“If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

12 08 2013

“If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”

- Louis Armstrong’s reported response to the question, “What is jazz?”

How come people who want to reform higher education know nothing about education? Take the former CEO of Snapfish.com, for example, who thinks he’s going to create the online Harvard with the Minerva Project:

His larger conceit, inspired or outlandish, is to junk centuries of tradition and press the reset button on the university experience. Mr. [Ben] Nelson offers a fully-formed educational philosophy with a practiced salesman’s confidence.

Where did that philosophy come from? One course in the history of higher ed while at Wharton twenty years ago. Perhaps – just perhaps – centuries of tradition is a sign of strength in higher education rather than a weakness. Unfortunately, that doesn’t square with the Buggles Theory of the History of Technology.

Some people inside higher education have similar ideas and ambitions. This is from that article on “The Gates Effect,” and the speaker is from one of the online schools the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds:

“The notion of the faculty member as the deliverer of learning—that’s the piece that we pull out,” says Paul J. LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire’s president.

Who else is going to deliver the learning? The Post Office? Of course not, it’s the Internet. How’s the Internet going to deliver learning? Nobody really says exactly. Evgeny Morozov calls this attitude “Internet centrism” and the more I read, the more I agree with him in terms of both higher education and everything else. To quote Morozov from his book (p. 18):

“Once part of “the Internet,” any technology loses its history and its intellectual autonomy. It simply becomes part of the grand narrative of “the Internet,” which despite what postmodernists say about the death of metanarratives, is one metanarrative that is doing all right. Today, virtually every story is bound to have an “Internet” angle–and it’s the job of our Internet apostles to turn those little anecdotes into fairy tales about the march of Internet progress, just a tiny chapter in the cyber-Whig theory of history.”

In other words, scream “Internet” loud enough, and nobody’s going to ask exactly how you can outdo Harvard online or teach without teachers. They’ll just assume you know what you’re talking about, even if you haven’t got a clue. It all reminds me of that famous Louis Armstrong quote about jazz, except these edtech entrepreneur types will never bother asking. They simply think and act as if they know everything already.

As I pointed out a very long time ago now, what’s really going on here is that people with a particular interest (often the profit motive) in one kind of educational model are trying to browbeat the rest of us into accepting that model over anyone else’s. Unfortunately, their’s is not a very good model. Here’s what M. Night Shyamalan thinks about education reform in general*:

Over the course of his research, Mr. Shyamalan found data debunking many long-held educational theories. For example, he found no evidence that teachers who had gone through masters programs improved students’ performance; nor did he find any confirmation that class size really mattered. What he did discover is plenty of evidence that, in the absence of all-star teachers, schools were most effective when they put in place strict, repetitive classroom regimens.

[Emphasis added.]

Sounds like fun, eh? Don’t you think we might at least want to talk about sending education back to the nineteenth century before we actually do so? Ironically, MOOCs (you just knew I’d get to them eventually) fit in very well with the M. Night Shyamalan regimen.

Unfortunately for ed reform snake oil salesmen of all kinds, there’s another, better kind of education that the vast majority of educators at least try to uphold, even when they’re doing the most maligned thing in any teacher’s playbook. Here’s Aaron Barlow on lecturing:

One of the devices I use in the classroom is the lecture. It allows me to introduce information to students in an organized fashion. I cannot package my lectures, however, offering them as a substitute for what I do in the classroom. Why not? Because they are not a one-way transmittal but are, instead, a dynamic between me and the particular class. I constantly watch the students, changing pace, style and even subject depending on what I am seeing on their faces and in their actions. Make the lecture only an electronic residue of me, the teacher, and the real utility of the lecture as motivator and map is substantially reduced. The electronic residue cannot gauge student interest nor can it determine student starting points.

“But electronic residue is cheaper!,” the education reformers cry. “Every potential student must have access to electronic residue!” Education is not the same thing as its electronic residue, and if you have to ask why you’ll never know.

* Yes, THAT M. Night Shyamalan. As Reclaim UC, put it, “[N]ot an Onion article.”

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13 08 2013
professorsusan

I wish we could make it a requirement that anyone who wants to propose some massive education reform must (a) require their own children to be educated as the reform suggests and (b) teach regularly a random group of students (mixed in ability, preparation, diligence, enthusiasm) some subject. These two things *might* keep them a bit more honest.

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