You Can Put College Courses Online, but You Can’t Get an Education There
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 provosts were being regularly assaulted by teams of young techies explaining that they urgently needed to get their faculty to put basic courses online using that particular vendors’ tools and technology.
The techies impolitely suggested that the schools’ current digital efforts would have been absolutely fine 10 years ago, but they now needed to move forward — before it was too late — to enhance and expand their offerings. The Covid-19 pandemic is just the latest reminder that the entire educational system in this country, from grade school to graduate school, is a continual proof case of “too little, too late” as we continue to fail our kids and forfeit their futures.
Too late, in the university context of the past decade, means a variety of things to the different audiences to whom this serious warning was addressed, but among the main expressed concerns were the risks that: a) better and readily accessible online course content might rapidly become available from other, more prestigious institutions, often at little or no cost to the students; and b) that most of these universities did not have the time, resources, or staff to create their own content delivery systems with the bells and whistles that were going to be increasingly required to meet emerging production standards, quality levels, and best practices. Blackboard, among other antiquated programs, was basically yesterday’s black hole, which too many schools kept pouring time and money into with little or no benefit or return.
And even under the best of circumstances, the prospect of a single school spending scarce resources to basically reinvent the wheel when startups had already spent millions to build systems that were being quickly adopted across the country made very little sense to the colleges’ administrators and financial officers. And, to their credit, the best of the startups offered an even more compelling argument. They would develop, record, and onboard the course material at their own expense in exchange for a multiyear commitment from each school to share its online tuition revenues.
So, over a relatively short period of time, especially given the glacial pace of innovation in higher ed, the transition work began, and more universities aligned with online curriculum providers although — interestingly enough — far more of the 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 drove much of the entire movement accrued almost exclusively to the schools rather than to their faculties who — as a further insult — were regularly reminded that the incremental revenue generated by the new digital initiatives helped to pay for some portion of their own compensation and secured their jobs.
The indignities didn’t stop there. The ultimate blows came when the online providers sent their employees (typically the age of graduate students or younger) to help “convert” the content of the faculty members into the instructional formats and bite-size buckets better suited to the new delivery formats. Imagine, if you will, any professor from your past being told by some young, officious techie that his or her decades of training and teaching were about to be reimagined and transformed by the alchemy of the digital age into glitzy and compelling content sure to hold students’ attention and, at a minimum, entertain them if not educate them. This wasn’t any old shovel ware or simple standup video lectures — it was definitely new age. And it was Marshall McLuhan’s dictum come to life: “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”
But the truth is there is simply no compression algorithm for education or experience. As the utterly bereft efforts at online education during the pandemic convincingly demonstrated to millions of students and parents, effective education is still delivered from one person who connects — personally and emotionally — to another. Teachers don’t teach content or courses; they teach students. It’s an alchemic process for sure, but not one that even the best technology can put into a box and deliver convincingly at scale regardless of the skills of anyone involved in the process. We might appreciate our smartest teachers, but we’re most grateful for the ones we believe care honestly and deeply about us and about preparing us for an uncertain and challenging future.
The fundamental flaw in online education today — now glaringly apparent to parents and even politicians — is the failure to appreciate and understand that education is something that is done to you; learning is (and must be) something you commit to and do for yourself. Engaging the curiosity of our kids is absolutely crucial — schools can’t be dream-snuffers. Teaching isn’t about instruction; it’s about creating interest, engagement, and excitement about learning. It’s not about filling an empty vessel with knowledge; it’s about igniting a passionate desire to learn.
Even more to the point, it’s difficult to scale true learning without some new and far more interactive tools that provide personalized and immediate feedback because ultimately, it’s not about teaching anyone to memorize facts, but rather about leading them to think about the facts, understand the context and issues they represent, and then to think about how to address and solve the problems they pose. And ultimately to synthesize those arguments, thoughts, and conclusions and present them convincingly to others. This is the only chance we have to return to a time when the prime focus of education was to make better and more informed citizens, rather than competent factory workers and grossly indebted college graduates.
The best technology will never replace great educators; ideally, tech will empower, extend, augment, and enhance their skills while relieving them of the enormous burdens of paperwork that they currently bear. If we don’t immediately employ effective classroom and administrative technologies to support and relieve some of the daily stress and strain on our best and most conscientious teachers, they won’t stick around, and we’ll be left with a combination of the oldest and least effective teachers and a mass of inexperienced and inadequately trained newbies.
In 2021, nearly one million people quit jobs in public education, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Following the pandemic, it’s estimated that one in three teachers in the U.S. is thinking of leaving their position. We waste so much of our teachers’ time tracking, documenting and keeping score that we lose sight of something critical that every entrepreneur and game developer can tell you. We learn much more from trial and error — even from failures — than we ever do from our successes. Happy endings are instructive only in the movies, and even then, the messaging is mixed at best.
We’ve got to do a great deal of work going forward to figure out how to properly (and efficiently) measure not what students are taught, but what they’re actually learning and whether we’re providing them with the practical education and the tools they will need to succeed not just in school, but in life. If the pandemic taught us anything about online teaching, it was that after all these years of trying, we still haven’t learned a thing.