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Thompson: Does Higher Ed Really Understand What May Soon Hit It?

MoocsStanley 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.

The non-methodology of the liberal arts, and the quaint arts of living together in a civil society, and the methodology of science have learned to co-exist and collaborate.  The big dispute, which has not yet engulfed higher education, is between the methodology of peer review and the new non-methodology, which believes that the accumulation of massive amounts of numbers can replace the scientific method. 

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.   


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I found this article to be disheartening. As a student, who is studying to be a teacher one day, the thought of only learning via MOOC's or any other online learning system is frightening. I personally enjoy an in-class setting despite its distractions (which are few), and the commentary of other individuals. I believe that if we are left to our own devices, shielded away from any influence, the outcome will certainly be a generation of students who lack social skills, and maybe very well be left with one dimensional world views.

As Stanly Fish points out in his full article at New York Times:
"As I made my way through these two books, one moment stood out for its chilling clarity. Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, argues in the course of a response to Bowen that with the help of the digital media, “we can release ourselves from the shackles that we have gotten used to in the context of in-class teaching.” This turns out to mean that we can be released from the distracting bother of interacting with actual people. In this way, she claims, we can be in tune with our students’ preferences. “Eighteen-year-olds,” Koller tells us, “actually prefer to text each other rather than to talk to each other on the phone or even get together for coffee.” That is, even a phone conversation is too humanly intimate for this generation."
The emergence of technology in education is powerful and has many merits but without the human component-such as teachers, tutors, and peers to ground it I feel we will see lack luster results.

Technology in education has added a great deal to further the knowledge of our students. Online education is by far one of the greatest advancements in education. Not only is it convenient, but is also advanced learning that can measure learning in a more scientific way. Online programs like MOOC can measure student learning easier than traditional in-class education.

Technology and learning online is taking off and I imagine there will be more developments in this field of education in the future. I think we are moving in a direction where educational programs are catering to nontraditional students and the lives they live. Therefore, providing students the opportunity to learn from a distance is important and necessary. As an online teacher and learner I appreciate the technological advances made to develop such a convenient way of learning.

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