the debate over giving your six-year-old an iPhone because a five-year-old he carpools with has one. I hope Sesame Street’s still around then so our five and six-year-olds will be precocious enough to use the technology we’re inviting to invade our education.

Whether your first video conference class comes as an undergrad, grad student, teacher or parent, remember that we all got hooked on shiny screens by screaming, “C is for cookie, that’s good enough for me!” That should add a pinch of perspective.

Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkose@cornellsun.com. Scrambled Eggs ap­pears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose