From: Alliance to Promote the Individual Learner in Education Research (APILER) Used with permission.

In a recent op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phil Hill (a partner at MindWires Consulting) decries the plan from LinkedIn to launch an e-learning platform. He states that “LinkedIn should re-examine its underlying assumptions about ideal, one-size-fits-all content being equivalent to learning”. This is related to the MOOC phenomenon, which is discussed in Paying at scale on the My so-called civilization blog. Despite knowing better, education (especially so-called “higher” education) is becoming a race toward the commoditization of knowledge. So, what is the position on this subject of this alliance (okay, right now it’s just me)?

chronicle

A ‘Netflix for Education’? Why LinkedIn’s New Product Should Give Us Pause

Having recently bought a “fixer-upper” property, I can attest to the value of videos that show you how to do things, from unclogging a drain trap to installing a fence. But — so the question goes — is education the same thing as learning a series of tasks? Most educators say no, but all of the governmental and economic forces keep whispering back: “yeeesssssss.”

Despite knowing better, education (especially so-called “higher” education) is becoming a race toward the commoditization of knowledge.

Everyone in the “ed” biz knows Bloom’s taxonomy, and we’ve all been told that the goal of education is to reach the higher-order cognitive processes. The problem is, those higher-order processes are notoriously hard to measure. And, since we’ve also been told for over 100 years that you’ve got to measure to manage, we’re stuck between a rock without a paddle.

If it’s true that we can’t measure higher order cognitive processes (which I’m not admitting, but taking as an assumed premise), the argument goes that we might as well measure the stuff that we can, and be happy with that. Years ago there was a thing called the apprentice system: A master craftsman had journeymen who oversaw the apprentices. Language non-neutrality aside, the idea is sound: The apprentices work until their master thinks that they are ready to be journeymen, who then are sent to roam from master to master to learn the craft from various people until they are ready to be put in front of a board of masters to be elevated to master status.

The problem is, those higher-order processes are notoriously hard to measure. And, since we’ve also been told for over 100 years that you’ve got to measure to manage, we’re stuck between a rock without a paddle.

Two places where I know that a version of this model still survives are: martial arts and academia. Consider how a PhD is conferred: you have a panel of PhDs get together, test you, then decide if you’ve attained “master” status. (Ironically, a Masters Degree is no longer the “master” achievement.)

The problem with the apprenticeship model is that there was a lot of opportunity for corruption and overall bad behavior. Masters would sometimes keep apprentices and journeymen way past their time because they were useful to the business. We would never want to go back to that — oh wait! The same thing happens in academia now; grad students are often kept around to keep pumping out research with the adviser’s name on it, to pad a CV.

Another problem with the master/apprentice model is the tendency toward groupthink: everyone had to think about the field in … the … same … way … Hey, wait a minute! You mean you don’t really have to have demographic statistics in your educational research in order to advance knowledge of learning? You don’t have to have the right “lineage” so you can continue to repeat already overdone research ideas so you can get a NSF grants? Whhaaaattt?

In the end, humans are human, and as a group will always find a way to use the rules to their best advantage (related to the law of unintended consequences), and so any system with humans in it will be flawed. Therefore, if we loosen the noose of rules (or “norms”), we might find that people are actually attempting to optimize their learning, not just optimizing their power within a flawed system. MOOCs and video banks can have their places, as long as we realize that this is not all there is to it.

In the end, humans are human, and as a group will always find a way to use the rules to their best advantage (related to the law of unintended consequences), and so any system with humans in it will be flawed.

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