Archive for the ‘The Greatest Swindle on Earth’ Category

Here’s Margaret Soltan of University Diaries on for-profit, “click-thru” education:

As long as customers don’t care about learning anything, the model will work well. Profits will soar, and students will appreciate not having to go to school. As word gets around that you can get a high school diploma while doing jackshit in the comfort of your own home, the thing will grow like wildfire.

The model’s risk lies only in the possibility that more than a few online customers will at some point after they graduate sense a connection between their failure in life and their lack of an education. It’s not just that they can’t think. They don’t know how to be in a work setting, having spent the last ten years in their pajamas.

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The Harold Hill Award for Most Transparent Con Job of the Year goes to Mark Prensky, who suggests in the formerly estimable Chronicle of Higher Education that paper books be banned from university campuses (“In the 21st Century, Let’s Ban (Paper) Books“). I honestly thought I was reading satire when I got to this part:

Any physical books in students’ possession at the beginning of the year would be exchanged for electronic versions, and if a student was later found with a physical book, it would be confiscated (in return for an electronic version).

That’s right—confiscated! Like a joint, or a switchblade, or firecrackers, or George Orwell’s 1984 (well, unless it’s on your Kindle, and wasn’t subsequently erased from your Kindle). Fascism is so fashionably futuristic!

What is, according to Prensky, the greatest advantage of this all-digital campus, as opposed to the seemingly more reasonable pursuit of utilizing the best of both worlds—digital books along with hard copy?

Ideas would be freed from the printed page, where they have been held captive for too many centuries.

Say again?

The physical book is, in many ways, a jail for ideas—once a book is read, closed, and shelved, for most people it tends to stay that way. Many of us have walls lined with books that will never be reopened, most of what is in them long forgotten.

But what if all those books were in our pockets and could be referred to whenever we thought of them?

Let me try to wrap my head around this one. Once I’ve read a book, not only do I forget it, I am for some reason unable to take it off the shelf and read it again. But if I had an e-reader on my person, I am instantly empowered to do just that, as if the technology can do the work of reading for me. The argument is ridiculous to the point of being gibberish.

Most of Prensky’s witless rhetoric about “moving education into the future” I’ve written about before (see my posts here and here), and I’m not going to pick the whole pile apart again. So let’s skip to the punchline.

Many entrepreneurs are already inventing software that allows the quick and fertile connection of one’s ideas and those of others, but an all-digital campus would provide a powerful incentive to develop those programs even faster and take them further.

If you don’t know what Mark Prensky does for a living, here’s a hint: He’s an educational software designer and author of books promoting “21st-century student learning through technology.” His new educational paradigm can be summed up quite easily: Less reading of books, more playing of games.

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Seth Godin writes motivational books for managers who think throwing day-long seminars featuring highly paid speakers (like Seth Godin) is a better motivator than taking everyone to a no-strings-attached lunch or, better yet, giving everyone a day off work. He says his latest book, Poke the Box, is about “the spark that brings things to life.” He firmly believes that “We need to be nudged away from conformity and toward ingenuity, toward answering unknown questions for ourselves.” First of all, I can neither ask nor answer a question of myself if that question is unknown. Second, if I’m supposed to answer questions for myself, then why do I need to buy his silly book?

On Godin’s blog (free of charge!) you will find sparky, nonconformist ruminations such as, “Just imagine how much you’d get done… if you stopped actively sabotaging your own work.” In another post (“Self directed effort is the best kind”) he writes, “Effort’s… incredibly difficult to deliver on a regular basis. So we hire a trainer or a coach or a boss… There’s an entire system organized around the idea that we’re too weak to deliver effort without external rewards and punishment.” Isn’t that cute? My dear Seth, you are that system.

I’m generally indifferent to Seth Godin and the self-help racket that keeps him and many others so comfortable and so slickly chipper, but he has gone and made one of those pronouncements about the future of libraries so popular these days among cost-cutting officials and charismatic geeks who stand to make oodles of money on the internet and digital technologies.

In short, Godin believes that libraries as warehouses of “dead books” are obsolete, or soon will be, thanks to Netflix, Kindle, and Wikipedia. (Wikipedia and online sources have, in fact, “basically eliminated the library as the best resource” for grade schoolers and undergraduates. It sounds wacky, I know, but if we assume students are researching headier topics such as Magic: The Gathering and Star Wars action figures, then he’s absolutely correct.) His library of the future “is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty,” and it has “The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information…” I found the following especially creative:

And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

No, Seth. The point of a library is that it offers free public access to information, most of which is available to be taken home, freely, for extended periods of time.

Providing web access to those who can’t afford it has rightly become a core service of public libraries; so, by all means, bring in more terminals. But until every book currently available to libraries in physical copy is available online or via e-reader, and until computers and/or e-readers are readily available to be freely taken home by the public, then libraries must fulfill their mission—conformist though it may be—of offering “dead books” to those who seek them.

People with money tend to devalue the difference between something that is relatively inexpensive and something that is free. What they experience as an inconvenient gap is seen by those without money as an unbridgeable gulf, often painful to look upon. It is just conceivable that in a few years “[e]readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades,” but even if it’s true, the plain fact is that many will have to choose between razors and e-readers.

You can poke whatever box you like, Godin, so long as that box isn’t the one institution in the civilized world that offers the means for its citizens, regardless of economic or social standing, to freely educate themselves.

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“I Facebook through most of my classes.” “I complete 49% of the readings assigned to me.” “My neighbor paid for class… but never comes.” These are just a few of the candid admissions made by 200 students at Kansas State University in 2007 when their professor, Michael Wesch, asked them to put together a video (A Vision of Students Today) expressing how they felt about their college education. The consensus was that, in addition to being a huge inconvenience, the experience is impersonal, trying, and mostly irrelevant.

Over a year after it appeared on YouTube, Wesch revisited the popular and controversial video (nearly 4 million views to date) and wrote up his conclusions for an Encyclopedia Britannica blog series called Brave New Classroom 2.0. In what’s becoming a standard argument against traditional, “place-based” education, he runs down the now familiar shaky premises and fuzzy conclusions.

Mindless Chairs Make Mindless Students

Wesch starts off by opining that the “disengagement” exhibited by the students in the video is “built into [the walls]” of the classroom, which he describes as “nothing less than a state of the art information dump… built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information.” He waxes poetic about showing up to class on the first day of school and “finding 493 empty numbered chairs sitting mindlessly fixated on the front of the room.”

Chairs can’t be mindless, of course, nor can they fixate, but the bad metaphor is important. He doesn’t want to blame the students—or their parents and teachers, as well as administrators and public officials—for the collective failings of our educational system, so he blames what he sees as the archaic cultural attitudes that gave rise to and sustain the system:

Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation.

If I’m reading this correctly, the internet—I assume that’s what he means by “a cloud of ubiquitous information”—has essentially stripped teachers of their authority, both as experts in particular areas of knowledge and as propagators and cultivators of that knowledge. They are no longer teachers, really—they are, in the lingo, moderators of learning environments. It’s all very progressive, I’m sure, but it’s worrisome to me that Wesch, as a teacher, really believes that classrooms exist solely to convey information, whereas the internet is a loftier space where “knowledge is made.”

It’s worrisome because he’s wrong. Knowledge can be “made” anywhere, including the classroom, especially in the classroom, assuming the participants include a good teacher and students who want to learn. And this is true of students of all grades, not just the lucky ones who make it into college (most of whom, I hope, have the good grace and humility not  to whinge about their good fortune). That the Net is somehow more attuned to the pursuit of knowledge than to the pursuit of, say, porn or box scores is a common misconception among moderators of learning environments.

Those Who Can, Learn; Those Who Can’t, Facebook

So now that we know the modern university is inherently incompatible with the learning process in this liberated new age of boundless information, what do we do about apathetic students who positively abhor the “stale artificial environments” we force upon them?

We don’t have to tear the walls down. We just have to stop pretending that the walls separate us from the world, and begin working with students in the pursuit of answers to real and relevant questions.

I’m all for not pretending that we can’t move through metaphorical walls, but what does this amount to practically? What are these real and relevant questions we should be asking, and do they involve history and mathematics and biology and English composition? Or is there a new slate of subjects we should be teaching (moderating)? Or is the whole concept of the academic subject no longer viable? And what do we do, if anything, about students Facebooking during class? For Wesch, once we stop denying that “the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted,”

We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities.

But how might we begin to do this? I agree with him that “texting, web-surfing, and iPods are just new versions of passing notes in class,” and that they aren’t really the problem. But that doesn’t make them the solution. Second only to experience, the most powerful learning technology in the world is a teacher, despite the low esteem Wesch seems to hold for his already institutionally undervalued profession.

Blaming disengaged students on school is like blaming a disengaged citizenry on democracy. A classroom is not a prison, but a privilege.

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I wasn’t really surprised when Bill Gates announced last month that the internet would make “place-based” colleges nearly obsolete in the coming years. Even though Gates makes the second largest living in the world by monopolizing the platform that would make his prediction possible in a technical sense, it would be a mistake to dismiss his statement as completely self-serving. One of the core beliefs of the techno-futurists is that education—the process by which teachers teach and students learn—not only can but must be improved (upgraded) by digital technology, lest we alienate current and future generations of “digital natives.”

Arthur Levine, president emeritus of Teachers College at Columbia University, pushed this new age philosophy in an article earlier this year for Inside Higher Ed called “Digital Students, Industrial-Era Universities.” The gist of the article is that there is a “mismatch between institutions of higher education and digital natives on the goals and dynamics of education.” Today’s students, he says, are “active learners” who prefer interactivity, collaboration, the internet, and games, whereas traditional universities offer only passive consumption, “lectures and books.” What’s revealing is how Levine characterizes these contrasting approaches to education:

Traditional faculty might be described as hunters who search for and generate knowledge to answer questions. Digital natives by contrast are gatherers, who wade through a sea of data available to them online to find the answers to their questions. Faculty are rooted in the disciplines and depth of knowledge, while students think in increasingly interdisciplinary or a-disciplinary ways, with a focus on breadth.

The remedy to this dissonance, according to Levine, “is that higher education needs to change, because students won’t, and the digital revolution is not a passing fad.” How exactly does higher education need to change? Well, first, “the curriculum must meet our students where they are, not where we hope they might be or where we are.” And because today’s students are so good at gathering information, our curricula should “begin with breadth and move to depth.” To top it all off, the university “must… move away from its emphasis on teaching to learning,” because “a uniform amount of seat time exposed to teaching and a fixed clock is outdated.” In other words, colleges need to be less “place-based.”

It’s hard for me to believe that any responsible adult, much less an educator, could seriously consider this argument, because what it boils down to is pretty simple: Students today are good at finding stuff on the internet, and not so good at analysing it or doing anything original with it; hence, we should revise our educational system to be more like the internet.

First, let’s take the assumption that university students would much rather “wade through a sea of data” instead of “search for and generate knowledge.” Put simply, it’s wrong. It’s a fantasy. I’ve worked at a (public) university for over 10 years and have never met a student who would not be insulted by the charge. (See Net Gen Skeptic for more on the “digital native” myth.) No doubt there are slackers out there who would be content “collaborating” on Facebook and updating wikis for an easy ‘A,’ and that brings me to my second point: So what? Why on Earth should we try to fit an educational model around students who are not genuinely inspired by the prospect of learning about the world and generating knowledge, a process that is defined, now and always, by hard work and a combination of sustained attention, research, analysis, and original thought—hunting and gathering skills, if you will.

I realize that there are useful educational technologies available to students, but none of them can replace or boost the cognitive effort a human being must exert to gain a deep understanding of Hamlet, the Civil War, the Dirac Equation, or the arguments for and against punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology. Wikis, Dropbox accounts, TED, Kindles, iPads, and PCs in general are organizational and presentational, at best. They can make data easier to disseminate, retrieve, and even manipulate—all of which is incredibly convenient and efficient, to be sure—but they add nothing of value, nothing positive to human knowledge. Garbage in, garbage out, as the saying goes.

What Levine proposes (and Gates predicts) is in fact a massive miseducation policy based on a lame redefinition of learning as “mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games.” There is no such thing as Education 2.0. That, too, is a lazy fantasy.

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