Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Education without schools

Greg -- no, the other Greg! sorry, Gregs -- sent me this link a few days ago, and requested a discussion. Bob Cringely postulates that people as individuals and as generations are taking less and less time to fully adopt and adapt to empowering technologies -- that these technologies are achieving full saturation into our natural way of navigating our world with less and less lag.

And the upshot is that schools are becoming obsolete.

When people can educate themselves with the help of these technologies, why would they bother with a curriculum that's not designed specifically for them? Already this has loosened the universal grip of primary and secondary educational institutions on children. Right now that college degree is still irreplaceable enough to pay thousands of dollars for, but Cringely wonders whether that might change.

As you might expect, I'm not upset about the idea of schools being superseded by other educational methods. A school is not a magical potion or an eternal essence. It is a technology for getting something done. And increasingly, with changes in how we handle information, it is an out-of-date technology. If we see schools as a way of filling students' heads with information, then there's no doubt that they are already getting in the way of their ostensible aim; there are quicker, more accurate, and more relevant ways for students to get the facts than to learn them at school.

What remains, of course, is learning how to use the information that's available -- how to ask meaningful questions, find and work with collaborators in the search for answers, and communicate what is found in words and images, in person and at a distance. And as I've said before, I think that's essentially what higher education is: an apprenticeship system whereby those who have mastered those processes model them for students, supervise students as they practice them, and finally certify that they are qualified to use them in real-world situations.

These skills are more and more critical in the situation Cringely describes, wherein information is plentiful and accessible. It's not information that is power anymore; it's the ability to use it effectively.

It's possible that those skills and methods will become available to students directly, without the intervention of the higher education institutions. I don't see it happening in the near term, because it's precisely that need to practice that currently requires human mentoring and monitoring. But I do think that much of what we traditionally do in university teaching bears little resemblance to what's actually needed. As my boss said to me the other day, "Think about it: a single person -- the professor -- both defines what needs to be learned in the class and measures whether students learn it." There's a circularity to that system that impoverishes the notion of educational success. Shouldn't student success be measured the same way that an apprentice blacksmith's success is measured -- by whether the horseshoe fits? In other words, the overwhelming system of evaluation in academia, which is currently centered on assignments and tests and other types of semi-proprietary instruments that have little to do with how success is achieved in the real world, needs to become more focused on projects that can be tested for their real-world viability: writing for audiences other than one's professor, presentations to extramural groups, research that is submitted to refereed journals.

Something wonderful happens when people realize that institutions aren't holy and inviolable and handed down from on high, never to be questioned. If our response to the wider distribution of the powers we have heretofore controlled is fear and embattlement, then all we're revealing is our own irrelevance.


heyrocker said...

Well, I sent the mail but that's OK Greg "admin" Murphy is a good guy ;)

Your response is as intelligent and heartwarming as I would expect. I am currently in the newspaper industry, where irrelevance is damn near inevitable at this point due to the same fears you lay out here. I hope our country's teachers and educators see it coming sooner than my bosses did.

r. harrison said...

I've recently heard a lot about the trend of high schoolers dropping out by choice out of boredom, etc., to get their GEDs or move on to college. and i've spent many hours with peers discussing the declining value of a college degree. i've got one - liberal arts, high gpa - but the degree itself has yet to land me any job that paid money at all...only unpaid internships. i landed a few such internships with help from people i met in school (donna, included), but other than that, my degree so far has been useful only in terms of refining my critical thinking and communication skills.

i've learned more, made more money, and met smarter people working in food service. at times, i even felt like i was doing better public service then, too. i'm now heading back to graduate school, with intentions of becoming an educator, but trends like this make me wonder if left one dying field (newspaper journalism) behind in pursuit of the next to go.