Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Teachers Are Laborers, Not Merchants

I got an email request to talk about online-only education and why I’m such a skeptic that it can replace physical education. I’ve written about this before but let me try to sum it up.

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 chemisty. 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.

This is particularly important because many of the challenges of the university today come from the fact that we’re educating more and more students who are nontraditional and less prepared than previous cohorts. From 2001 to 2011, total enrollments at American institutions grew by about a third. That’s a ton! And that growth was heavily concentrated among students who tend to be harder to educate – those from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents did not graduate from college. What we need to do, and what many schools are struggling to do, is to give these students the “soft skills” – time management, study habits, persistence, etc – that their peers typical get from middle-class-and-above, college-educated parents, who have the time and experience to inculcate such skills.

Unsurprisingly, what limited research there is suggests that MOOCs (which is only one piece of the online pie) tend to have horrid completion rates; most people aren’t likely to force themselves to log on and get the work done even when they’d prefer to be doing something else. Because online-only education is usually presented in terms of cost savings, it is perhaps most likely to be adopted by those very students who are least able to take advantage of it, particularly given that many of them work full-time and raise children. That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. (...)

Education is always getting disrupted, in the Silicon Valley mind. And though they dress it up in a million different ways, this disruption always functions the same way: by minimizing the teacher, the actual human being, whose job it is to inspire and direct and cajole and, yes, to drag students into competence. Either the teachers are replaced by an iPad or they’re forced to scale up the number of students they can teach by factors of hundreds or thousands through online technologies. One way or the other, the teacher is the problem the technology is designed to solve.

by Fredrik deBoer |  Read more:
Image: Vanderbilt University