How B.F. Skinner Will Save Online Education

15 Oct

By Phil DeMuth

Adam Smith said that the wealth of a nation consists not in the gold in its vaults but in the productivity of its citizens. Cool! We increase productivity by building our human capital through education. Unfortunately, today public schools exist primarily to funnel tax dollars into teacher pension funds, with our children held hostage. As for higher education, a generation saddled with indefeasible student loan debt has learned that your American college decal won’t get you into the labor market anymore. Our education bubble is now being compared to the previous housing bubble — the one that ended with such interesting results.

The answer to all this was supposed to be online education, which was going to allow everyone to do an end run around the massively dysfunctional educational-industrial complex. But online education got started on the wrong foot. It is a textbook example of what Marshall McLuhan termed a “rear-view mirror” approach (his buzzword). Yes, I am referring to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), Coursera, Udacity, edX, and even the holy of holies, Khan Academy.

McLuhan understood that new media got started by repackaging old media. The original content of movies was filmed novels and stage plays. The original content of television was broadcast radio shows. Today, the Internet brings us reheated college lectures. New media wrap around old media and consume them for content. Eventually, they find their own way and this first-generation content becomes unwatchable.

This is not to say that MOOCs, even in their present stultifying form, can’t usefully replace most colleges, but this is simply because the bar is so low. All but the very top-tier institutions of higher education have passed their sell-by dates, and MOOCs (coupled with proficiency-based assessment centers) can help port them to the elephant’s graveyard where they belong.

Riddle me this: was there ever a worse technology for teaching than the college lecture? Some overeducated knucklehead stands in front of bored adolescents and gasses on for an hour like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind. What is the rate of the transmission of knowledge via this method? Anyone? Anyone?

Lectures are a form of punishment, and what people learn from punishment is how to avoid punishment. Students cope by looking out the windows, texting & sexting, getting stoned, playing games, or cutting class. In other words, all the virtues of modern academe. The punitive nature of MOOCs is demonstrated by their 90%+ dropout rates.

[ Full article available at Forbes: ]

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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in MOOCs in the News, Op-Ed


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