And Universities Are Providing….What?

Massimo Pigliucci has a thorough response to Tom Friedman’s column extolling the virtues of online education. Although Pigliucci makes some good points about the weaknesses of both online education and formal education systems, he still fails to explain exactly why it is that online education can’t do everything a university can.

This is as close as he gets to explaining why online education isn’t what we need:

Real teaching must include guided discussions, interactions among peers, and a great deal of exercises. The ideal model is that of the Renaissance workshop, where one learned from the Master and his best assistants, day by day. In modern education, this is what is done in the best graduate schools and when using the Montessori method. A far cry from what Friedman and Silicon Valley are proposing.

The Renaissance workshop model is not feasible in 2012, nor is giving undergraduates the attention awarded to graduate students, so I’ll focus on his three more-pertinent points: Guided discussions, interaction among peers, and a great deal of exercises.

Pigliucci is a philosopher, and so I don’t fault him for not knowing this, but the majority of college lectures in non-humanities subjects do not include much discussion or peer interaction. Things like labs are important, but we are increasingly getting better at figuring out how to recreate those experiences on a computer. And although students do have exercises or problem sets, they tend to do them outside of where the lecture takes place, just like a student taking an online course. At a brick and mortar university a student can go to a TA for help, but it’s worth pointing out that in places with a developed university system a student taking an online course could hire the very same TA to help him. The only difference is that the student would pay less (compared to tuition) and the TA would earn more.

Before Pigliucci can attack online education, I think he needs to articulate exactly what unique value, outside of meeting with students during office hours, he thinks professors are providing undergraduates. What is your $40,000 buying? Peer interaction and tutoring can be had for less, and if it’s the lectures from brilliant professors, well, that’s Friedman’s point, is it not?

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