Monday, March 29, 2010

Repost: On the future of education

I'm looking forward to reading DIY U by Anya Kamanetz (the author who brought us Generation Debt), after reading her interview in Salon. The letters section was at times insightful, often rancorous, and sometimes displayed the worst fruits of our current education system. I tried to step in. I figure there are some half-baked ideas in here that might be useful with a bit more time in the oven, so I'm republishing it here.

The broad themes of the letters so far

Techno-utopianism: iTunes U is gonna be great! All Web 3.0, social networked and Twitterfied, with courses straight off YouTube and papers submitted to

Class warfare: Online classes are just going to be one more way for the elites to screw the working class, the way prestigious universities are now.

My job has value dammit! Mostly from cranky academic types who seem to think very poorly of the students they teach.

Kids these days: with their cell phones and their whining and their stupid, piggish faces.

Adults these days: with their lazy teaching and arbitrary grading and ridiculous salaries for telling me stuff that I could just google if I was actually interested.

Techno-dystopianism: Online classes suck. They started sucking in 1998 and will keep right on sucking until the heat death of the universe, and by the way The University of Phoenix is a perfect vacuum of suck.

It sounds like we have all the stakeholders in the room, but we're just talking past each other. I'm going to try to pull an Obama and solve the problem by throwing money at it^W^W^W^W^W^W^W^W set up a common framework for the problem.

Threatened academic types: Your work does have value. But the system you work within is crippled by high costs that make your work inaccessible to many Americans, and -- given the amount of debt racked up in obtaining an education -- downright dangerous to some. We need to find ways to make your knowledge more available and allow your teaching skills to reach more people. I think technology is going to be a big part of the solution.

I doubt that anything can replace the student/teacher interaction, but technology could be used to free up your time, so you can spend it guiding specific students with specific problems.

Until the technology matures, do your students a favor and start looking for free/open source textbooks that are relevant to your classwork. You could save your students a bundle.

Online coursework haters: The online experience is only going to become more and more effective at delivering education. Those who mock the quality of online education today are repeating the mistakes of those who mocked the online shopping experience twelve years ago. Both groups look at the deficiencies of the current experience, and project them into the distant future.

Students: If you expect education to be effortless and entertaining, you're going to be disappointed. The process of rewiring your brain to take advantage of the collective wisdom of ten thousand years of human culture and civilization is an agonizing process. Nor can you expect your degree to magically grant you an exciting, fulfilling job. Life is hard, maybe harder than it ought to be, and moving classes online isn't going to change that.

I believe that 90% of the secret to happiness is learning to manage your own expectations. The other 10% is Super Monkey Ball.

Student haters: Look, we as a society have overpromised and underdelivered the future to the next generation. Grade school teachers have long motivated kids by pretending they were teaching to a room full of future presidents and astronauts. Our consumption-soaked culture has promised everyone a big house, an SUV, and if I'm parsing the subtext of commercials correctly, sex with Beyonce.

That overpromising is especially cruel to people who have drawn the short stick in the great circular firing squad of life. But it keeps people hungry, dissatisfied, and willing to work, and therefore serves our corporate masters well. Okay, starting to ramble back there. The point is, we need to build an education system that can deliver on those promises, and $8500 a semester will not do.

Yes, students need to curb their expectations and be willing to put in hard work. But as educators, you are responsible for ensuring that the education system rewards their best efforts, guides them toward the values and habits that will serve them in their later life, and doesn't cripple them with debt straight out of the gate. Right now, the education system doesn't do any of those things particularly well, and as the people who make education what it is, you need to do some self-reflection.

Class warfarers: I think the diploma-based reputation system of the past will soon be at an end. It was the best we could do with the 18th-century technology at hand. But as The Sacrosanct Sheepskin is replaced with a more nuanced, competency-based reputation system, the value of "prestige" is going to tumble. Who cares about the quality of the instruction a student received, if objective benchmarks show that he can't do what he was taught?

Note: This isn't the first time I've whinged on Salon about education.

1 comment:

Anya said...

Love your taxonomy, and your responses toeach! I'l send you a copy of the book if you'll consider reviewing it on Amazon.
Diyubook at gmail dot com