A revolution is coming to U.S. higher education, one that will sweep away an archaic business model, erase the value of many venerable brands, and enhance the brands of new entrants and nimble incumbents. It will be a tough time for many U.S. colleges and universities but great news for the rest of the world.
This is an excerpt of an article in Forbes, one written by Bruce Guile, president and co-founder of Course Gateway, an online education consultancy, and David Teece, executive director of the Institute of Business at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. (See link below.)
I read this with some amusement. A murder is being announced here, à la Agatha Christie. The victim? Classrooms. The perp? Technology as defined by Silicon Valley.
Articles and arguments like this are sweeping the media and their purpose, it seems, is to shift the balance of power away from universities and colleges and to a new world of techno-ed, a world shaped by ideals of openness, democracy and free online education. This world will level the playing field: students in Mumbai will study alongside students in Toronto and Honolulu and all will emerge with equal degrees and, presumably, an equal shot at making it in the world.
A youthful spirit of rebellion is fueling this movement, providing followers with the added incentive of feeling they are doing some good: they are freeing their equally young and intelligent counterparts in other, poorer parts of the world, making it possible for them enjoy the same privileges and wealth. What this utopian vision of education is missing, however, is a realistic accounting of how all this will be achieved.
I’m going to look at two reasons why this thinking is flawed and I’m going to use some real-life anecdotes from my academic career to do it.
I’m an English professor and I’ve taught at three different colleges in Montreal. Many years ago, I volunteered to give breaks to colleagues who were overseeing a provincial exam. I had a schedule that took me from classroom to classroom in a building where hundreds of students were writing simultaneously; I went to each room and took over for 20 minutes while the attending professor left. In one classroom, I noticed a student I’d taught previously. Because I was bit bored, I picked up the attendance record, which had just been delivered, and proceeded to walk up and down the aisles, checking student photo IDs against the names on the list.
I hadn’t gotten to the student I recognized before he came to me, agitated, and told me he had to leave. He said it was because of a “family emergency.” I was puzzled because cell phones were not allowed in the exam and I wondered how he knew an emergency was taking place. I concluded something must have happened earlier in the day and that he was too distracted to write. I took in his exam booklet, advised him he would have to wait a few months before he could sit the exam again – a fact that could delay his graduating – and then reluctantly let him go.
He left and after I finished the attendance, I sat down and opened his exam booklet. Pages had been ripped out, and on the cover, he’d completely scratched out his name. Curious, I looked at the remaining pages underneath. And that’s when I solved the mystery: he was writing for another student, one that I had also taught. He’d scratched out the name so that I wouldn’t make the connection. This imposter student had the bad luck of having me as a relief professor, and having me – as opposed to my less-knowledgeable colleague – check the attendance records during her break. He likely knew I had taught the student he was standing in for and knew I would catch the switch. No wonder he was so agitated.
When it came to light, this event caused quite a scandal. The evidence was taken to Quebec City – where our province’s Ministry of Education is located – and much discussion ensued about what to do. In the end, and because this is Canada after all, a mild warning was issued to both students and the real student was allowed to sit the exam several months later.
I’m relating this story because I want people like Guile and Teece to understand that cheating, even in brick and mortar institutions, is a real problem. I also want the public to understand that because of incidents like the one above, institutions are taking proactive steps to prevent cheating scams. For example, programs like Turnitin have made online, for-purchase essays far riskier for students. Now cheaters who want to skip essay-writing have to turn to sites like Craigslist to find writers willing to write more expensive on-demand essays. Universities in some countries, like India, are planting signal jammers on campuses to prevent students from using their phones during exams. I predict institutions in North America will eventually follow suit. There are also programs like Lanschool – one that I use – that make it possible for teachers to turn off the internet in computer labs during essay writing sessions.
So while technology may be delivering information to a broader base of eager, international learners, as Guile and Teece correctly assert, elements of that same technology are also making it possible for colleges and universities to test individuals’ learning more accurately. And therein lies the problem: the dissemination of information online is not a problem, but verifying its uptake in individuals is. And contrary to what Guile and Teece are saying, this is where conventional institutions have an undeniable advantage.
And this brings me to my second point. Self-directed learning, of the sort promoted by many e-tech enthusiasts, can be problematic too.
Here’s another anecdote from my life: I will admit, in writing, that I hated a lot of the courses I took in graduate school. I took four in one year and the only one I enjoyed was Canadian literature. What did this mean? It meant I had to write essays on topics, like Romantic poetry, that I enjoyed a whole lot less. It meant I had to slog my way through tomes of theory about structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis and feminism without being able to apply these theories to narrative texts. It meant I had to read other poetry, poetry by early Canadian poets, some of which was patriotic and nationalistic and of truly dubious quality. I am one of those literary types who will admit there are certain forms of literature and of literary analysis I simply do not like.
Why is this important? It’s because my undergrad years were halcyon by comparison. I had professors who let me write on topics I’d invented and who encouraged imaginative free-thinking; these were professors who, at the time, I rather grandiosely felt recognized my genius. Yes, once upon a time, I really was that young and self-centered.
So graduate school felt like boot-camp and for the most part, I hated it. That being said, I knew even then that writing on topics I didn’t like was good for me. Tackling texts I was not prepared for frightened me into doing thorough and exacting research. Focusing on ideas outside my chosen purview broadened the scope of my knowledge and changed the way I looked at what I already knew. Being a teaching assistant prepared me for the disappointment of having to teach students uninterested in literature. These experiences combined gave me the patience to forgo quick routes to gratification and to strategize, meaningfully, against boredom and indifference, both mine and others’.
And this is the problem with self-directed learning. Left to my own devices, I would have kept researching the things I liked best. I would have kept to the same trajectory I’d started in my undergraduate years. If I hadn’t been forced to read about deconstruction, I wouldn’t have done so. Furthermore, not indulging myself caused me to take a trip to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto and to hold in my hands the same text of Greek and Roman myths Keats used when he wrote Endymion; it caused me to write a comparative analysis of that poem using these two bodies of myths, an analysis that was deemed publishable by the professors and Ph.D students who attended my presentation. Moreover, studying the patriotic poetry of my country’s first settlers may not have been an aesthetically pleasing experience, but it did teach me a few things about history and the hardships early Canadians faced. And deconstruction, god bless it, taught me that none of this really signified.
I taught Euripides’ play Medea for many years. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of living outside the precepts of the Golden Mean, a design for living first formulated by Aristotle. The Golden Mean is about staying on the middle path between two extremes, about not giving in to the temptation of dramatizing one’s circumstances in life. An attribute commonly used to illustrate this point is courage: a man with too much courage can be reckless; a man lacking it can be cowardly. In Medea the Golden Mean is expressed by the women of Corinth. They surround a devastated Medea in the aftermath of her betrayal by Jason. They urge her not to be alone with her feelings.
She listens to advice,
even from friends, as if she were a stone…and weeps,
crying to herself for her dear father, her home,
her own land, all those things she left behind,
to come here with the man who now discards her.
Her suffering has taught her the advantages
of not being cut off from one’s own homeland…
Her mind thinks in extremes.
A nurse, who knows Medea well, describes the Golden Mean:
It’s better to get used to living life
as an equal common person. Anyway,
I don’t want a grand life for myself—
just to grow old with some security.
They say a moderate life’s the best of all,
a far better choice for mortal men.
Even in this age of nanosecond communication, the Greeks have something to teach us: it’s better not to be alone with strong feelings. I haven’t taught Medea for a few years, but I still talk about the Golden Mean in my classes. I discuss it in the context of the 2006 school shooting we had at Dawson. I talk about how going to sites, like the Goth one shooter Kimveer Gill frequented, can be fun in moderation. I tell them that an excessive reliance upon the reality presented on those sites can start us on a troubling path, a path where our framework for reality starts moving away from the center in increments too small to notice. The Greeks didn’t have the internet, but even they knew that the company we keep can be crucial to our mental health. The women who surround Medea, the ones who sense her capacity for violence, are Euripides’ mouthpieces. Their warnings presage Medea’s murderous actions: she kills her two children to get back at Jason, the husband who has abandoned her for a younger wife.
How does this centrist approach apply to conventional teaching? Because I deal with students face to face, I can gauge the effect my words have on them. And like most teachers, I try to nudge them away from extreme positions. Those of us in the arts and humanities, especially, teach students there are usually several ways of looking at a problem and taking into account all factors is best. It’s how one arrives at a measured response to circumstances.
Despite all the hype and magical thinking, the internet is not a live teacher with its students’ best interests at heart. In fact, it’s a forum that allows young people to self-direct their learning in ways that aren’t always positive. Those with extreme views can always find their soulmates and can collectively reinforce one anothers’ beliefs. While Kimveer Gill’s association with the online Goth scene is an extreme example, the same paradigm of funneling can be applied to education. With less formal requirements and without the intervention of teachers — individuals there to read expressions on students’ faces, answer questions and provide support — we risk creating a population of young people whose world views are narrow and circumscribed. The extremity of the views expressed by Guile and Teece provide a good example. I’m not sure where they’re getting their dire projections from: college enrolment, at least in my neck of the woods, is higher than ever.
There is another reason to heed Medea’s story: she is a foreigner in Corinth. She was a princess of Colchis and abandoned her homeland and royal status to become Jason’s wife. In other words, she is at one remove from her origins, away from family and friends. What does this suggest? To me it suggests a student, sitting at a computer, away from the positive influence of experts and peers who might play a role in shaping that student’s consciousness. It raises questions: exactly what is this student learning and how is he or she learning it? More prosaically: is it really the student’s work the professor is grading?
Aristotle and Euripides may not have seen the internet coming, but it doesn’t really matter. Their ideas are still powerful today and I doubt that either they or Agatha Christie would be foolish enough to announce the death of classroom education. I’ll leave that for the likes of Bruce Guile, David Teece and those other naysayers — naysayers of both conventional education and wisdom.
Here’s a link to the Guile and Teece article: http://goo.gl/eDpJh