Why not just go read a bunch of books and skip paying tuition?

29 03 2010

I notice (thanks to the Washington Monthly College Guide blog) that the state of Indiana can’t tell the difference between graduating and learning:

The dimmer wits in the Indiana General Assembly want to compensate colleges and universities according to their graduation rates. This is another example of shallow reasoning by our elected representatives reflecting erroneous thought that has permeated our society.

As recently as March 2, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education issued a press release in which Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said, “There is nothing more important to Indiana’s higher education agenda than improving college completion rates. While Hoosiers have come to understand the increasing value of going to college, far too many of college”going students fail to earn a degree.”

Nothing more important than completion rates? What about the substance and significance of what is learned?

Good question. Unfortunately, there are too many people besides the Indiana General Assembly who aren’t bothering to ask that question either. Here’s the author of the book DIY U (that name alone just gives me hives), which was mentioned in this space before, writing in Inside Higher Education:

Open educational content is just the beginning. Want a personalized, adaptive computer tutor to teach you math or French? A class on your iPhone that’s structured like an immersive role-playing game? An accredited bachelor’s degree, in six months, for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wikiuniversity? These all exist today, the beginnings of a complete educational remix. Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, networked, experiential, and self-directed learning.

So why not just go read a bunch of books and skip reading tuition? The cynical answer would be that a peer-to-peer “Wikiuniversity” is not accredited, and any university that turns its classes over to role-playing games and iPhone apps risks losing the accreditation it has. There’s no proof that any of the new forms of high tech education that are mentioned above or just plain old self-directed reading actually teaches anybody anything.

Universities have been a resilient method of delivering education for a reason. An essential part of the educational process is the relationship between the student, the instructor and the text. Put simply: Anybody can read The Scarlet Letter, but only an English professor can help you get everything out of it that’s in there. And you’re going to get a lot more out of the book if there’s an English professor pacing at the front of the room, calling on students to read and discuss passages, rather than running a chat that you may or may not be following in the privacy of your den.

Apparently a DIY university is now possible because:

Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly this means students will decide what they want to learn, when, where, and with whom, and they will learn by doing.

Presumably, a college degree is worth something in the marketplace because it actually represents a set of skills that actually make people better workers. If the DIY university is the university of tomorrow then that brand is going to be seriously diluted. If choosing your education is going to be like choosing what cereal you want to eat every morning, I fear for the future because I have no faith that today’s students will actually make choices which will guarantee that they actually learn something, or at least something useful.




3 responses

29 05 2010
The online higher education emperor has no clothes. « More or Less Bunk

[…] emperor has no clothes. 29 05 2010 This review of the book DIY University (which I still refuse to read and won’t link to either) is absolute genius. Go read the whole thing, but […]

24 08 2011
“Always something breaking us in two.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] that my interest in educational technology didn’t come out of left field. For instance, I made fun of a book titled DIY U almost from the very first moment that I read about it. It must be out in paperback […]

28 11 2011
What if disrupting education isn’t such a hot idea after all? « More or Less Bunk

[…] very often. It’s gotten so bad that even Anya Kamenetz, who I have had absolutely nothing nice to say about previously, can write: Personally, I’d like to see more university presidents making […]

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