Next Door Innovator: An Interview with Eric Mazur, Developer of Peer Instruction


NDIAt Turn To Your Neighbor, we constantly search for new ways to showcase bright ideas and innovation in education. As part of this venture, we have started a new interview series called Next Door Innovator.  Our inaugural interviewee is Professor Eric Mazur, developer of Peer Instruction.

Julie Schell: Where was your last education-related speaking engagement and what were you speaking on?



Eric Mazur:
 Sydney Australia, on Peer Instruction.



Approximately, how many countries have you visited in the last 365 days?
More than I can count on my fingers. Probably 30.

Your efforts to evoke global pedagogical change are unprecedented. Why do you work so hard to improve education?
Because I am absolutely convinced that the key to a better world is education.

When thinking about the state of higher education at this moment, what keeps you up at night?
For the past 500 years education has essentially been stuck in the middle ages. Why is now the right time to get unstuck, and who am I to think that I can do anything to get us unstuck? That is what keeps me up at night.

In business, the leading corporations design products and services based around empathy for the enduser so that the user experience is the best it can possibly be. Why have educators failed, for the most part, to transfer this empathic strategy to the student learning experience in the massive industry that is higher education?
Decisions in education are almost entirely based on personal experience. We are the products of a failed educational system that we don’t perceive as being broken and therefore we perpetuate the model.

Eric Mazur with his new textbook, Principles and Practice of Physics.

Eric Mazur with his new textbook, Principles and Practice of Physics.

You have been a strong critic of the MOOC, why are they so dangerous? Deep down, I think learning is a social experience. While I think you can have social experiences online, it is not the same as a face-to-face experience between students or between students and faculty. Also, MOOCs are entirely focused on what I consider to be the easy part of education — the transfer of information. So, MOOCs don’t really solve the central problem we have in education — moving from an information-centered to a student-centered approach so we can more easily foster conceptual change and understanding.

Are there any ways you think MOOCs have sparked innovation in higher education?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say sparking innovation, but MOOCs have made people rethink the current approach to teaching. In particular, they have led some people to reevaluate the role of the teacher in the classroom, after all if you can replace a lecture with a video, what does the teacher do during class time?

If you were going to disrupt higher education right now, how would you do it?
[Silence…] That’s a tough question. Education has resisted disruption and innovation for so many years and for so long.  Change in higher education is a puzzle that has many different pieces: teachers, students, parents, governments, standards, institutions, just to name a few. Changing any one piece will not disrupt education. We have to change all the pieces at once, which is not an easy feat. I have started to focus on disrupting assessment hoping that that might lead to a chain reaction and effect change throughout the education system.

Are there any campuses pioneering curricular or pedagogical innovations that we should pay close attention to?
I am a huge admirer of the student-centered and skills-based approach at Olin College.

What are you working on right now that you are most excited about?
I worked on a textbook for the past 23 years. It is finally out; I have a copy in my hands. It is incredibly exciting to finally see that work completed, to be able to share the book with other faculty, and to work on redesigning the teaching of physics in a different dimension.

What do you think?

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