Higher Education

hacking education conference

I've posted a couple times (here and here) on Fred Wilson's idea of hacking education. Recently Wilson and his associates held a small conference (though replete with luminaries) on the subject; he blogs about it here. In this post he lists some of the key points he gleaned from the conference, including the following observation:

Teachers are more important than ever but they will have to adapt and many will have to learn to work outside the system. It was suggested at hacking education that teachers are like bank tellers in the 1970s. I don't agree but I do think they are like newspaper reporters in the 1990s.

I was thinking about this myself back in January. (Usually I don't link so much to myself, but I'm trying to pull together some threads.) The similarity between teachers/professors and journalists, as I see it, is that historically neither profession has been especially interested in the economics of how their institutions are funded. In fact, in academia, it has largely been viewed as poor form to become involved in the money side of higher ed. There has a been an eroding firewall between the economic interests and the educational/research mission of universities for 30 years.

However, there are also key differences between journalists and teachers. Namely a journalist's readership, as participatory as it might become through social media, has a very different relationship to the journalist than students do with teachers. Though Wilson notes his disagreement with the analogy to bank tellers, the banking model of education does seem to continue to pervade much of what it going on here. That is, I think there is a lack of appreciation of the value of a professional who not only has subject matter expertise but also has pedagogical expertise.

In a related vein, I can appreciate the desire to rid ourselves of bureaucracy, but I wouldn't be so sure that effective learning can simply happen from the bottom up, as is suggested in Wilson's post. I'll give you a classic example from my own area. Typical college students would say that they are not a good writers. They would say that they do not like to write. And they would probably say that their main problems with writing are in the areas of grammar and spelling. Now what would happen if you put students' writing education in their own hands and let it happen from the bottom up? Of course there are more obvious examples like surgeons or pilots, but here we're dealing with a kind of general education every student requires.

The basic problem is that as a student you don't know what you need to know. As we know from Socrates, figuring this out is a kind of passageway into a philosophical life. I think it would be asking a tremendous amount from students to imagine that they can construct their own curriculum or cobble together curriculum from a variety of otherwise unrelated sources.

One of the things that social media should teach us is that learning is not an individual process. We learn through a network and a community. To have a sustained learning experience that would match the depth and breadth of a contemporary institutional education, you would need a sustainable community. That's what a university provides.

Wilson ends by noting "Learning is bottom up and education is top down. We'll have more learning and less education in the future." And I can agree with that. Learning is everywhere. It's easy to learn things, depending how complex the thing is that you're trying to learn. Learning is like falling over a log. In fact you can probably learn something important by falling over a log about watching where you put your feet. The difficult tasks lie in learning what you need to learn (figuring out what you need to know) and figuring out how to put your learning together and do something with it.

For these things you need a sustainable community of teachers and students. I think you need a professional class of teachers who will work collaboratively with a community of students. Now you can call that community a school or a university or a local Starbucks (as was playfully suggested in the Wilson post). Maybe it can be a website or largely delivered through media networks. Maybe.

The bottom line to me is that I think this conference and people who discuss such matters tend to be very bright, well-educated (often autodidacts) folks who have negative feelings about schooling. I completely sympathize with that! But I wonder if you really did away with requirements for formal schooling how many Americans would bother learning anything beyond whatever training their employer required of them.

Is that really the future of a hacked education?