Elite Education Versus “The Rest”

Shaun Johnson of The Chalk Face, a website dedicated to questions of public education (particularly to the struggle against the so-called “reformers” who are attempting to eradicate it), has a post at Good which, though it is aimed at demonstrating why the current “reforms” should be viewed with suspicion, also shows why we should be a little skeptical of the current craze for MOOCs.

Johnson points out that the panoply of “tools” being used to restructure public education are not being used in the elite private schools of the United States. He points out that: “This entire enterprise operates on one very powerful currency: data. Without the data, the machine ceases to operate.” Yet data is not, and never has been, a major force in development of really good education. People are. Educated people skilled at motivating others to make use of the resources and pathways their teachers can provide.

Good education requires intensive interpersonal interaction. It can be structured in all sorts of ways–Keller’s Personalized System of Instruction, for example, relies on student mentors and graduate assistants as well as professors–but it all comes down to that personal connection. Information alone, no matter how well sorted, no matter how craftily presented, is not enough. Just as a baby needs human contact to grow and prosper, so does a student–and that contact can’t be mediated by technology or proscribed by information (by data).

That, though, isn’t Johnson’s main point. What he is saying is that the best educational institutions in America are ignoring the current fads for reform. This, he says, should be indication enough that the “reforms” don’t aim to improve education but have another agenda. No matter what happens in the public schools, the elite private schools will continue to do what they have always done: provide strong education through personal attention and concentration on the students, not on data.

The same will be true of higher education if we are indeed entering an age of MOOCs. The MOOCs may have a stamp of approval from Stanford or MIT, but the education one gets at Stanford or MIT will be different on all levels from what one receives through MOOCs. The names of the professors associated may be the same, but only the privileged undergraduates will benefit from the kinds of interaction that make a professor truly great. The MOOCs, then, will never be for the top students–not alone, at least.

In a previous post, I quoted Binyavanga Wainaina, who argues that the “things” we develop to “help” the poor rarely do much more than solidify the divide between the elite and the hoi polloi. This is true of everything from testing to wind-up radios.

I suspect that it will prove just as true of MOOCs.

[Tomorrow I will post about my first week as a student in a MOOC. It has been a learning experience, though perhaps not quite in the way its created envisioned.]

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