Quartz published an article a few days ago about Texas A&M’s project to replace classroom lectures for its Introduction To Microeconomics course with online offerings. The piece reads like an aggregation of press releases from university, publisher, and MOOC-provider marketing departments:
With the help of A&M’s instructional designers, as well as support from the education giant Pearson, Meer and Wiggins’ 2,000 students this fall will receive online segments, quizzes, problem sets, virtual study groups, forums—arguably much more interaction than you’d ever find from an ordinary in-person course. In a traditional lecture, attendance dwindles with each passing week. Students tune out. They start sending texts and browsing dessert recipes on Pinterest.
Interactive online courses like Meer and Wiggins’ continuously force attention back onto the actual material. Students using the digital platform are required to watch short videos and then immediately answer questions testing their attentiveness—they can’t skip too far ahead and “binge-learn” the entire semester at once, nor can they lag behind until finals week without the system flashing warnings at them. The course also issues automatic notifications—to both the instructor and the student—if scores dip too low, showing that someone’s clearly not understanding the subject.
Imagine this as the parental controls of a premier television package, only overwhelmingly more customized, advanced, intelligent.
Meer puts it this way: For the first time, “we can do a diagnosis for kids—and not an autopsy.”
I get why this approach sounds great to the people who run the university and the people who provide the tools for building and administering these courses. Faced with a system that requires ever-increasing numbers of students per instructor in order to increase efficiency, online courses seem like the obvious answer, and we’ve got a few years’ worth of “flipped classroom” rhetoric and Big Data mumbo jumbo to help grease the ideological skids.
Meanwhile, over at Aeon, in an essay titled “The Examined Life”, John Taylor of the Cranleigh school in Surrey describes his classroom:
The students enter, taking their places in the circle, ready for the seminar to begin. The teacher sits with them in the circle and gets straight down to business. ‘Am I the same person today as I was yesterday?’ she asks. Debate breaks out immediately. The teacher says little, interjecting occasionally to ask for clarification of a point, or to suggest that the class gives further consideration to an argument that one of the students has made.
After a lively initial exchange of ideas, things calm down a little and the teacher makes some remarks about the distinction between essential and non-essential properties. She then suggests the students read an extract from the writings of the philosopher John Locke. This stimulates further discussion and debate.
In their contributions, students draw on ideas they have encountered in different subjects. One says she is the person she is because of her DNA. The teacher asks for an explanation of the biology behind this idea. Someone questions how the theory applies to identical twins. Another student suggests that we all play roles in life and it is these roles that define our identity.
The atmosphere in the class is relaxed, collaborative, enquiring; learning is driven by curiosity and personal interest. The teacher offers no answers but instead records comments on a flip-chart as the class discusses. Nor does the lesson end with an answer. In fact it doesn’t end when the bell goes: the students are still arguing on the way out.
I understand the appeal of this model as well, which is not surprising, given that it describes the 300-level philosophy classes that I got the most out of in college. However, I found myself wondering how applicable Taylor’s model is outside of the very specific domain of small(ish) liberal arts departments.
Reading these two articles got me to thinking about how broken our model of education has become. It has to be “outcomes-based” and we are supposed to be able to “get value” out of it. We have been told for decades that we have to go to college to get a good job, and so education has become tied to work qualifications and productivity. This artificial connection of education to specific and arbitrary measures of work readiness has bled down into secondary and primary education, which have become infected by the business world's obsession with quantification and measures. After all, we are told, if we can't measure it, it doesn't exist.
But is "workforce readiness" really what we want education to be about? Pursue the Texas A&M model to its logical endpoint, and education becomes a numbers game, scaled and optimized so as to squeeze the maximum value out of the fewest resources possible.
Maybe Taylor’s Socratic classroom is not the answer for everyone, but at least it has the advantage of not treating education as a machine that must be constantly streamlined, scaled, and turned into an enormous diploma mill with the goal of cranking out one employable productivity drone after another.