Recently, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times published an article entitled “Come the Revolution,” which detailed the benefits of a new approach to education – online teaching. Friedman has a lot of good to say about Coursera, a new website that allows anyone to sign up for classes taught at elite colleges (led by Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania, so far). Not only can anyone in the world sign up online and listen to lectures, but they can also do the homework, ask questions and get near-immediate answers, get a grade for the class, and, perhaps most importantly, receive a certificate stating that they passed the course.
This sounds good. It allows students – meaning literally anyone – to gain important knowledge at their own convenience and prove that they have done so in order to gain employment and become valuable workers. At face value, this is a great success. It puts education in the public sphere at a very low cost (less than $100). After all, isn’t education always the problem we go back to when we discuss America’s conflicts and those of the world at large? It looks like we might have something of a solution.
But then I remembered why I came to Carleton; or, more specifically, why only liberal arts colleges made it onto my list of possible institutions when I was a high school senior. The programs made more sense to me. Not only was I unsure of my area of concentration and would be pushed to explore at such a school, but these schools make learning interactive and engaging. Small classes allow for an environment in which learning is real, and we learn to use these real skills wherever we may go in life.
Listening to a lecture online is not real. This is fast food for education – a classic American way to solve any problem. Come get your education, take it cheap, do it at your convenience, and leave. Like a McDonald’s chain, it’s fast, easy, and satisfying in the short run.
That is not how learning works. One cannot simply buy information online and call himself educated. Learning is a painful process of trial and error in which opinions and perspectives are formed via meaningful exchanges of ideas. It is impossible to “Americanize” this kind of learning in the way that a place like McDonald’s is “Americanized,” and I pity anyone who tries.
Coursera and other companies like it, after all, are offering courses that teach skills, not paradigms. So I may be able to log in and learn something about engineering, but I will never be able to go online and really learn ethics. Ethics are a human choice, guarded by our emotional beings, and they will not simply change because someone talked at us and said something different. A shift in ethical formation requires in-depth discussion, and that’s what places like Carleton were built for.
Don’t get me wrong – I understand the problem that Friedman and others are looking to solve. College price tags are astronomical, and this is an epidemic that limits education to the upper echelon of American society, worsening the advantages of the fabled 1%. But we cannot solve such a gigantic issue with some online lectures. Learning skills and facts, and making them more accessible, is a step. It is surely not the beginning of a revolution.
After all, the leaders of Enron surely had all the skills they needed.