A Cock and Bull Story

Well the big boys have finally decided to plunge into the on-line education field.  Harvard and MIT announced this week that they will invest $60 million to put free courses on-line.  This will be something more than the camera at the back of the lecture hall yawners you can download on I-Tunes U, or the University of Phoenix's cost effective ram and jam approach.  No sir, this effort will harness all of the latest whiz-bang doo-hickeys.  There will be true interactive capability, testing and even the opportunity to receive a grade, although not a diploma or credit toward graduation.  Apparently, this is the distance learning game changer we've all been waiting for.

Of course claims that technology would revolutionize education were made when radio took hold in the 1920s.  It's what they said about TV in the 1950s.  And, sigh, it's what they said about wiring every classroom in America to the Internet back in the 1990s.  But this time it's different.  Really.  This time it's tantamount to the invention of the printing press. 

Okay, sure.  Whatever.

Don't get me wrong.  On-line educational technology actually does solve problems.  Two of them, in fact.  It decreases the cost and labor of storing information and it minimizes the time and distance constraints of imparting it.  Unfortunately we keep conflating our improved methods for addressing these problems with actual student learning.  So what if the academic literati at Harvard or MIT can teach and interact with a class of 10,000 for free?  At the end of the day, will the students perform any better as a result?  Or will the inherent difficulties of teaching and learning remain the same as they ever were?  David Brooks, a writer I seldom agree with, actually makes the operable point:

The most important and paradoxical fact shaping the future of online learning is this: A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data. People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.
Online education mostly helps students with Step 1. As Richard A. DeMillo of Georgia Tech has argued, it turns transmitting knowledge into a commodity that is cheap and globally available. But it also compels colleges to focus on the rest of the learning process, which is where the real value lies.
See? Step 1 is a snap.  It's that damned Step 2 with its concern for  "real value" that proves a toughie.  That said, these gadgets probably will transform higher education.  They will do it in the same way that the Internet eliminated the need for a travel agent to book your flight.  In other words, we solved the problem of access to information but did nothing to improve the quality of air travel.  In the end, we will only make it harder for small institutions like mine, where we actually do care about our students' personal growth and development as human beings.

In my first-year Humanities course (taught the old-fashioned way), I have the students debate two views of progress in the 18th century.  On one side of the debate are the views of Condorcet, who foresaw an unlimited potential for human progress, thanks in no small part to the increase in universal education that was beginning during the Enlightenment.  On the other is the satire of Jonathan Swift, who reminded his readers that technological progress should never be confused with moral progress. Indeed, it generally makes us more effective in exercising our natural vices.  After all, the Internet hasn't done much to bring the global village into harmony and understanding, but it's been a godsend to the porn and gambling industries.

So I ask my students to imagine that Swift and Condorcet were brought back to life today and allowed to assess who was more accurate about the the progress of humanity.  Surprisingly, my little I-phone-sporting technophiliacs are of one mind:  Swift was the more prescient.  Another 18h century skeptic, Laurence Sterne, once asked, "Tell me, ye learned, shall we forever be adding so much to the bulk and so little to the stock?"

Sterne's Tristram Shandy.  Good book.   It's a far better cock and bull story than this latest news.

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