Class Warfare Blog

October 30, 2018

Sometimes You Don’t Have to Even Read the Book!

The Amazon posting for the book College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo supplies the blurb below. Reading just the blurb tells me that reading the book is unnecessary as I already know the arguments are, well, mistaken.

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What is the value of a college degree?

The four-year college experience is as American as apple pie. So is the belief that higher education offers a ticket to a better life. But with student-loan debt surpassing the $1 trillion mark and unemployment of college graduates at historic highs, people are beginning to question that value. 

In College (Un)bound, Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, argues that America’s higher education system is broken. The great credential race has turned universities into big business and fostered an environment where middle-tier colleges can command elite university-level tuition while concealing staggeringly low graduation rates, churning out graduates with few of the skills needed for a rapidly evolving job market.

Selingo not only turns a critical eye on the current state of higher education but also predicts how technology will transform it for the better. Free massive online open courses (MOOCs) and hybrid classes, adaptive learning software, and the unbundling of traditional degree credits will increase access to high-quality education regardless of budget or location and tailor lesson plans to individual needs. One thing is certain—the Class of 2020 will have a radically different college experience than their parents.

Incisive, urgent, and controversial, College (Un)bound is a must-read for prospective students, parents, and anyone concerned with the future of American higher education.

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This book is only five years old but is out-of-date already. The reason it is is not because of advances in technology, but because research has already showing some of the darlings of that time (MOOCs, for instance) are not what we hoped they might become.

The mistake made by all who argue “technology will transform education” is one of perspective. There have been transformative technologies in the past that have had massive impacts on education, for instance the invention of the moveable-type printing press, the prior invention of paper, etc. But if you look at the history of such innovations you will find them littered with mistaken claims for “technological transformations.”

Think about motion pictures and how they have transformed education.

Think about filmed animations and how they have transformed education.

Think about the telephone and how it has transformed education.

Think about television and how it has transformed education.

Think about computers and how they have transformed education.

Think about cell phones and how they have transformed education.

Actually none of these things have transformed education, although all have had some small impact. I currently operate a small business via email and the Internet. That business existed before email and the Internet were invented, but while those inventions make my job a great deal easier, they still result in a product consumed by a bunch of people. I can generate my product more cheaply this way and that has allowed us to stay in business, but we aren’t exactly getting rich. Big impact for us, not a whole lot of change in output.

The same is true for education. Email and programs like Skype allow me to have conversations with people all over the world. If I had needed to do that back in the day of physical mail being my only option, it would have taken far longer, but it still could have been done. Many of these technologies are similar, they speed things, e.g. like communication, up but don’t fundamentally change what is done, e.g. communicated.

Technology will have an impact on education, but there will be nothing particularly earth shaking for the simple reason that education is a social process. The whole reason for bringing people together on a “campus” is to facilitate the social interaction between students and students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers. Sure, you could do it all using a messaging app, but a great deal would be lost. Communication is a small percentage about just the words, there are many other things to be considered, a more important part being the emotional affect of the communicators. And, yes, I am aware of emojis and their use. But emojis are chosen by the person madly typing away and they may or may not be accurate or may even be flat-out lies. If someone directly in front of you is claiming to be satisfied but is clearly not so, you can tell this. Every one of us has the ability to read the mental state of other people. We suspect when we are being lied to. We can detect uncertainty in the speech of another. We can tell duplicity and myriad other things, like when a conversant is disdainful.

Education is not just about accumulating facts and skills. One is also learning how to communicate with others, to reason effectively, to learn the tools of a trade. Photographers know that learning how to use their cameras and lighting accessories, etc. is fundamentally important but that is not what photographers learn about in most photography courses. They learn about leading lines in compositions, balance, tonality, all kinds of things that can make a photograph into a work of art or a brilliant illustration of a concept. Similarly when people become educated, they are not just learning facts, techniques, and skills. They are developing attitudes, the ability to speak in front of others, even groups, to convince, to describe, etc. To do this requires social interaction and anything that gets between two human beings engaged in this diminishes the communication.

So, if you are waiting for technology to transform education, don’t hold your breath. The critical factors are still social interaction, inspiration of individuals to work hard on a topic and then come together to defend and attack ideas flowing through those communication channels.

And, if you prefer to think of me as a modern day Luddite, a hater/fearer of technology, you couldn’t be more wrong. What I fear is bullshit artists who make claims for tech and people that are misleading and lead young people astray. There is no app for that.

Addendum Oh, btw, there is plenty wrong with higher education, but the use of “ed tech” isn’t a solution for any of those things.

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