Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Real Education

Fredrik deBoer explains the difference between real college education and the fantasies of some reformers:
Here’s the model that the constant “online education will replace physical colleges” types advance: education is about gaining knowledge; knowledge is stored in the heads of teachers; schooling is the transfer of that knowledge from the teacher’s head to the student’s head; physical facilities are expensive, but online equivalents are cheap; therefore someone will build an Amazon that cuts out the overhead of the physical campus and connects students to teachers in the online space or, alternatively, cuts teachers out altogether and just transfers the information straight into the brains of the student.

The basic failure here is the basic model of transfer of information, like teachers are merchants who sell discrete products known as knowledge or skills. In fact education is far more a matter of labor, of teachers working to push that information into the heads of students, or more accurately, to compel students to push it into their own heads. And this work is fundamentally social, and requires human accountability, particularly for those who lack prerequisite skills.

I’ve said this before: if education was really about access to information, then anyone with a library card could have skipped college well before the internet. The idea that the internet suddenly made education obsolete because it freed information from being hidden away presumes that information was kept under lock and key. But, you know, books exist and are pretty cheap and they contain information. Yet if you have a class of undergraduates sit in a room for an hour twice a week with some chemistry textbooks, I can tell you that most of them aren’t going to learn a lot of chemistry. The printing press did not make teachers obsolete, and neither has the internet.

Some of those undergrads might learn chemistry. There are small numbers of people in the world who are really self-motivated to learn. I sometimes get people who ask me if they should get into the Great Courses or similar services. And I tend to tell them, well, since you’re self-motivated and you want to learn and you’re willing to invest, sure. The problem is that most people just aren’t built that way. There’s a romantic vision of education that’s very common to reformers – everybody’s an autodidact, deep down inside. But the truth is, most students aren’t self-motivated. Most students learn only under compulsion from society. True, everyone has subjects that they love, but everyone also has subjects that they hate, and the basic premise of a curriculum is that individuals cannot determine for themselves exactly what they need to learn. Meanwhile, many or most students try to escape these obligations, to varying degrees. Truancy law exists for a reason, and even in the ostensibly-voluntary world of the university, most students do what they can to avoid work as much as possible. I’m just trying to be real with you. Most people skip school when they can.


G. Verloren said...

The most important things I ever learned were how to learn, and how to love learning.

Teachers are invaluable, but only for those who have the desire and the capacity to learn. Hammering a predetermined syllabus into a person's head when they have zero interest in the knowledge achieves nothing - they rapidly set about forgeting whatever information you stuff in there.

But if you can instill in someone a genuine curiosity - a real desire to know something, and the willingness to learn more - then you've got something to work with. And if you then teach them how to take that desire to learn and act on it properly, you ensure that they'll never be lacking in any information they need, because they will have both the drive and the skills to fill in any gaps that may develop in their knowledge, and to refresh what they know over time.

David said...

FWIW, as far as I could tell, the main motive behind the online learning movement was a basic hostility on the part of conservatives and some entrepreneurs toward college professors, and a desire to see as many of the latter as possible lose their jobs, with only a few hyperachievers at the top surviving.

Perhaps I'm paranoid, but that's what I detect in the movement. If entrepreneurs, especially, have any romantic idea, I think it's that they can become the heroic liberators of the inner hyperachiever in a mass of students, in part by shoving the mass of other adults, who by definition are mostly mediocrities, out of the way.

Shadow Flutter said...

Online classes will succeed because they fill a need, supply a market.

Distance learning, which is what online learning is, may have it's roots in correspondence courses. But what really gave distance learning the impetus it needed to expand and evolve, I think, was older, working people going to college. Traditional learning didn't/doesn't provide the worker with sufficient options; access was/is limited. I remember going to the library and checking out video tapes of classes because I couldn't attend during the day, but only a very few classes offered that. Now you can "attend" at night from your home.

Also, I believe the military promotes online learning. You could be stationed anywhere, and moved around and around. Traditional learning must be a nightmare for the soldier. There is value in connecting with your school from anywhere in the world.

Still, online learning has problems. Almost all interaction is through writing, and it's difficult for an instructor to answer all those bulletin board posts. And how do you do lab work online? But it's a relatively young technology. Let's see what happens as it matures.

deBoer seems to be conflating online learning with the loss of the teacher. I'm not sure that's valid. But if it is, then we should be concerned.

Irene Fuesrt said...

I took one online course. I learned some things, but I really missed the interactions among students and teacher. Real classes are so much more engaging.

However, I am among the intellectually blessed: I like to learn things. I have no idea whether online vs. classroom learning makes a difference to students who regard a good grade as a reward for gaming the system, or equate learning with rote memorization.

Shadow Flutter said...

Another potential problem with online education is a student confusing ease of access with ease of learning. Not unrelated is the proliferation of For Profit universities -- many are diploma mills -- which online access makes easy. But blaming online access for diploma mills is like blaming roads for bandits.

Brick and mortar classes can be much more personally engaging, but in the many I've attended most students just sit there leaving lively discussion to the willing few. A teacher can prod and poke only so much. I've seen lively discussion in online classes, but all human contact is virtual, and that takes some getting used to. Motivation and determination is completely the responsibility of the student, and that must be made clear right up front.