In an article posted on Linkedin recently, the University of Phoenix was touting new “delivery systems” on the internet that will soon displace traditional learning “systems,” driving many marginal colleges and universities out of business. The only thing standing in the way, according to the article, are the accrediting agencies. Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises.
One of the professors featured in the article is a tenured professor at Stanford who has given up his teaching position at that University to offer classes full-time on the internet. According to the article, “Sebastian Thrun, who retains a role at Stanford as a research professor, said he had been motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. ‘Professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,’ Thrun said in a presentation at digital conference in Munich, Germany.”
I have a couple of problems with this contention, though I do feel there is considerable truth in it as more and more “non-traditional” students will opt for the internet as an easier (and cheaper) way to earn college credits. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can send them. But, I wonder, is this really about education? I honestly do not see that the new way is better — unless we collapse the distinction between information and education completely. If we mean by education simply “information,” then the internet is a great tool. But if the student is seriously interested in getting an education rather than simply collecting college credits, the best way may indeed be “the same way they taught a thousand years ago.” I cannot imagine a better way to engage young minds and stretch them to new dimensions than sitting around a table with a small group of like-minded students and a great teacher. Does anyone really think they can improve on the Socratic method of learning? Get serious.
As I have said many times, the purpose of education is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to make them free. Information alone cannot do that, though it is a first step. There must be an active engagement with that information that results in real thought: one must not simply collect information, one must also learn how to process the information. The computer cannot teach that.
The University of Phoenix, and the other on-line colleges will doubtless replace many borderline colleges that are now struggling to survive. The costs of education are climbing exponentially and many students will be forced to fall by the wayside and will doubtless opt for the easy and cheaper way. But don’t for a minute think these people are getting an education. They are not.
As it happens, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either. However, there is always the hope that at some point the colleges and universities will wake up to their real purpose — which is not to provide students with “the best years of their lives,” but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become seriously committed citizens of this democracy and, oh yes, also successful professionals who both want to do well and to do good.
It’s not all about collecting credits. And accreditation is not the only thing standing in the way of on-line colleges. There’s also the matter of serious dialogue among several minds seeking answers to perplexing questions. As Robert Hutchins once said, the only questions worth asking are those that cannot be answered. Computers don’t know what those questions are. Good teachers do. And that’s where education really starts.