Americans claim that education is one of their top concerns every time they are polled before an election. Yet, most of them don’t take education seriously at all. This is obvious from a series of elementary facts: a large portion of them thinks that creationism should be taught side by side with evolution; the public education system — one of the fundamental backbones of any democracy — has been under relentless attack and has been in the process of being systematically demolished for decades; and many American parents don’t really seem to think that “educator” is a real profession, since they are convinced that parents ought to dictate what is and is not taught to their kids, and how.
Enter New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who never misses a chance to write enthusiastically about new technologies and the flattening of the world economy — even when the technology in question is of doubtful use, or when it becomes clear that there are at least some down sides to globalization.
In his “Come the Revolution” piece, Friedman waxes poetical about Coursera, a new Silicon Valley backed company that will take “the next step” in the daring world of online so-called education. Friedman approvingly quotes Andrew Ng, associate professor of (surprise!) computer science at Stanford: “‘I normally teach 400 students,’ Ng explained, but last semester he taught 100,000 in an online course on machine learning. ‘To reach that many students before,’ he said, ‘I would have had to teach my normal Stanford class for 250 years.’” Except, of course, that lecturing to 100,000 students has precious little to do with “teaching.” Teaching — at its best — is an interactive experience between a necessarily small number of students and someone who has both knowledge to impart and an effective way of imparting it.
Lecturing — which is all one can do with 100,000 students — is just about the worst way to teach ever devised. It’s problem are well known in the pedagogical literature, which I guess would be too much to expect Friedman to have read before lecturing us on how to get a better, faster, cheaper education. To give one-way talks to an audience (which is what lecturing is about) is an effective way to communicate a large amount of information to a large number of people. But communication represents a small fraction of what teaching is about. Real teaching must include guided discussions, interactions among peers, and a great deal of exercises. The ideal model is that of the Renaissance workshop, where one learned from the Master and his best assistants, day by day. In modern education, this is what is done in the best graduate schools and when using the Montessori method. A far cry from what Friedman and Silicon Valley are proposing.
Showcasing his typically bombastic prose, Friedman boldly claims that “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. ... the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever. ... getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever.”
Right, except that low-cost and high-quality usually don’t go hand in hand, unfortunately, and particularly so when they involve unavoidable human labor (as opposed to mechanized one). Yes, there is no doubt that the cost of higher education has exploded at an indecent rate over the past several decades, rising even faster than health care (the other thing Americans claim to be on their list of top priorities, but about which they keep doing next to nothing). This has generated an absurd situation in which total student debt in the US is actually higher than total credit card debt. But the reasons for this sorry state of affairs are multiple and complex — and therefore don’t fit into Friedman’s hyper-optimistic view of the future (I think that’s a general malady affecting techno-optimists, but that’s another discussion).
Contra popular perception (especially among state legislators), the problem hasn’t been caused by over-inflated salaries of university professors who go home at 2pm to mow their lawns. Rather, education has been commodified and made into a for-profit enterprise (even public education), just like a lot of other things that shouldn’t necessarily be so treated. University administrations have become bloated and more powerful and self-serving, offering stratospheric salaries to people with Wall Street-like management skills even when they have no idea of what they are managing or, apparently, why. Not to mention that many state schools nowadays are only so-called, since states throughout the country have been slashing their higher education budgets while keeping their political power over universities’ boards of trustees.
And let’s look for a minute at that “getting a higher-education degree is more vital than ever” bit. This is increasingly true only because pre-college education has largely become a joke (again, for a variety of reasons, one of which surely is the wrong type of parental involvement in what and how teachers teach, and — again — the dearth of proper resources, including well trained teachers. Yes, misguided union policies are also part of the mix, but only part.). Let’s be frank, Friedman: a good number of college students should never have gotten to college, and they get out of it with a minimum ability in reading, comprehending and writing. But the answer to the problem isn’t to push for higher and higher degrees (a nation of PhD’s, anyone?). It’s to go back to square one and restructure elementary, middle and high school education so that our kids can enter not just the workforce, but society at large, with the necessary critical thinking tools. Ah, but that ain’t gonna be done by simply putting a bunch of lectures on line, is it?
Friedman is so enraptured by his own pindaric flights that he doesn’t seem to notice pretty glaring problems intrinsic in his dream scenario: “[Coursera will be] awarding certificates of completion of a course for under $100. (Sounds like a good deal. Tuition at the real-life Stanford is over $40,000 a year.)” Yeah, sounds like too much of a good deal, no? Does anyone really think that a Coursera certificate will represent anything like the sort of education that one gets at Stanford? (On the other side of the equation, does anyone really think that Stanford-type education is worth $40,000 a year?)
And here is another issue: “[Coursera] operates on the honor system but is building tools to reduce cheating.” The so-called honor system doesn’t work in an environment in which students are constantly told that they are in competition with the rest of the world, where the goal is not to further one’s education, but to beat the crap out of all your competitors — just like on Wall Street, or in a video game. At any rate, I have experience with teaching online courses and assigning online tests, and I can tell you that if you can devise a system to detect cheating, the cheating industry (yup, there is an industry for that, and it’s legal!) will design a way around your defenses, and so on in an escalating war that has increasingly less to do with anything resembling education. At any rate, I’d like to ask Prof. Ng what sort of assignments he gives to his 100,000 students. Certainly not long papers that he would have to carefully read and then thoughtfully comment on — that would really take him centuries. Unfortunately, the evidence does show that the only things that significantly improve student learning are courses that are reading and writing intensive. Oops.
Does Friedman see local, brick & mortar colleges heading for extinction? Not at all: “these top-quality learning platforms could enable budget-strained community colleges in America to ‘flip’ their classrooms. That is, download the world’s best lecturers on any subject and let their own professors concentrate on working face-to-face with students.” Setting aside the bizarre qualification of what Coursera and similar companies are doing as “top-quality,” Friedman here can be read in one of two ways: on the one hand, he may be suggesting that community colleges (but why not Stanford itself?) turn into glorified tutoring companies. I doubt that’s what he meant. On the other hand, he may be saying that the real business of colleges is to teach via personal, continuous, and varied interactions between students and teachers. That’s correct. We call that education, and it would help if people took it seriously.