I remember a very painful series of meetings a few years ago as a member of my university’s Innovation Council, when online courseware was all the rage. Traditional university presidents and rectors have been regularly attacked by teams of young technicians who have said they urgently need to get their faculty to bring foundational courses online using the tools and technology from these particular vendors.
The techies impolitely hinted that schools’ current digital efforts would have been absolutely fine 10 years ago, but they need to move forward now – before it’s too late – to improve and expand their offerings. The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest reminder that the entire education system in this country, from elementary to graduate school, is a constant testament to “too little, too late” as we continue to let down our children and forfeit their future.
Being too late, in the university context of the last decade, means different things for the different audiences to whom this dire warning was directed, but among the main concerns expressed were the risks that: a) better and more accessible online course content could quickly be made available by become available to other, more reputable institutions, often at little or no cost to students; and b) that most of these universities did not have the time, resources, or manpower to create their own content delivery systems with the bells and whistles that would increasingly be required to meet new production standards, quality levels, and best practices . Blackboard was basically yesterday’s black hole, along with other antiquated programs, into which too many schools were investing time and money with little or no benefit or gain.
And even in the best of circumstances, the prospect of a single school spending scarce resources reinventing the wheel when startups had already spent millions building systems that were quickly being rolled out across the country took on the administrators and finances of colleges made little sense officers. And to their credit, the best startups offered an even more compelling argument. They would develop, record and integrate the course material at their own expense in exchange for a multi-year commitment by each school to share their online tuition revenue.
So, in a relatively short period of time, particularly given the rapid pace of innovation in higher education, the transition work began and more universities joined online curriculum providers, although – interestingly – far more impetus for the changes came from the administrative side of the house than from the academic. This is in large part because the financial benefits that fueled much of the entire movement have accrued almost exclusively to schools rather than their faculties, which – as a further insult – have been regularly reminded that the new digital initiatives generated additional income were helpful to pay part of their own remuneration and secure their jobs.
The humiliations didn’t stop there. The final blows came when online vendors sent their staff (usually graduate students aged or younger) to help “convert” faculty members’ content into the instructional formats and bite-sized buckets that were better suited to the new delivery formats . Imagine, if you will, a professor from your past being told by a young, pushy techie that his or her decades of education and teaching would be reinterpreted through the alchemy of the digital age and transformed into dazzling and compelling content that will surely hold the students’ attention and at least entertain them when not educating them. This wasn’t old shovelware or just standup video lectures – it was definitely New Age. And it was Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that came to life: “Anyone who tries to distinguish between education and entertainment knows absolutely nothing about either.”
But the truth is that there is simply no compression algorithm for education or experience. As the utterly futile efforts at online education during the pandemic have convincingly demonstrated to millions of students and parents, effective education is still delivered by one person who connects — personally and emotionally — with another. Teachers do not teach content or courses; You teach students. It’s an alchemical process for sure, but not one that even the best technology can box up and deliver convincingly regardless of the skill of everyone involved in the process. We may appreciate our brightest teachers, but we are most grateful for those we believe genuinely and deeply care for us and prepare us for an uncertain and challenging future.
The fundamental flaw in today’s online education – now apparent to parents and even politicians – is a failure to appreciate and understand that education is something done to you; Learning is (and must be) something one commits to and does for oneself. Inspiring our children’s curiosity is absolutely crucial – schools cannot be dream-erasers. Teaching is not about instructions; It is about stimulating interest, engagement and enthusiasm for learning. It’s not about filling an empty vessel with knowledge; it’s about igniting a passionate desire to learn.
More importantly, it’s difficult to scale real learning without some new and far more interactive tools that provide personalized and instant feedback, because ultimately it’s not about teaching someone to memorize facts, it’s about getting them to think about the Thinking about facts and understanding them, the context and problems they pose, and then thinking about how to address and solve the problems they pose. And ultimately to synthesize these arguments, thoughts and conclusions and present convincingly to others. This is the only chance we have to go back to a time when the primary goal of education was to make better, more informed citizens, rather than incompetent factory workers and heavily indebted college graduates.
The best technology will never replace great educators; Ideally, technology will strengthen, expand, expand and enhance their capabilities while freeing them from the vast bureaucracy they currently carry. If we don’t immediately employ effective teaching and management technologies to support our best and most conscientious teachers and relieve some of the day-to-day stress and strain, they will not stay, and we will be left with a combination of the oldest and least effective teachers and a mass of inexperienced and undertrained newcomers.
In 2021, nearly a million people resigned from public education, a 40 percent increase from the previous year. After the pandemic, an estimated one in three teachers in the US thinks about it leave their position. We waste so much of our teachers’ time tracking, documenting, and recording points that we lose sight of something important that every entrepreneur and game developer can tell you. We learn far more from trial and error—even from failure—than we ever did from our successes. Happy endings are only instructive in movies, and even then, the message is mixed at best.
We still have a lot of work to do in the future in figuring out how to properly (and efficiently) measure not what is being taught to students but what they are actually learning and whether we are providing them with the hands-on training and tools they need to to be successful not only in school but also in life. If the pandemic has taught us anything about online teaching, it’s that after all these years of trying, we still haven’t learned anything.