Higher Education

hacking education continued

A couple months back I posted on hacking education. Now a follow-up prompted by Mary Kathleen Flynn's recent comment pointing to the interview below with the folks at Union Square Ventures (Fred Wilson, Brad Burnham and Albert Wenger) on The Deal. It's interesting, in my view, to see what folks outside the academy are thinking about higher education, particularly people like these who are looking to invest money in ideas for transforming what we do using the Internet as a platform. As I have remarked many times, although most faculty are not especially interested in networked media, we are likely facing a situation where either we will get out in front of the challenges networks present to us or someone else will. And of course, we have been largely leaving these challenges to others for a long time–to Microsoft and Blackboard and the other major corporations that provide most of us with educational technology.

In my mind there is no doubt that educational content can be delivered online (texts, lectures, simulations, presentations, etc.). I also believe students and faculty can learn to have pedagogical interactions online, though the behaviors must be learned just as they were learned for the classroom. Based on such thoughts, the Wilson, Burhnam, and Wenger recognize the potential for the Internet to revolutionize education.

The challenges are really deeper than that though and speak to our core notions about education…

For the most part today, faculty custom create their own courses. Even in the case of contingent faculty teaching in a large program (e.g. first-year comp), one finds a large degree of freedom in syllabus creation, assignments, readings, and so on. Though one can find problems with this, if we have learned anything from K-12 it is how awful standardized education can be. Certainly one of my concerns about the kind of entrepreneurial intervention these folks want to make is that it would lead to this kind of standardization. Imagine thousands of FYC students all watching the same video lectures, all going through the same series of worksheet-like assignments, and then having their writing responded to by a class of de-professionalized tutors and graders. It's fast food education. The students don't care what they are learning. They just want the grade. The employees are not invested in the course or the students; they are just performing an atomized function. Can we really imagine learning happens this way? Does anyone actually care?

By the way, I don't think this is what these Union Square folks are imagining. If you watch the video, you'll see their complaint is that schooling fails students because it doesn't speak to their interests or their needs. Certainly a fast-food education wouldn't do that either, though it would be cheap, like fast food (and about as nutritious). Part of this is a rhetorical failure on our part: the faculty's inability (or unwillingness) to communicate to the students why the curriculum is important to them. We have traditionally put all the burden on the students in this area, and we have gotten away with it because of the scarcity of information and education. Those conditions have obviously changed.

At the core of this issue though is the debate over the purposes of education. Faculty believe that an undergraduate degree (particularly a major in their field) should mean certain things, and in many instances they disagree, but they hash things out on that level. Students (and their parents) often want their education to be "practical," preparing them for a job, but often they don't know what job they want. They also rarely understand what it is that they need to learn to be successful. Administrators and politicians bear adversarial relations with faculty which result in the assessment pushes we see now that demand some kind of putative "evidence" of learning.

Clearly media networks will not solve these problems or even provide a platform in which they can be solved, but they will change the terrain in which these conflicts are waged in a way that will alter the dynamics of these interactions.