Reading the Writing on the Electronic Wall

Traditional American Higher Education Must Transform or Perish… But There is Hope

Some are sounding the death knells of traditional undergraduate education in the U.S.  Nathan Harden of The American Interest writes: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.” Harden further asserts that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will soon render traditional education “obsolete.” If they can provide education cheaper and more convenient, how couldn’t they?

Make no mistake. MOOCs represent an incredible opportunity. Higher education has become unsustainably expensive for the average middle class student. MOOCs will hopefully expand access to education and drive down costs. As Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust points out, they are a grand experiment, with opportunities for professors to rethink how they approach education, including education in the classroom (see Maria Bartiromo’s interview with her on CNBC).

But Harden and likeminded harbingers of the end-of-education-as-we-know-it  risk conflating education with information. Ironically, in his above-cited article, Harden himself presents  the crux of the matter without integrating it into his argument: “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make.”

MOOCs provide unprecedented access to student-ready information. In fact, they may represent the apex of the internet’s potential to provide information with some degree of quality-control. But information can be either true or false, relevant or irrelevant, contextualized or woefully out-of-context, in-depth or superficial. In short, information is not knowledge. Knowledge must be true (among other things) in order to be knowledge.

Many of us in academia, especially in the humanities, have done a disservice to society by downplaying the knowability – or even the existence – of truth. While deconstructionism in all of its various forms is not without its usefulness, it does not make for much of a sales pitch. An admissions flier to some institutions might run: “Come here! Impoverish your descendants and we will leave you with existential despair!” If all we do is expose false knowledge without providing any positive contribution, however tempered in its certainty, we have failed to make our world more whole.

Education, at its best, is even more than the sharing of knowledge. In fact, because knowledge is fleeting, we professors must provide students insight not only into the knowledge that we believe ourselves to possess but, more importantly, we must coach students in the  honing of skills that make the acquisition of knowledge plausible: critical thinking, clear written and verbal communication, the identification of false and misleading information, and the analysis and interpretation of raw data.

Even beyond this, education and fellow students should provide the relational context for learning, a community of fellow learners, alongside whom to grow. However different we may be, at times, in our goals, aspirations, and aptitudes, we have the potential to challenge and benefit each other.

Any coherent core curriculum, particularly one defined by the liberal arts, has the potential to integrate students’ learning, setting them on a path to live intellectually coherent lives beyond college. Ideas and ideals matter, but because it is not always clear specifically how, we must cultivate students’ ability to perceive their relevance and how to best apply them in practical terms. In other words, we must cultivate wisdom. And we can only encourage our students’ love of wisdom to the extent that our own love of wisdom is infectious.

MOOCs have the potential to provide opportunities for skill-based and interactive learning, and it can certainly do so less expensively than traditional education. However, traditional education can accomplish these goals in ways that are qualitatively superior and, I venture, quantitatively more effective. MOOCs are cheaper, faster, and newer; but they are inferior in their ability to achieve the goals of a true education, for these demand genuine human contact.

True education consists of more than the acquisition of information. Anyone who says otherwise is a charlatan or a fool.

There is writing on the electronic wall. In the Hebrew Bible, prophecies did not always foretell a certain future; they were often conditional, warnings of what would occur should hearers not turn from their ways. Let us hope that the writing before us is of that variety – representing a chance and a choice – and not like that which Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, who died promptly that night.

2 Responses to “Reading the Writing on the Electronic Wall”

  1. Enelia on

    As you know, last fall I enrolled in a MOOC through Coursera. While the content of the course was excellent, the assignment and grading experience left a lot to be desired.

    Because literally anyone can join join a course, the levels of understanding of the subject matter, class purpose, and assignments vary wildly. This wouldn’t be problematic if those same people were not grading your class work. In my particular MOOC, many enrolled students turned to the forums for accurate grading and feedback because the classmates in charge of grading their individual assignments did not understand them/were only in the course to get something for themselves and didn’t care that their full participation in the grading process was critical to helping everyone have a fruitful class experience.

    Another issue I noticed is that the class is pretty much set in stone, there are no adjustments to the syllabus, and there is no way to give the instructor feedback that can be applied during that particular section.
    Our class had TAs who monitored the forums, who surprisingly also had wildly varying interpretations of the class assignments.

    I can see MOOCs being useful for courses that can be graded electronically (programming and mathematics) or introductory courses in the humanities. If MOOCs are truly the future, prerequisites need to be enforced in classes that can only function through peer assessments.

    Nothing can beat the one-on-one attention you get from a professor in a classroom or through a proper online course. Sadly, it seems that as the costs of education keep rising and there are companies trying to increase accessibility, you ultimately end up getting what you pay for.

  2. georgefaithful on

    For a MOOC to deliver the level of quality they should, they require at least as much work as traditional education, with the caveat, as you pointed out, that it is even more critical for students’ peers to be on the same page.


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