Putting education online doesn’t make it better.

I ran across a link this morning to the online version of Albert Wenger’s book World After Capital. I saw Wenger give a talk at VelocityConf some years ago, and have been following him ever since—he is a smart guy with a lot of interesting stuff to say.

Very early in the introduction, I ran across this line:

With the Internet we can give everyone free access to education, but we can also share hate speech globally

It is just one sentence in a much longer work and I agree with the larger point Wenger is trying to make, so I do not want to make too much out of it. However, I am not sure that I agree with him that the Internet can give everyone free access to education. I am picking on this statement here because I think it is a good example of the sort of nonsense that tends to permeate discussions of education and technology.

Yes, we can put videos of lectures on YouTube and build training exercises and assessments in platforms like Coursera, but I would argue that those tools by themselves do not constitute education. As to whether they are free, that is true only in the most limited, short-term sense of the word.

According to the Silicon Valley innovation/disruption crowd (the Innovatariat? The Disruptokrats?), the practice of education can be reduced to a set of tools. If there are problems with education, they can be fixed with better (i.e., more scalable, more efficient, and more measurable) tools. Traditionally, these tools have been lectures, practice work, and assessments, so if we put the lectures online and turn the homework and tests into an assessment platform, we can teach thousands or millions of students at the same time instead of just a few hundred, and we can track how long they take to answer a particular quiz question or serve them different content based on their progress and performance. That will make education better and more accessible for everyone, right? In other words, fix the tools and you fix education.

The tools we use for a given piece of work are important, but only insofar as they get us toward the end goals of the work. As I have said before, the goal of education is not to cram as many people as possible through the educational system, or to crank out fully employable productivity bots. The goal of education is to make people's lives better. The value of the educational tools we use lies in the degree to which they do (or do not, as the case may be) help to further the human interactions at the core of that pursuit.

Putting course materials online in some sort of scalable, measurable platform is certainly something that the Internet lets us do, but course materials and the tools that deliver those materials are not education. Furthermore, I would argue that the mindset that tells us that the problem with education is that it doesn’t scale well enough or that we can’t get sufficiently hard numbers out of it is exactly what is wrong with our educational system.

As for the notion that online learning platforms are free, that depends on what you mean by “free.” Do I have to pay a bunch of money up front? No, but if it’s lectures on YouTube, I nearly always have to sit through a few ads, and if it is Coursera, I get nagged about lots of up-sell opportunities. All this stuff requires a bunch of infrastructure on the back end, and that has to get paid for somehow. As with everything else, if you’re not paying for a service, you are the product, not the customer—they’re either showing you ads or mining and selling your data (or both).

You should still read Wenger’s stuff, though.

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