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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Education’s an investment, not an expense!

Wrapping one's head around the data
Just did a pile o’ dishes and listened to a SciAm podcast featuring the remarks of Robert Rosner (head of Argonne National Laboratory). The short version is that science (and, I would argue, education in general) is a matter of necessity plus vision. First, science is not a luxury, but instead a necessity:

Without the science base, you cannot build an industrial base.

Second, science requires long term vision and public and private support in in basic research. It typically takes decades for culture changing technologies to move from the basic idea to ubiquity; Rosen gives as examples railroads, airplanes, transistors, computers, the internet, and lasers. The question then is

How do you convince the politics and the public that that lag in fact is real and that if you don’t make the investments … today … we’ll be lagging things that other folks that are making the investments

Rosen is (quite reasonably) focussed specifically on the question of support for science, but points out that this is part of a larger trend of irrationality in the U.S.:

But we all know that in the United States there are long traditions of anti-intellectualism, of what the Times today also refer to as anti-rationalism, the idea that there really are no facts, it’s all opinion, the idea that scientists [are] just playing their sand box and don’t connect with anybody.

What it really comes down to is a distressingly common failure for Americans to see any form of education (science or humanities, K12 or university) as a necessary investment in the strength and future of our society and country. For me this has become a useful litmus test to separate sensible conservatives (who understand the economic necessity of investment in key areas) from the wingnuts that have come to dominate the Republican party (who spout anti-intellectual nonsense while shredding schools and lining the pockets of themselves and their friends).

Eisenhower understood the practical necessity of an interstate road system, and encouraged and supported that investment. All Shrub can seem to invest in is Halliburton and their ilk.

Things to think (and ask) about in this happy election season.

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