Socrates and New Delivery Systems

I have always been skeptical about the claims of the technophiles regarding the educational value of computers and other electronic devices. It seems to me that these devices are terrific for gathering information but unless people could assimilate, coordinate, evaluate and assort the information, separating the relevant from the irrelevant, they might prove useless. But as states cut programs such as music in order to fund the computers and the Federal government under people like Bill Clinton and George Bush determined to spend millions of dollars to put these toys in the classrooms, I have waited to see what the results might prove to be. It turns out it has been a terrible waste of money and some states have reneged on their initial decisions to allocate funds for this purpose. A number of studies now show beyond doubt that computers do not increase real learning one whit. On the contrary. As one study done in 2007 by the National Center for Education Evaluation concluded: “Test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products.” But more telling yet was a study done in Munich in 2004 that concluded: “. . . computer availability at home shows a strong statistically negative relationship to math and reading performance, and computer availability at school is unrelated to performance.” (Note that computers at home have a negative effect on math and reading.) Other studies show that computer usage reduces vocabulary — when computer users are contrasted with young people who read — in an already verbally impoverished cohort. A number of other such studies bear out these disappointing findings in spite of the agonized screams from the technophiles that these tests simply do not measure the intelligence gained from the use of these toys. But these screams are really signs of hysteria and they beg the question, since there seems to be no hard evidence whatever that electronic devices do much more than improve a person’s manual dexterity and sense of spatial relations. It would appear that users can collect information rather quickly but they have no idea what to do with it once they have it. Small payoff for a huge expenditure of time and money.

In any event, the on-line colleges and universities which rely completely on computers continue to prosper because they make outrageous claims and they are cheaper and readily available at a time when folks are busy and strapped for extra cash. But I continue to have my doubts about the entire endeavor. I should add that my doubts have increased since reading in Mark Bauerlein’s provocative book The Dumbest Generation that the Nielsen Norman Group which studies the way users actually interact with the computer concluded that:

“Web reading and Web learning on average are far less creative, complex, literate, and inquisitive than techno-enthusiasts claim. People seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. . . .In general, the content encountered and habits practiced online foster one kind of literacy, the kind that accelerates communication, homogenizes diction and style and answers set questions with information bits. It does not favor the acquisition of knowledge, distinctive speech and prose, or the capacity to reason to long sequential units.”

In short, beyond the mere disgorging of information, it is no longer clear that computers aid the intellectual skills that have always been associated with teaching and learning. Be that as it may, in an article posted on LinkedIn not long ago, the University of Phoenix was touting new educational “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, which have of late come under fire as being a bit too political.¬† Students want credits that will transfer from one institution to another and most on-line courses do not, at present, transfer. But on-line colleges will soon find a way around the snag, the article promises — and the University of Phoenix, for one, now boasts several accredited courses available on-line.

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, despite the internet’s many shortcomings. The traditional students will continue to go to college for fun, as they do now, as long as their parents can afford to send them. But, I wonder, is any of 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 enthusiastic students¬† with diverse interests and perspectives and a teacher who knows how to ask questions. 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. As young people they are confined to their narrow worlds, filled with prejudices and misconceptions, and bullied by peer pressure. And this condition worsens as kids become more and more dependent on the small world of electronic devices, which are used almost exclusively for social networking with like-minded friends — not learning. Information alone cannot free them, 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, become aware of inconsistencies and contradictions, learn how to reason coherently and cogently. The computer cannot teach that.

As it happens, however, many in our colleges paying through their teeth for a “quality education” aren’t getting one either as the colleges increasingly try to give the students what they want rather than what they need. None the less, 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” (as advertised), but to engage their minds and help them achieve true freedom so they can become thoughtful consumers and, more importantly, 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 diverse 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.