You can put college courses online, but you can’t take training there
I remember a series of very painful meetings a few years ago as a member of my university’s innovation council when online tutorials were all the rage. Traditional university presidents and provosts were regularly assaulted by teams of young techies explaining that they urgently needed to get their faculty to put core courses online using the tools and technology of these particular vendors.
The techs rudely suggested that schools’ current digital efforts would have been fine 10 years ago, but now they needed to move forward – before it’s too late – to improve and expand their offerings. The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest reminder that this country’s entire education system, from primary school to university, is an ongoing case of “too little, too late” as we continue to fail our children and lose their future.
Too late, in the academic context of the last decade, means a variety of things for the different audiences to whom this serious warning was directed, but among the main concerns voiced were the risks that: a) better and better online course content easily accessible could quickly become available from other more prestigious institutions, often at little or no cost to students; and b) that most of these universities did not have the time, resources or personnel to create their own content delivery systems with the bells and whistles that were going to be increasingly needed to meet the standards of emerging production, quality levels and best practices. Blackboard, among other outdated programs, was essentially yesterday’s black hole, where too many schools continued to spend time and money with little or no benefit or return.
And even at the best of times, the prospect of a single school spending scarce resources reinventing the wheel when startups had already spent millions building systems that were rapidly being adopted across the country made very little sense to college administrators and financiers. officers. And, to their credit, the top startups offered an even more compelling argument. They would develop, record and integrate course materials at their own expense in exchange for a multi-year commitment from each school to share its online tuition revenue.
So, in a relatively short period of time, especially given the glacial pace of innovation in higher education, the work of transition has begun and more universities have aligned themselves with the providers of degree programs in line although – interestingly – the impetus for the changes came from the administrative side of the house rather than from the academic side. This was largely because the financial benefits behind much of the whole movement went almost exclusively to the schools rather than their faculties who – as an added insult – regularly saw each other remember that the additional income generated by new digital initiatives helped to pay part of their own remuneration and to keep their jobs.
The indignities did not stop there. The ultimate blows came when online providers sent their employees (usually of graduate student age or younger) to help “convert” content from faculty members into teaching formats and smaller buckets. better adapted to the new delivery formats. Imagine, if you will, any teacher from your past being told by an unofficial young technician that his decades of training and teaching were about to be reimagined and transformed by the alchemy of the digital age. into glitzy, compelling content that is sure to hold students’ attention and, at the very least, entertain if not educate them. It wasn’t an old shovel or just video conferencing – it was definitely a new age. And it was Marshall McLuhan’s saying that came true: “Anyone who tries to distinguish between education and entertainment knows nothing of either.”
But the truth is that there is simply no compression algorithm for education or experience. As completely devoid of online education efforts during the pandemic have convincingly demonstrated to millions of students and parents, effective education is always delivered by one person connecting – personally and emotionally – to another. . Teachers do not teach content or courses; they teach students. It’s an alchemical process, sure, but not one that even the best technology can put in a box and deliver convincingly at scale, regardless of the skills of anyone involved in the process. We may appreciate our smartest teachers, but we are so grateful to those who we believe care honestly and deeply about us and prepare us for an uncertain and difficult future.
The fundamental flaw in online education today – now glaring to parents and even politicians – is the failure to appreciate and understand that education is something done to you; learning is (and should be) something you commit to and do for yourself. Arousing our children’s curiosity is absolutely crucial – schools cannot be dream smothers. Teaching is not about instruction; it is about creating interest, commitment and enthusiasm for learning. It is not about filling an empty vessel with knowledge; it’s about creating a passionate desire to learn.
Specifically, it’s hard to scale real learning without new, much more interactive tools that provide personalized and immediate feedback, because ultimately it’s not about teaching anyone to memorize facts, but rather to get them to reflect on the facts, to understand the context and the issues they represent, and then to think about how to approach and solve the problems they pose. And ultimately to synthesize those arguments, thoughts, and conclusions and present them compellingly to others. It’s the only chance we have to return to a time when the main purpose of education was to make better, more informed citizens, rather than skilled factory workers and heavily indebted college graduates.
The best technology will never replace great educators; ideally, technology will strengthen, extend, augment and improve their skills while relieving them of the enormous paperwork burden they currently carry. If we do not immediately employ effective classroom and administrative technologies to support and relieve some of the daily stress and pressure of our best and most conscientious teachers, they will not stay and we will be left with a combination of the oldest and the least effective teachers and a mass of inexperienced and insufficiently trained beginners.
In 2021, nearly one million people left public education jobs, a 40% increase from the previous year. As a result of the pandemic, it is estimated that one in three teachers in the United States is considering quitting their job. We waste so much of our teachers’ time tracking, documenting, and jotting down points that we lose sight of something vital that every entrepreneur and game developer can tell you. We learn a lot more from trial and error – even failures – than from our successes. Happy endings are only instructive in movies, and even then the message is mixed at best.
We need to do a lot of work in the future to figure out how to properly (and effectively) measure not what students are learning, but what they are actually learning, and whether we are providing them with the hands-on training and tools they will need to succeed not only in school, but in life. If the pandemic has taught us anything about teaching online, it’s that after all these years of trying, we still haven’t learned anything.