Thompson: Does Higher Ed Really Understand What May Soon Hit It?
Stanley Fish’s recent New York Times commentary (Two Cultures of Educational Reform) is excellent, but it also indicates that higher education may not yet understand what is about to hit it.
Fish reviews Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America and asks how Bok can be so bullish on Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) before he has evidence that they will work. Fish then asks the even better question of how devotees of technology can be so enthusiastic in promoting the benefits of digital learning without considering the harm that may be inherent in it.
Fish says an online learning advocate demonstrates with “chilling clarity” how its deleterious effects can be ignored. MOOCs, she says, can release us from the “shackles,” i.e. the need to interact with actual people, who must be endured in a classroom.
Fish also cites Andrew Delbanco who says that MOOCs are just the latest battleground in the centuries-long tension between “facts versus knowledge, skill versus wisdom … information versus insight.” Delbanco characterized it as a conflict between “methodology and non-methodology.”
Fish, Delbanco, and their university colleagues have only been subjected to part of the struggle. As we in public schools have been shocked to learn, education is caught in a struggle between methodology and non-methodology and a brand new form of non-methodology – known as Big Data.
Bok's wording prompts my I suspicion that higher education is not fully aware of the challenge they will soon face. As Fish explains, Bok is aware that teaching also is an art, but he mostly sides with “the evidence-based approach to education … rooted in the belief that one can best advance teaching and learning by measuring student progress and testing experimental efforts to increase it.”
But, that is the way that the old-fashioned scientific methodology worked. The new non-methodology of Big Data is data-DRIVEN, not evidence-based. The new quantitative non-method bypasses the human process of articulating falsifiable hypotheses and theories. It even skips the process of designing experiments to be tested. In public education, at least, true believers in data impose their untested methods on schools, confident that it will produce “truly transformative” change. In doing so, they treat teachers and students as their lab rats.
Higher education, like medicine, has advocates for data-driven policies, but they are all members of respected professions. Its members might theorize about whether it would be a good idea to bet the farm on the “messianic” idea de jour. Only in the disrespected field of public schools would “reformers” be allowed to be completely oblivious to the unintended negative consequences of risky gambles. To date, only in K-12 schooling would a “brave new world” be imposed on children, without even seeking parental permission, in the hope that it will do more good than harm.
On the other hand, if public education abandons the fight for poetry, critical thinking, and trusting relationships, history could repeat itself in our universities. To paraphrase Karl Marx, the tragedy of public education “reform” could repeat itself - this time as an “acidly comic” farce. -JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.