Education is about interaction, not content

The scarcity of content through much of human history (remember when they used to chain books to shelves in libraries?) has allowed us to collectively confuse education with the delivery of content. It was about the lecture, in which rare and wondrous knowledge was imparted to eager young minds, not about the experience of discussing, wrestling with ideas, and building artifacts (be they papers or dance or sculpture or lab apparatus) that changed both us and our world.

The overwhelming flood of content that we are now drowning in clearly puts paid to those assumptions. The content is out there, free, waiting for us to find it and stuff it in our heads, with more on the way. “Free on-line class shakes up photo education” from Wired is a nice example of how the content space is changing dramatically, as well as implying that traditional face-to-face education is perhaps a doomed beast:

“I think we’re heading towards a place where we’ll no longer be able to charge for content,” says Worth. “And that scares the shit out of academic institutions.”

This does indeed scare academics and administrators, and excites lots of entrepreneurs who (often rightly) feel that they compete with traditional institutions in the content space. Those, both in and out of the academy, who worry are ultimately missing the point. Content was never what we should have been charging for, and if that’s all we were doing we were frankly doing it wrong. Our real value is in the life changing experiences. When I talk to our alumni, they rarely reminisce about specific courses, and even less often about particular content. What they remember are the things they built and the experiences they shared. They remember the love Margaret Edson talks about so eloquently in this 2008 graduation speech at Smith College:

2008 Smith College Commencement Margaret Edson from Smith College on Vimeo.

So those of us in the Academy need to get over our fascination with content and focus on the business of trying to make a difference in the lives of our students. And students and parents need to become smarter shoppers and look for schools that will give them the experiences that will make a difference in their lives. Any school can give you names and dates, facts and figures, drills and exercises. And so can the Internet. A good school challenges you to discuss, write, build, experience, and understand, which is something that people are a hell of a lot better at than books or web pages.

P.S. The Academy isn’t the only place where we’re struggling to figure out The Point. This excellent post by Vaguery on what coworking is and isn’t is extremely relevant and comes to many of the same conclusions: Experience and community matter. Hop on and stoke the engines, peeps; we’ve got places to go and things to do.

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Study finds on-line education beats classroom, but what does that mean?

We are not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.
We're not quite ready to abandon classroom learning in favor of on-line education.

A recent study for the Department of Education (NY Times piece; full 93-page PDF report) performed a meta-analysis of 99 students over the past 12 years, and found that students in on-line courses did slightly, but statistically significantly, better than those in traditional classrooms.

It’s an interesting study, and likely to spur a whole new slew of interest in on-line courses, but it’s really not clear what it means. I’m sure there are a zillion ways I could pull together data showing an education advantage of X over Y, for a zillion Xs and Ys, but one would have to be very careful in the interpretation. I’m willing to bet that most of my colleagues here at UMM would teach better in English than Chinese, and most faculty in China would teach more effectively in Chinese than English, but that hardly means one is a better teaching language than the other. Context is everything, and it’s not clear (at least in the survey study) what the contexts are.

A few possible issues:

  • 12 years is an eternity in the history of the web and web-based teaching. Are the studies from 12 years ago even talking about the same things as those now?
  • What are we actually comparing? Face-to-face courses have all kinds of variance, and their effectiveness changes with the instructor, the students in a particular running of the course, and external events. Presumably on-line courses will as well. Are we comparing the best to the best? The median to the median? I can easily imagine that an on-line course of a few dozen people can be a vastly better experience than a huge lecture hall of 800 students, even if the latter is still called “face-to-face” instruction. Similarly, one person struggling to manage 150 on-line students is not likely to look good compared to an energetic classroom discussion section of 12 people. The meta-survey doesn’t make it easy to see clearly what the comparisons are in the individual surveys, and I suspect that they probably vary widely, ranging from the pretty reasonable to apples-vs-kumquats.
  • How much of this is simply a function of novelty, both in faculty putting a lot of effort into a cool new thing, and students being impressed by the shiny new toy?

Etc., etc., etc.

I think the question isn’t, and can’t ever be, whether on-line is better than the classroom. In the end it’s about finding a way for a particular instructor and a particular student (or group of students) to work well together, and that’s going to depend on an awful lot of things and almost certainly change over time as teachers, students, and the world changes. On-line education and classroom education augmented with on-line components are clearly going to be an important (and probably increasing) part of that, but there will probably always be circumstances where a group of people are better served by some face time than by an on-line experience.

This study also looks at courses as isolated experiences. At a residential university like ours, the courses are crucial, but hardly the whole picture. Students learn a ton from simply living together, eating, doing laundry, volunteering, going to the movies, dating, being in clubs, and generally making all sorts of vital transitions as they move from 18 to 22 (give or take). Look at the important differences between someone’s who’s 16 and someone who’s 26, and an awful lot of that has nothing do to with courses. A good university experience can play a critical role both in and beyond the classroom, and a heck of a lot of that is tied up in physical presence.

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