Alexandria Online


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Education Versus School

In today's New York Times Education Life section, there is a long piece about online learning by Katie Hafner, called "An Open Mind." I think what the piece proves is that if you have the time, you can get a Yale, Stanford or M.I.T. education all by yourself. But you will have to do it without the following elements that you would get if you graduated from one of those institutions: a social life, real (as opposed to virtual) peers, a chance to ask questions, a grade and a diploma. You would be just as educated, but you would not be "going to school."

This is only a little better than buying all the books for the course, getting your hands on the syllabus, and working your way through the assignments on your own. It gets dismal pretty fast. After two or three courses, I would be banging my head on the keyboard.

On the other hand, I have done something similar myself. If you go into the "Computers" section of any bookstore, or search for computer training books online, you will find some of the fattest, most intimidatingly titled books you have ever encountered. I am currently working my way through Beginning ASP.NET 3.5 In C# and VB by Imar Spaanjaars and am proud to declare that I understand every acronym in that title. I have learned HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Visual Basic (VB), Active Server Pages (ASP), and, most importantly Structured Query Language (SQL) all in the same way: from big, fat books. I believe, however, that I am the exception. I like to work quietly, by myself, and at my own pace. Most people need a class.

Apparently millions of people are taking these free, online courses but no one knows why, or what affect this phenomenon is having. And millions of dollars in grant money are being spent to record lectures and assemble materials. Institutions everywhere are using online materials to augment, supplement, and remediate classwork and homework. Whether one regards the course as an "online" course, a "blended" course, or just a course, is a matter of degree, not category.

As with everything on the Internet, the amount of material in this category is almost infinite. And as with everything on the Internet, it is very difficult to find something that suit you exactly. We need boundaries -- Jaron Lanier's "membranes" again.

Behold The Episcopal Academy Online. Let's imagine it. There is a single portal, and a single login. You must pay a lot to join. You must show up and develop a relationship with your teachers and peers in person. You must participate in activities that demand your physical presense: sports, drama, music, etc. There is a space called "The Episcopal Academy" and a time called the school day.

So what has changed? All your textbooks are delivered to your computer from EA's textbook service. Your computer is licensed in some way similar to the way Amazon licenses its books. All the materials are copy-protected. Publishers get their money; authors (hopefully several of them will be teachers at EA) get theirs.

Peers use their online course areas to ask for and give help to each other. They get help from the teacher there. They can rest their eyes, put on headphones and listen to a brief, well-delivered lecture. They use interactive exercises to exercise problem-solving. They go at their own pace in a differentiated learning environment.

So what's the teacher doing? He's supervising kids in his room, because until college (and probably in college too) kids need supervision. But he's going from kid to kid asking questions or interacting one-on-one instead of engaging the whole class at once and losing 75% of the kids' attention.

Or is he? What if his assistant -- a less experienced, junior teacher -- were doing supervision and guidance for the group while the master teacher were in his office adapting and improving the curriculum to the needs of all the different sections of this class.

In this "blended" environment, parents know that their kids' education is a complete education. There is exacting quality control. There is an educational character to the all the courses that is unique to the institution. There are relationships between kids and between teachers and kids. There is community. The school is an organism with a skin around it. Ideas, materials, methods, theories and practices are gathered from everywhere, but the Academy decides what is good and right for its community and what is deleterious or beside the point.

In The Dumbest Generation, author Mark Bauerlein excoriates the young for their disinclination to read full sentences and paragraphs, choosing instead to flit from tweet to tweet. But he is careful not to blame the inherent potential of the technologies. A lot can be done with them, but nothing is. Instead, technology provides an avenue for the worst kind of malignant and aggressive mental deterioration.

Let me put this forward. As powerful as technology can be in destroying the intellect, it has the same positive potential to improve. Bauerlein is right that the status updates, taunts, flirts, porn and platitudes that comprise the vast bulk of what is stored on the world's servers will quickly make us the stupidest planet in the universe if that is our only diet. But if it can be grafted onto the sturdy structure of a school, all of its destructive power may be redirected for the good.

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