teachers are laborers, not merchants

I got an email request to talk about online-only education and why I’m such a skeptic that it can replace physical education. I’ve written about this before but let me try to sum it up.

Here’s the model that the constant “online education will replace physical colleges” types advance: education is about gaining knowledge; knowledge is stored in the heads of teachers; schooling is the transfer of that knowledge from the teacher’s head to the student’s head; physical facilities are expensive, but online equivalents are cheap; therefore someone will build an Amazon that cuts out the overhead of the physical campus and connects students to teachers in the online space or, alternatively, cuts teachers out altogether and just transfers the information straight into the brains of the student.

The basic failure here is the basic model of transfer of information, like teachers are merchants who sell discrete products known as knowledge or skills. In fact education is far more a matter of labor, of teachers working to push that information into the heads of students, or more accurately, to compel students to push it into their own heads. And this work is fundamentally social, and requires human accountability, particularly for those who lack prerequisite skills.

I’ve said this before: if education was really about access to information, then anyone with a library card could have skipped college well before the internet. The idea that the internet suddenly made education obsolete because it freed information from being hidden away presumes that information was kept under lock and key. But, you know, books exist and are pretty cheap and they contain information. Yet if you have a class of undergraduates sit in a room for an hour twice a week with some chemistry textbooks, I can tell you that most of them aren’t going to learn a lot of chemistry. The printing press did not make teachers obsolete, and neither has the internet.

Some of those undergrads might learn chemisty. There are small numbers of people in the world who are really self-motivated to learn. I sometimes get people who ask me if they should get into the Great Courses or similar services. And I tend to tell them, well, since you’re self-motivated and you want to learn and you’re willing to invest, sure. The problem is that most people just aren’t built that way. There’s a romantic vision of education that’s very common to reformers – everybody’s an autodidact, deep down inside. But the truth is, most students aren’t self-motivated. Most students learn only under compulsion from society. True, everyone has subjects that they love, but everyone also has subjects that they hate, and the basic premise of a curriculum is that individuals cannot determine for themselves exactly what they need to learn. Meanwhile, many or most students try to escape these obligations, to varying degrees. Truancy law exists for a reason, and even in the ostensibly-voluntary world of the university, most students do what they can to avoid work as much as possible. I’m just trying to be real with you. Most people skip school when they can.

This is particularly important because many of the challenges of the university today come from the fact that we’re educating more and more students who are nontraditional and less prepared than previous cohorts. From 2001 to 2011, total enrollments at American institutions grew by about a third. That’s a ton! And that growth was heavily concentrated among students who tend to be harder to educate – those from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents did not graduate from college. What we need to do, and what many schools are struggling to do, is to give these students the “soft skills” – time management, study habits, persistence, etc – that their peers typical get from middle-class-and-above, college-educated parents, who have the time and experience to inculcate such skills.

Unsurprisingly, what limited research there is suggests that MOOCs (which is only one piece of the online pie) tend to have horrid completion rates; most people aren’t likely to force themselves to log on and get the work done even when they’d prefer to be doing something else. Because online-only education is usually presented in terms of cost savings, it is perhaps most likely to be adopted by those very students who are least able to take advantage of it, particularly given that many of them work full-time and raise children. That sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

One dynamic at play here is that the schools with the money to really experiment with online education are those that have student bodies far outside the norm. I make this point all the time: the vast majority of American colleges are not at all selective. Out of the 3000+ accredited colleges and universities out there, perhaps 125 reject more applicants than they accept, by my estimates. A large majority accept almost any student that applies. It’s therefore hard to know how useful projects at, say, the University of Pennsylvania are for the far different task of educating the median student. The online college Minerva talks a great game about the fact that it is supposedly more exclusive than the Ivy League, which may well be true – but this simply means that it has little to tell us about how well its model would scale to the broader population, which is decidedly not like the population of the Ivy League. Meanwhile, while Harvard will permit its already-prepared students to take online courses, they’re not about to tear down the campus, nor will they or their students have any financial need for them to do so.

All of this presumes that there’s a clear advantage in inculcating meta-skills to old fashioned in-person education, and that’s an empirical question which has to be answered with careful empiricism. Anecdotally speaking, though, as a teacher it seems clear to me that there is a strong advantage in the human, one-to-one accountability of an in-person relationship. Teaching is about trust, mutual respect, and understanding; I have never felt that I developed those either as a teacher of an online class or as a student. Certainly, the fact that elementary school students who went to a (I can’t believe this exists) online-only “charter school” saw literally no academic growth hints at this. So does the fact that chronic absenteeism is such a hard hurdle for struggling college students to overcome, not only because they are missing out on in-class material but because they’re harder to motivate as a teacher. So do programs such as the University of Rhode Island’s Talent Development Program, which allows disadvantaged students who lack the typical academic profile to attend the university, on the condition that they consent to tutoring, grade checks and similar – that is, they are supported through more face-to-face contact hours and demands for accountability. So does Williams College research that shows that interaction time with professors is the single most important factor for developing deeper learning skills.

None of this makes online education useless. None of it means that we shouldn’t offer any such courses. I think some credit-earning online courses, in some disciplines, for some students, can supplement a traditional physical campus education. And there are many adults who could benefit from taking online courses designed for enrichment and skill building. The problem is that no one wants to talk about online education this way. They want to posit a revolution; they want to say that online-only will sweep away the physical university altogether. They tend, in my estimation, to do so for three reasons: one, they’re political conservatives who hate the university for its perceived progressive bias; two, they’re in the for-profit education sector and they want to make money selling online courses and materials; and three, they sell books by making sweeping proclamations and can’t advance more limited ideas like “a few online courses in a college career can be beneficial to students and teachers.”

Education is always getting disrupted, in the Silicon Valley mind. And though they dress it up in a million different ways, this disruption always functions the same way: by minimizing the teacher, the actual human being, whose job it is to inspire and direct and cajole and, yes, to drag students into competence. Either the teachers are replaced by an iPad or they’re forced to scale up the number of students they can teach by factors of hundreds or thousands through online technologies. One way or the other, the teacher is the problem the technology is designed to solve.

There is another way, which is to actually put our money where our mouth is, recognize that education is expensive, and that teachers themselves have value, and that mankind has cultivated human relationships of respect and guidance between teacher and student for millennia for good reason. I know a thing or two about a thing or two, and people pay me for that knowledge. But despite a culture of the autodidact, I know almost all of it because of great teaching, because teachers with patience and dedication had the time and resources to guide me to understanding. Teachers are not a problem to be solved; teachers are skilled laborers who should be well-compensated and respected.

But nobody ever made a fortune off of an IPO by doing that.