Introducing V.O.W.

Quantitative baseball analysis took a big step forward with the introduction of VORP ("value over replacement player"), which measures each player's worth compared with a below-average replacement, measuring contribution at the margin. For basketball, Bill Simmons recently proposed VOTT, or value over Tim Thomas, saying, "Is there an NBA forward alive who couldn't play 31 minutes a game, score 12 points, notch five rebounds and three assists, miss 70 percent of his 3-pointers and allow his guy to score at will?" These tools allow you to figure out how much to pay a player, and to compare players across positions.

Well, there's no reason academia should miss out on the fun. I hereby propose a new statistic for teacher evaluation: Value Over Wikipedia. I define this as the amount of value a teacher creates above browsing Wikipedia in the subject area for two hours a week.

People used to go to college because the professors were exclusive fonts of information. All information would flow in one direction, from prof to student, and at the end of the semester, the student would be asked to regurgitate some names, dates, and equations on a sheet of paper, to indicate "learning." A college education had value because you paid money to be near these repositories of information, and learn things from people that you could only learn otherwise with a lot of work. Now more than ever, anyone with an Internet connection can learn college level material. There's still value in a college education but now college professors need to emphasize different things.

Wikipedia is more competitive than you'd think. Ask any current college student to name the first place they'd look to find out about an unfamiliar person, place, event, or thing. In addition to an encyclopedia, there's Wikibooks (here's their textbook on calculus). Furthermore, one of my professors had negative value last term. I stopped going to class at the end of October and used Wikipedia to look up equations and answer the homework problems.

But Wikipedia is a limited tool; it should only be able to compete with weak teachers. There's an apocryphal story about Albert Einstein, that he stopped writing during a conference and had to ask a graduate student in the audience for a simple physics equation. The audience was surprised; surely the greatest physicist of the 20th century would know an equation that every introductory student memorized! Einstein replied that he never memorizes anything that can be looked up in a book. Some interpret this the wrong way; the ability to instantly access information, equations, and APIs is, and always will be, a good thing - it allows us to focus on doing other things. It does mean that we should throw most memorization-based classes out the window.

Wikipedia excels at providing facts but sucks at providing understanding. It can't answer questions, or construct a coherent narrative. It can't make its readers ask or answer critical questions about the reading.

So your teachers should have high V.O.W. But I know there are many who don't. Here's hoping we can improve those at the margin.

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