What is the future of a Williams education? Every class a tutorial. That future is probably decades away, but it is no less inevitable for the number of years between now and then. Why?

Consider the ever increasing wealth of elite education offered free on-line. Start with MIT OpenCourseWare. Check out Open Yale Courses. Here you have almost all the resources of two of the worlds great universities. Each day, more and more classes are added. Why should a Williams student spend one minute in a Williams lecture when an even better lecture is available on the web? Why should a Williams professor spend one minute lecturing when someone else is doing a better job for free, at any hour of the day or night?

The shouldn’t. Even if we assume that every Williams professor is a brilliant lecturer, none of them — not a single one — is the world’s greatest lecturer on topic X. [And, even if, say, Colin Adams is the world’s greatest lecturer on knots, then his lecturers will soon find their way to the web, just as Robert Shiller’s have at Yale and Gilbert Strang’s have at MIT.] It follows that professors should not spend their time lecturing, should instead devote their energies to providing the sort of personal interaction that is not available on the web, is not, in fact, as available at places like MIT and Yale as it ought to be..

The internet makes it necessary and inevitable for every Williams professor to take her place on the log. The sooner that day arrives, the better.

Such a Williams will require a different structure for measuring professor workloads. Instead of using classes (regardless of enrollment) as the appropriate metric, we will need to focus on the number of students educated. A Williams professor responsible for 40 students in a semester is contributing more to Williams than a professor responsible for 5.

Do you doubt that lectures are a waste of everyone’s time? Here is an easy test. Go to a large Williams lecture and sit in the back row. Look at the students with their laptops. Are they dutifully following the lecture, taking notes of all the important points. No. They are e-mailing. They are texting. They are paying some attention to the lecture, but the rate of information flow is so low that their time is largely wasted. If the professor would just transcribe his notes (and not punish them for missing class), the vast majority would not bother to attend.

Compare that reality to small discussion sections and tutorials. The vast majority of students are paying attention, engaged in the discussion, prepared for the topic.

The logical endpoint for Williams is every class a tutorial. That’s an ambitious goal, one that we will not achieve any year soon. Yet we can resist the arc of history only so long. The next logical step is No More Lectures. Will Morty take that step? Probably not. And that’s a shame. Williams has an opportunity to brand itself as the most intimate elite education option in the world. Every year that passes without us taking advantage of the lead provided by the tutorial system is a year wasted, another year in which our competitors can catch up. The longer we wait, the less special we will be.

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