The Future of Education


This started with a discussion on the Chemical Education Discussion List (CHEMED-L) about what the internet will do and is doing to traditional colleges (to see the discussion go to http://mailer.uwf.edu/listserv/wa.exe?S1=chemed-l and enter “Will the Internet Kill Traditional Colleges” in the search for string box).

It was pointed out by one individual that the Internet has been with us since August 6, 1991 and every freshman entering college this year has never lived in a world without the World Wide Web (for other revelations about this year’s incoming freshman class see, “Mindset List for the class of 2013”). It was also noted that these students often understand the latest technology implicitly while older generations struggle to with it. Today’s freshmen class is in a comfort zone with technology while many college faculties have to move out of theirs. (“Will the Internet Kill Traditional Colleges” – Irv Levy, Chemical Education Discussion List, 23 September 2009).

My response was

But what is the students’ comfort zone? Granted, they have had this technology since “day 1” but does that mean that they can use it? From my perspective, students who use instant messaging and twitter their lives away cannot write complete sentences or use the proper rules of grammar. They may be comfortable with the technology but not for the uses that perhaps only we see.

And they come to our classes with the notion, especially at the freshman/introductory level, that the class will be a version of what they have done in high school. And, for the most part, it is copy what the teacher says, do the problems in the book, and write it all down for the test.

Most of the students have the capability to take photos with their cell phones but very seldom do they take photos of the work they do in the lab for inclusion in their lab reports.

They willingly accept what they read on the Internet as the “truth” but do not understand the verification process. In my assignment on academic integrity, I routinely get statements that one individual who won a Nobel Prize was guilty of fraud (based on an incomplete page somewhere and a congressional investigation that was later repudiated). (The assignment is at An Assignment on Academic and Scientific Integrity.)

From our standpoint, the academic world, there are great opportunities for this technology but all that has been done is move drill-and-practice from paper on a desktop to the video screen. The key thing about many of the current on-line colleges is that they are not accredited and their courses only transfer to other schools in the same corporation. The reason that so many administrators in the schools where we work want to move to an on-line presence is that they see the success of the on-line schools and the large number of students that are enrolled in such schools. They are not concerned about the delivery methods or what happens to the students after they graduate.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was in a discussion with a local community college about teaching there and it seemed like every other question they asked was about my ability to teach chemistry courses on-line.

I said that I thought there was no problem with the lecture and there is a lot that you can do in that regard. But I also pointed out that I didn’t think that you could do laboratory work on-line or “at home” for safety, legal, and educational reasons. There are plenty of ways to simulate the laboratory on-line but that is not the same thing as doing the lab and we want the students to have the experience manipulating the materials as well as looking at the materials. You cannot get that experience moving a mouse to open and close a stopcock.

What we, the academics, have to do is create ways to expand the on-line presence. Many years ago, I wrote a paper about how two elementary school classes could collaborate on a science project (see Was Eratosthenes Correct? A Multi-class science Project).

When I wrote it, the only means of communication were by regular (“snail”) mail and telephone. Then the Internet was “born” and other means of communication were created. As I noted in the “Eratosthenes” piece that is exactly what happened in the measurement of the earth project.

We have to beyond simply putting PowerPoint presentations on-line and setting up our exams so that students can take them anytime they want. We must also put in an interactive mode – setting a time to meet and chat with the students, to hear what they are saying, not merely read what they type.

Many of us already do that, it is called a classroom.

What is happening in terms of on-line instruction is a mirror of what is happening in society. Society wants their children to be educated but they want the education to come at a low cost. They do not want their students challenged but then they wonder why there is no creativity.

I hate to say it but there will be an on-line presence in our colleges and unless we find ways to put the creativity back in the classroom, be it on-line or through a real-time physical presence, it will be what it is now, not what it can be.

Since that was posted to the CHEMED-L list, I have had an opportunity to read a book by Bill Moyers (Moyers on Democracy). I respect Bill Moyers because he is honest and his principles have always come first. Trained as a Baptist minister, he went to work for Lyndon Johnson in the 1950’s and then through the 1960’s. But when the conflict between his soul and his call to duty (which many called the Viet Nam War), he left Washington and began his career in journalism. This book highlights several of the speeches he has given over the past twenty years. This includes the speech that he gave on 15 November 2006 to the cadets at the United States Military Academy. But I am looking at his comments on education at the moment.

In his message to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (March 3, 2007) he said,

Educational Testing Service recently concluded that a perfect storm is brewing, with our colleges and universities right at the center of it. Three powerful forces are converging: wide disparities in skill levels (reading and math), widening wage gaps of seismic proportions, and sweeping demographic shifts of more people with less education and fewer skills. If we don’t confront these changes with new thinking and new policies, we will find it difficult to sustain a vibrant middle class. The American dream of decent jobs and livable wages could vanish in our time.

To read these words from a man who grew up in Depression-era Texas and for whom college was the escape, is to read words that echoed in the discussion about the Internet. As I pointed out in my note to the CHEMED-L list, administrators want on-line courses because they are cheaper and a more efficient means of presenting information. Let’s ignore the fact that many of the on-line schools that we hear so much about are not accredited by the same agencies that sanction regular colleges and universities. They are bringing in the students and that is all that administrators desire to know.

But what are they learning. Again, as I noted in my note, many on-line classes are nothing more than drill-and-practice lessons transferred from paper to video screens. And while many instructors have transformed their lectures from overhead projectors to Power Point presentations, the informational process is still read the book, copy the problems that the instructors gives you (whose answers may be in the back of the book) and recall all that information for the next test. And many book publishers are simply transforming the textbook materials into on-line presentations. And if there are errors in the book, those errors are likely to be found in the on-line course. (And often times, the on-line material is prepared by a programmer who knows little or nothing about the course material so he or she is not in a position to determine if there are any errors in the material.)

The problem is our use of the Internet merely mirrors what we do in the classroom. The driving force behind the development of on-line courses and on-line colleges is to eliminate traditional costs, i.e., the classroom costs. And this makes it easier for administrators to justify cutting teaching positions and increasing the workload of those who survive the cuts while still maintaining hefty salaries for themselves

We should be using the Internet in creative ways, utilizing the power to circle the globe in new and inventive ways, not merely putting the text on the screen. In 1991 Marcin Paprzycki and I began a series of papers on computer networks and how to use such networks in education. In our first paper, we noted how it was possible to use a utility known as NOTES on the VAX/VMS system as a bulletin board. Students in my science education methods class were able to update and maintain a readings list for the class. They were also able to develop a book of demonstrations and experiments which they could take with them when they began student teaching. The NOTES utility also allowed students to keep in communication with other students with regards to class and group assignments. (“An Overview of Computer Networks in Education: Computer Networks and Network Services”, with Marcin Paprzycki, Proceedings of Second Annual South Central Small College Computing Conference, St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas, Journal of Computing in Small Colleges, 6 (5), 1991, 1.) These are now common features in many on-line classrooms.

But with this approach to utilizing the college computers system came problems. Resistance to change is always evident in society but I think sometimes it is more resistant in education, especially when it is something that many people do not understand. Shortly after I began using the computer system in my classes, I received the following e-mail message from a sympathetic colleague,

I hear these rumblings that your ass may be in the fire over your creative application of computer technology in some of your classes. It has been my experience that the people who most need to be exposed to the technology are also the people who are most unable to overcome their fears of the technology and also the people who bitch the loudest when they are forced to overcome their phobias.

If there is anything that I can do to improve the situation, say by documenting the fact that your efforts represent innovative and creative application of available technology, please let me know. I think that efforts such as yours (efforts that force the education industry into the 20th century) are essential to this university’s mission and to this nation’s future.

It isn’t that we need to be more creative in our use of the computer, the Internet or the World Wide Web; it is that we have to be creative. If we are not creative, we risk being unable to fight the enemies of democracy. As Bill Moyers has noted, the Internet may prove redemptive for democracy but the results to this point are mixed. In a society where the only thing tested is one’s ability to recall where one bit of information is stored in a multitude of rooms in a storehouse of information rather than one’s ability to utilize that storehouse of information, the threat to democracy is more real than any single terrorist.

If we are incapable of being creative, we are incapable of any sort of advanced thinking. And if we cannot think beyond simple things, we cannot expose the ignorance of our leaders or would-be leaders. For Socrates, the wisest of men is the one who is most conscious of his own ignorance, most aware of the limits of knowledge which are introduced by our limited methods of obtaining knowledge.

It has been said that Meletus, the main accuser featured in the Apology (as told by Plato) was a young religious fanatic who charged Socrates with believing in deities of his own invention rather than the state-recognized gods. But some scholars now believe that Meletus was simply a front man for political interests, put forward to stir the public against Socrates and not unlike so many of today’s modern political pundits. (From Bill Moyers’ speech to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on 7 February 2007)

I have often said to my students that the most curious creature on this planet is a two-year old. Each one of you who has had a child knows the curiosity that two-years old have because as soon as they can start walking, they are exploring everything and everywhere. (Our own two-year old granddaughter is sufficiently computer literate to the point that she has taken apart her father’s computer and we are still looking for several of the keys from the keyboard that she has pried off; we can only imagine what our one-year grandson will do when he begins to walk.)

But where is this curiosity when these students finish high school and begin college? Students are now acclimated to simply recall the information and not process it; they rebel at the notion of having to think independently since there is no reward for doing so. And perish the thought if we want them to think critically.

Our system is devoted to driving intellectual curiosity from our children’s souls and replacing it with something far worse than George Orwell could have thought of when he wrote 1984 or Animal Farm. And the problem is that far too many people see little use for courses or programs that expand creativity or intellectual curiosity.

Critics will tell us that such programs teach no one how to bake bread or build bridges. In one sense they are right – despite all that we do, there is still crime; divorces still occur; politics are still corrupted by the lure of power and money; corporations will still cook their books and liberals are still loose in the world to do the work of the devil.

Mr. Moyers pointed out that “All human beings have this burden in life to constantly figure out what’s true, what’s authentic, what’s meaningful, what’s dross, what’s a hallucination, what’s a figment, what’s madness. We all need to figure out what is valuable, constantly.” (From Bill Moyers’ speech to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on 7 February 2007)

We are a country and a society that seems to value intellectual curiosity but, on the other hand, we are unwilling to put forth the effort to insure that our students have that curiosity, that creativity. It will, if it hasn’t already done, show up.

In 1980, if you obtained a graduate degree you earned about an average of $50,000; by 2000, the average was about $70,000. Over the same period those with bachelor’s degrees saw their income rise from about $40,000 to $50,000. In contrast, high-school graduates saw no gain in income and those without high-school diplomas saw their income drop.

At one time, there was a 20 percent chance that your income would be determined by your father’s income; now the research suggests that the father’s level of income determines 60% of a son’s income. In other words, children no longer have an equal chance of success regardless of economic status. As Bill Moyers put it, your chances of success are greatly improved if you were born on third base and your father has been tipping the umpire. And there is additional evidence that says that there is also a technological gap that roughly resembles the economic gap in our society.

This started out when someone asked if the Internet would kill traditional college. In the end, the present use of the Internet or World Wide Web will probably not do anything to traditional colleges that we haven’t already done ourselves. At worst, it will simply magnify the end.

But, if we push to get creativity and curiosity back into the classroom, whether or not it is a traditional classroom or an on-line one; if we push to find ways that expand the Internet beyond what we are already doing, we can do things that right now seem impossible.

And if we do that, we are the road to making education what it once was and what it can be, a means to equality and a means to restore and maintain democracy.

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4 thoughts on “The Future of Education

  1. Elizabeth Christophy posted the following comment on the CHEMED (Chemical Education Discussion List) concerning this piece and the discussion about the impact of the Internet on traditional colleges.

    “I just found this link: http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2009/09/fascinating-report-from-us-department.html

    It’s commentary on a study that says students learn better in an online situation than in a face-to-face situation. The study itself is linked off the blog post.”

  2. Larry Rosenhein responded to Elizabeth’s comment on CHEMED with

    I don’t think that’s what the study says, although Donald Clark’s interpretation obviously skews in that direction. For instance, where he writes,

    >Online better than face-to-face
    “The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving traditional face-to-face instruction.””Interpretations of this result, however, should take into consideration the fact that online and face-to-face conditions generally differed on multiple dimensions, including the amount of time that learners spent on task. The advantages observed for online learning conditions therefore may be the product of aspects of those treatment conditions other than the instructional delivery medium per se. “However, several caveats are in order: Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. . The meta-analysis findings do not support simply putting an existing course online, but they do support redesigning instruction to incorporate additional learning opportunities online.<

    (The latter seems consonant with Tony Mitchell’s arguments.)

    I am not an expert in reading educational studies. However, many of them appear to be attempts to wrangle firm conclusions out of nearly-intractable data, and while I respect the effort, it would be a shame to oversimplify the research. My worry is that people will go around saying, ‘I read they‘ve proved that on-line learning is better than classroom learning.”

  3. Pingback: The State of Education – 2012 « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  4. Pingback: “Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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