… and I’m never going back to my old school (response paper No. 6)

OK. As a daily newspaper editor, it’s kind of embarrassing to blow two deadlines in a row. In my own defense, I just didn’t have it in me after I got stuck covering a Shays-Farrell debate last night. (The careful reader will note that I was so brain dead when I wrote it that I didn’t even know what day it was.)

While I’m on the subject of my own work, I might as well draw your attention to a story I wrote to mark the sad passing of CBGB last weekend. I’m proud of it not because it’s a wonderful work of journalism, which it ain’t, but because it honors the fact that elements of the current music scene in Connecticut can trace their roots to a certain ginmill on the Bowery. I made my way there on Friday to pay respects.

Anyhow, if you’re still with me, here’s my response. I had trouble drawing a common theme to connect all of the readings, as I’ve tried to do in the past, so I decided to focus on the education issue. I could probably have worked in the Czerwinsky & al. ubiquitous computing/abundant storage angle, but I would have damaged my back in the attempt. And I didn’t see how the Finnish thing about user-centered design fit in at all. I guess we’ll talk about in class and I’m really interested in how the rest of you handled it.

Alice Cooper

“No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” Alice Cooper used to sing that back in the day, before he got into golf and Republican politics. Hell, I used to sing it myself pretty much every time the seventh-period bell signaled that it was time to go home and roll a fatty.

Well, we’ve pretty much gotten rid of the pencils, and textbook publishers are pricing themselves out of the market. But teachers have got a pretty good lock their whole scam, right? Well, don’t count on it. Teachers may never disappear entirely — younger children in particular will always need professional adult guidance. But a good chunk of the profession as we know it is being pushed toward irrelevance. Their expertise is no longer as crucial in an age of ubiquitous knowledge, and it seems likely that online, interactive education systems administered on a large and cost-efficient scale will handle many functions currently handled in classrooms.

In “Education Goes Digital: The Evolution of Online Learning and the Revolution in Higher Education” (2005), Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff suggest this is becoming the case at least in higher education, where online distance learning and so-called “asynchronous learning networks” have for years allowed students to take courses for credit without ever setting foot in a classroom. They warn:

“[O]nce most courses are available in digital formats as well as on campuses, geographic monopolies and barriers that have sustained thousands of different colleges and universities in the U.S. and around the world will weaken.” (2005, p. 62)

The authors envision an acceleration in the use of online learning techniques as more and more instructors learn to use the technology and discover the benefits it can present. Obviously this presents a threat to traditional institutions, which “must face the need to change, or risk extinction” (2005, p. 62.) But even if they dig in their heels, it seems inevitable that new, more forward-thinking institutions will spring up offering online degrees – and it goes without saying that this could be done at a fraction of the cost to attend a brick-and-mortar school – with the added advantage that the could potentially attract students from all over the world. Like the textbook, the modern university seems likely to price itself out of existence.

Hiltz and Turoff predict that the emergence of online learning will facilitate a move away from “teacher-centered pedagogy” toward “constructivist, student-centered pedagogy” (2005, p. 60). Implicit is the idea that students (and for the moment, we’re talking strictly about university-level students) will be able to some extent to design their own courses and curricula – perhaps, in the context of a single course, choosing from a menu of approved readings, exercises and assignments that lead up to some sort of final project or test. Or they could choose from a huge variety of highly tailored (perhaps even branded) course outlines specific to their education goals, each composed of interchangeable curricular modules. In either model, several instructors, potentially representing different disciplines, could end up grading and commenting on the assignments completed in the context of a single course. Rather than “teaching” the course, these instructors could be relegated to secondary roles such as grading specific assignments and leading Listserv discussions within their field of expertise; a higher-level instructor might help the student tie these ideas together and offer individualized attention, but would not be actively teaching the course. Such a system, amounting to assembly-line education, could be far more efficient than traditional education, or even current online offerings.

Some would suggest that this is unlikely because the university is far more than just a place to hold classes, but also a center of research and a social institution where scholars from myriad disciplines interact, inspire, and challenge each other. But once again technology appears to be prepared to step in and fill the void. Alex Halavais, in “Scholarly Blogging: Moving Toward the Visible College” (ND), suggests that blogs offer an “alternate version of the coffee house and academic conference, allowing for open and observable discussion among near strangers” (2006, p. 8) that currently “support rather than replace traditional institutions and channels of communication” (ND, p.8). However, in the absence of a bricks-and-mortar institution they would almost certainly substitute for dialogue that currently takes place in ivy-bedecked cloisters.

There is no reason to think that some of these changes will not also extend to primary and secondary education. Indeed, Hiltz and Turoff note that online learning “is also starting to penetrate K-12, adult learning, and corporate training” (2005, p. 63). There is ample motivation for change, given the lackluster performance of U.S. students, achieved at excruciating cost to taxpayers. Physical schools and classrooms are unlikely to disappear as long as two-working-parent-families are dominant in society. But student-oriented learning performed in an interactive, online environment is likely to occupy an increasing share of educational activities – it is less costly in terms of manpower, simpler to administer, and potentially more effective than standard classroom pedagogy.

It would not be surprising in the very near future to see branded commercial products offering “education system”: packaged, standardized course offerings, allowing students to learn at their own pace and in the way that best suits them, with a minimum of professional oversight. Applied on a wide scale, these systems would offer attractive advantages; for example, they would facilitate accumulation of a huge and fluid database about student performance that would allow administrators to compare their schools and classes with others in their district, state and nation, as well as historical data. This could eliminate the need for standardized testing, which school districts uniformly find burdensome. (There’s a nice irony to the idea that the market might soon obviate a massive federal testing regime foisted on public schools by a certain president who poses as a free-market conservative.)

Ultimately such a system would largely relegate teachers to secondary roles, although it would have to do so over the fly-ridden corpses of thousands of principals, school board chairmen, and teachers’ union presidents. But practical concerns aside, there’s no real reason to oppose such change as long as there are always educated, dedicated, and caring professionals standing at the sidelines to help students make sense of what they’re learning.

Works cited:

Halavais, A. (ND). Scholarly Blogging: Moving Toward the Visible College. In A. Bruns & J. Jacobs, Eds., Uses of Blogs. New York: Peter Lang. 1-14

Hiltz, S. & Turoff, M. (2005). Education Goes Digital: The Evolution of Online Learning and the Revolution in Higher Education. Communications of the ACM. 48(10), 59-64.

2 responses to “… and I’m never going back to my old school (response paper No. 6)

  1. Hi Eddie,

    Without a doubt you are a phenomenal writer, I read every one of your postings without fail. You manage to hold our attention throughout, I particularly liked your ending, “over the fly-ridden corpses of thousands of principals, school board chairmen, and teachers’ union presidents.”

    This weeks readings did not have a common thread for me either, so I have also chosen the same topic to expond upon. My paper is more anal, it lacks the life and punch that some writers possess.

  2. typo there “expound”

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