The Sunday Jeremiad (right on schedule)


Leafing through my New York Times this morning, I ran across a full-page advertisement for a conference on "Virtual U: The Coming of Age of Online Education."  Among the questions to be addressed at this gathering are
  • Has the university as an institution had its day?
  • Is online education the great equalizer?
  • How will online education revolutionize what we know about learning?
  • What's the new business model for higher education?
Given the line-up of speakers, one can only imagine the conference's "open-ended" pursuit of answers to these questions.  The speakers generally come from the non-profit world and aren't self-serving merchants looking to make cases for their latest ventures.  Anant Argawal, for example, is developing free MOOCs, (massive open online courses) and Sal Khan founded Khan Academy, a free online aggregator of over 4,000 micro-lectures. 

All of the speakers, however, are proponents of technological fixes to what they perceive to be an inefficient, problematic and positively 19th century model of higher education.  They generally agree that virtual online education is in some as-yet-unforeseen way a game changer that will alter how we learn and educate one another in the 21rst century.  You'll no doubt hear this claim over and over at the conference.

What you won't hear is exactly how this brave new world of pedagogi-gadgetry will improve student learning, or more specifically deep learning.  By deep learning, of course, cognitive scientists mean a student's fundamental reconceptualizing of old mental models.  Deep learning is changed thinking.  It's the holy grail of teaching. Unfortunately, getting to it is an unavoidably difficult, time-consuming and inefficient business. 

Indeed, everything we know about how human beings learn reinforces the idea that mental models change with agonizing slowness, and often--despite using every whiz bang trick we've got--they don't change at all.   Given this, how does more cost effective delivery of content in Super Dome-sized virtual lecture halls--even with a few interactive doodads--change anything?  

Or let's put it this way: we can all go online now and book a flight to Cleveland in a matter of seconds, but so what?  Has solving this access problem done anything to make flying to Cleveland a better experience? 

Look, I'm not saying that the current model of higher education is the best of all possible worlds. And I'm certainly not saying people can't get anything of value from an online course.   I'm just saying education is an activity defined by human limitations, which means online educators and techno-phillic blowhards face the same obstacles to learning that beset me everyday when I step into my low-tech, real-time classroom.  It could be that these brave new worlders actually add some obstacles, but, hey, I'll admit that reasonable people can disagree on that. 

But let's not kid ourselves.  There are no technological quick fixes to human cognition, a point the gurus of virtual education seem to miss over and over.  They keep inventing something akin to phone sex and believe it satisfies a hunger for love.  How sad is that?

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