That School Should Be Abolished

In the state highschools of my leafy green suburban homeland, a small fragment of the mandatory curriculum was set aside for the formal study of rhetoric. This worked out to about one formal English class debate a year, for a few years. The topics were a small set of banal perennials, at least as treated by thirteen year olds trained on Judy Blume and sports commentary, and who were less focused on their studies than on barely concealed techniques for manipulating others through lust. We got to hear about the death penalty, the end justifying the means, and though we never discussed whether Man was Good, it wouldn’t have been out of place. The prince of these was in one way the most relevant to our day to day experience, That School Should Be Abolished.

It's on

In another way, it was also the most cruelly unreachable topic: school was, and is, mandatory well past that age. The only way to abolish school actually available to a student was to drop out after landing a job, in the midst of the worst Australian unemployment since the Great Depression. Let’s not overstate the hardship ­- current Greek and Spanish youth unemployment, for instance, is a whole different scale. Yet even if the text is that school is a comforting support, the barely submerged subtext of the argument is compulsion.

If you are middle class in America today, or Greece for that matter, does attending college, and all the time and money that goes with it, seem any less compulsory and life-determining? I don’t feel like the experience has reached the same intensity elsewhere as yet, but all the same trends are driving it. And then we add a set of disruptive recording and distribution technologies, a bucket of venture capital, and an industry full of people with a skill – programming – that is both academic and that you have to teach to yourself in order to do it with even a modicum of competence. Before long you get statements like this …

“It was this catalytic moment,” Thrun says. “I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined.” By the end of the semester, he’d raised another $5 million and was standing in front of the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, promising a world in which education was nearly free, available to poor people in the developing world, and better than anything that had come before it. “I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said definitively. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your students. But I’ve taken the red pill. I’ve seen Wonderland.” – Sebastian Thrun, robotics genius and CEO of Udacity, who later decided this revolution was mostly about tutorial videos for APIs

… or this …

Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal ­arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less wealthy, less­ prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.
“To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the day­care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” [Siva Vaidhyanathan] says. — Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk in the Chronicle of Higher Education

These articles are aging – we seem to be coming off the hype peak – but isn’t that exactly where the two sides of this argument talk past each other? One is using school as a verb – as a process that happens to an individual. Another is using it as a place – as an institution for learning and teaching, around which a community is built.

Shallow as the innovation disruption rah rah Silicon Valley techno-yay side of this can be, doesn’t the other side of it – the fixation on school as a place and a community – rather devalue the importance of study, of the subject of education itself? Isn’t that a strange position for an academic institution to hold? It’s rather reminiscent of the arguments against homeschooling, or indeed, the same terms our highschool debates would revert to. The online education providers have the same whiff of adolescent libertarian naïveté, of not being able to see how existing institutions support them, even when though they are lumbering and awkward. And their opponents end up arguing that the real worth of school is not learning: that you need to be in school to play sport, or eat lunch, or learn social skills; that to socialize you need to be institutionalized.

It’s all enough to make a person call a plague on both their houses, and start their own EduPunk course on open source 3D printed macrame. But I don’t know macrame.

Development, Epidemiology, China; Course Reviews

I’ve taken a couple of these online courses now, and seen my wife take a few more, and its definitely been interesting and worthwhile.

PH207x: Health in Numbers: Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research from edX Harvard was the most technical, the most rigorously graded, and generally the most recognizably similar to the undergraduate courses of my science degree. The organizers arranged for all enrolled students to have time-limited copies of Stata, the commercial stats processing package, and work in Stata made up a lot of the assessment. The student body had a lot of expertise to share, either from a medical or mathematical background. The lecturers and TAs were also well engaged, with responses to student questions and discussion being incorporated back into the material.

14.73x The Challenges of Global Poverty was an interesting lecture series by two genuine academic superstars of development economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo at MIT. The course is more or less an extension of their book Poor Economics, which advocates systematic use of randomised controlled trials in economics. It shares lessons from the research for the worlds very poor across issues like food, jobs, risk and access to even simple financial services. It’s a great book, and I wouldn’t have read it so thoroughly, let alone worked through the extra lecture material, without the structure of a course to fit it around. I’m glad I did work through it, as it included things like an excellent walkthrough of the famous Acemoglu et al paper The Comparative Origins of Colonial Development.
There was an electronic copy of Poor Economics available as part of the course, the reader was a little clunky and didn’t work on mobile devices, but given it was all free complaining seemed churlish. A heartening number of the key papers they mentioned are also freely downloadable. Assessment in this course was multi-choice usual based on a fairly strict reading of the course material. This could be frustrating for certain questions; the reputation of two-handed economists has a truth to it, and it could be seen here as hedging in the questions with qualifiers like might, could or should, as well as in the answers with multi-choice. This works in a short answer or essay question, where the student has a chance to explain their reasoning, but not multi-choice.
This is a translation of an existing undergraduate course, but I got the feeling the assessment was dumbed down: if I were paying for an education at MIT I would expect more too. There was engagement from staff but it didn’t seem to be a huge focus. The huge, global and very diverse student body seemed to overwhelm the usability of the edX discussion boards, which had moments of interest but were mostly dominated by typical Internet discussion dross.
Marie Hicks, far from a thoughtless cheerleader of the medium, has suggested MOOCs can be a “new way that we get our research out into the wild, taken seriously, and used as part of larger intellectual, social, and economic debates”. Banerjee and Duflo have seized on that very successfully. Rehabilitating the lecture as a piece of public performance and education is a heartening feature of the early twentieth century, and a course like this gives rather meatier content than the aperitifs at TED.

STSCHINA-001 Science, Technology and Society in China I sits slap across the middle of a swathe of my interests. Naubahar Sharif does a rapid fire tour of philosophy of science and engineering and history of science in China before discussing innovation systems in more detail. A lot of the MOOC discussion is resolutely US-centric, but this is run out of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It’s also a short course format – it was only three weeks long, with two followup courses forming a trilogy about the normal semester length. I found this length easier to fit around other ongoing commitments. There are excellent reasons for regional studies to be pursued outside the focus region, but I do wonder how, eg, the chance to learn about China from teachers in China will change the field.
This course also had the challenge of examining humanities material in an online and massive student body. They chose peer graded short essays, two of which I slapped up on this blog. I thought this was a good compromise given the premises of MOOCs, and good on them for trying a different format. I didn’t get much engaging discussion out of the forums for this course, but the assignment marking process did let me see other angles on the topic. A lot of people seemed to complain about it though – it might have been a double shock to someone from a non English speaking background and used to multi choice or short problem questions.

There’s lots of things to speculate about around online courses, their open spirit, the dot-com venture capital hype and greed, the institutions about to truck crash, the young and not so young postdocs already hammered by the structure of the academic labour market, and I’d like to ruminate on all that too, in another post. From a purely personal and selfish perspective, though, these were courses I couldn’t do locally, on fascinating and important ideas, that pull material together in a way a teacher can and a book usually doesn’t. +1 would experience birth of new pedagogical genre again.