“Always something breaking us in two.”

24 08 2011

“Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.”

– Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1900.

Recent visitors to this blog should recognize 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 now because the author is recycling a big chunk of it in Utne Reader.

Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but the author’s arguments actually seem less awful than they did the last time I read them. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary awfulness of the stuff that I’ve been reading over the last few months. Perhaps it’s the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the educational technology future. She clearly believes that these developments will help the students of the future learn better.

I still don’t. Looking at my previous post on this book, it seems that this is the exact same paragraph that got me all riled up months ago:

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, and when, where, and with whom; and they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.

OK, but just because you CAN deliver them separately doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD deliver them separately. Take the obvious pairing here of content and skills. Perhaps you can teach my discipline adequately online if you believe, as Harry Truman did, that history is just one damn fact after another. Make the students read something, then give them a multiple choice test on the content they just read. Voila! You’ve taught your students history. That’s the popular perspective of people who think that a college education is about nothing besides getting a credential.

I happen to believe otherwise. I’ve come to look at historical facts as a means to an end – actually a means to many ends, namely developing a skill set that helps students better understand the world around them today, not just the dead world of the past. That’s why I’m so smitten with whatever the opposite of the coverage model of history survey classes happens to be.

This ProfHacker post calls it “uncoverage.” I’m not sure I like that name, but nonetheless I really couldn’t agree with these sentiments more:

[D]epth and breadth should not be pitted against each other. In fact, breadth is a key component of uncoverage, the weft to the warp of understanding. Breadth means connecting disparate ideas, finding news ways to represent what is uncovered, and extending one’s conceptual reach to the implications of the material.

Taken together, depth and breadth mean moving away from the prepackaged observations and readily digestible interpretations that go hand-in-hand with coverage.

Teach content and skills separately and you’ll be lucky if you get readily digestible interpretations and prepackaged observations. I suspect students will do nothing but spit back one damned fact after another. It’s no coincidence that Henry Adams was a historian first and a memoirist second.

Do people in other disciplines think like Adams too or are we historians special?




12 responses

25 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Does this mean, I wonder, that if you could somehow use the digital resources that you discussed in the post before this one to generate student activities in reaction to these resources that were achieving at least the kind of breadth-depth balance that you would hope to see in a class discussion, you might call that good?

Is this actually about describing the kind of online work you’d like to see?

Uh-oh, could this be the dark side calling?

25 08 2011
Jonathan Rees


If you had to work online, the kind of breadth/depth balance you could get in a class discussion is precisely what I’d like to see. However, to invoke Occam’s Razor for a moment, by far the easiest way to get there would be through a class discussion.

25 08 2011
Dan Allosso

Maybe my problem with your posts is that (since I’m not employed in the field) I identify more with the learner than with the professor. I think your observations about how technology can weaken the educational experience and produce mindless parroting of facts are marred by your unwillingness to admit that in the majority of cases, that’s the experience students are ALREADY having without technology.

I think we have a problem. Inspired, creative teachers are suffering at all levels of American education. To a great extent I think this is caused by the stresses and difficulties that face teachers in our society, not to the effects of technology. Computers and the web can certainly be used to make teachers’ and students’ lives worse. But I’m not sure that makes them the central issue.

The challenge to hierarchy, the focus on the learner rather than a traditional definition of “education” that may be out of tune with the times, and, yes, the shaking-up of the status quo are all advantages we could gain from new technologies. If we use them creatively. Circling the wagons and creating an us-vs.-them rhetoric (in which you typically characterize students as spoiled children) actually allies you with the worst features of the old system. Tenured technophobes — standing at a lectern and rereading lecture notes they wrote out a decade previously and publishing a biennial journal article on obscure topics interesting only to 100 other specialists in the world — are not going to lead us out of this morass. The sooner they’re swept from the field, the better for students and for the profession.

25 08 2011
Jonathan Rees


Continuing my theme from above (aren’t these new nested comments awesome!) given a choice between a bad live class and a bad online class, I’d probably take the online class, assuming the millenium came and the university actually charged less for it. However, call me a hopeless optimist, but I’d rather try to improve everybody’s teaching rather than simply move bad teaching to a delivery method that requires a much more expensive infrastructure.

25 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

OK, let’s get serious here. When you teach in a room you’re not teaching in thin air, and the infrastructure costs are really, really significant: buildings, utilities, services, campus services, and then all the flow-on costs of student and staff commuting, not to mention the massive backend costs of the organisational logistics that deliver everyone to the same room at the same time. The carbon footprint of face to face learning is very serious and everyone is trying to figure out how on earth to do this less destructively. So while this isn’t an argument for online learning, it’s a clarification that the contractual and hosting infrastructure for online isn’t the only cost on the table.

But do we really want to do this on the basis of expense?

25 08 2011
Dan Allosso

I’m with you on trying to improve the classroom experience, whether it’s online of in person! And I agree with you on the importance of history — I guess I’m an optimist when it comes to disruptive technologies. To me the web is analogous with the Gutenberg press in the age of monasteries.

25 08 2011
Britney Titus

I like that you wrote about the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” idea because I feel like it is a main problem in today’s educational system, especially when it comes to whether or not students actually get a deeper understanding from what they are learning. Case in point: One of my education professors this semester (it is ironic to me that all of my education classes provide bad examples) has quizzes online every week to make sure we are doing our reading. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to have a 20 minute conversation about the reading in which the students are required to participate rather than have them answer questions on the internet? Not only would students bring up topics that other students may not have thought of while they were reading, but those of us who have been through high school know that most students are just going to hunt for key words just to answer the question at hand and ultimately, not get anything out of the reading. Again, just because the option of online teaching is there doesn’t mean that it is a better option than in-class discussion.

Another example, probably one of my favorites, is the labor course that I took with you last spring. I cannot imagine what that class would have been like without those in-class discussions. Some of the students and I are still talking about them to this day. Sure you could have posted the readings online and created a discussion board, but there was a brilliance to what happened in that classroom that would not have happened had that class been online. Truth be told, it seemed like all of us just fed off one another’s energy and I learned more than I had in most of my undergraduate courses.

A last note that I will make about this is what it means to be a teacher. So many of my education classmates say I want to make a difference in students’ lives and really teach them to the best of my ability. My question is: if teachers and professors really feel that way (and I am sure most of them do) how could they say that online learning is in fact the best method for students? Is it really the way the students will learn best or is it just a modern-day alternative that is supposed to be the right thing to do?

I just hope teachers and professors sit back and keep in mind the student. If they really want them to learn and REMEMBER what they learn, then I don’t see how a class entirely online should even be an option….just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.

25 08 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I’m seeing a pattern here, that I want to think about. It goes a bit like this: I have had a great experience doing X, and this is in itself the evidence that the experience of doing Y cannot ever be as good. I think philosophers understand this much better than we do. But my crumpled grasp of reason is that I can have a good or bad experience doing X, and a good or bad experience of doing Y is unaffected by this.

I’m with Dan on this: I identify more with the learner and I think the most exciting thing for me has been to watch and participate in online discussions that had absolutely the vibrancy and long-term persistence that Britney describes. I’ve had students come to my office years after they first met in an online class, still talking. But the difference is that I don’t think this is the evidence that online is superior, just that it’s also possible.

So, once again, with feeling: I think we are all together trying to rescue education from charlatanism, and I believe charlatanism is not exclusively online. It’s clever and effective because it doesn’t wear a big t-shirt that says “Charlatan”. We need to get much smarter at recognising the real threat.

25 08 2011
Jonathan Rees


If I worked in the kind of environment in which online courses could thrive, I’d probably be thinking precisely as you do here. And by environment, I don’t just mean my university, I mean just about every university in America.

Perhaps online charlatans don’t wear “Charlatan” t-shirts, but everyone around here seems to have $ in their eyes – especially the administrators, but that also includes the students. I know you can do great things in online education, but around here you have to swim against the tide to do so. Of course, as Dan suggests, these same kind of problems infect face-to-face classes in many places, but given a choice between the two a smart student should take face-to-face every time. Their odds of learning something are much better that way.

26 08 2011

Sorry to be so late to the conversation, Jonathan, but: how the hell COULD we teach skills without content? What would that look like?

Is it like learning to write without learning to read first? WTF?

27 08 2011

Seems to me that historical skills w/o historical content could include topics like theoretical analysis/philosophy of history, library science/research methods, writing/data organization, reading strategies/vocabulary lists. Of course there would be some tangential content in each of these lessons, but if you were a no-content purist you could use made-up or hypothetical situations, perhaps drawn from science fiction, Wall Street Journal editorials, or western pulp novels.

26 10 2011
Why edtech is a labor issue. « More or Less Bunk

[…] covered some of this before: Teach skills, not facts. Lose the multiple choice tests. Kill all the textbooks – not so that we can replace them with edu-tainment, but so we can […]

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