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Confrontational Education vs. Content Delivery

The following opinion piece by Associate Provost Marc Conner appeared in the Nov. 18, 2013, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted here by permission.

Confrontational Education vs. Content Delivery

Marc Conner
Associate Provost and James M. and Jo Ballengee Professor of English

The great buzz in higher education these days is online learning. On a daily basis, the popular press features stories about how MOOCs (massive open online courses) and similar online education tools will soon revolutionize the American college experience, magically making a college education affordable, efficient and simple–or, cheap, quick and easy.

While there are certainly exciting developments in teaching technology, nearly all these stories make the same error: They reduce learning to mere content delivery, as if a college education is simply a matter of dumping material into receptive brains by the cheapest means necessary.

It’s no accident that the online courses championed at Coursera and Udacity, the largest online vendors of college courses, are overwhelmingly basic accounting and finance courses or introductory science courses–the closest thing in college learning to basic quantified fact delivery, hence the most amenable to computer-graded, impersonal upload (though my colleagues teaching accounting and computer science would surely argue, and rightly so, that there’s a lot more to these fields than that). Neither company features in its catalogs many courses in fields defined by ambiguity–literature, economics, philosophy, sociology, history. Such fields seem to offer little purchase for the content delivery concept of learning.

The champions of this sort of “teaching” seem to assume that online learning can at least provide the “basic competencies” of a college education, and then the “higher order” learning can occur in more traditional classrooms, to quote a recent New York Times article championing online education.

But often a college student’s most transformative learning experience occurs in that first-year history or philosophy or anthropology or biology course. College students won’t be ready for the “higher order” learning that comes after, if they haven’t previously learned how to put their ideas into confrontation with a live professor and live students, in a seminar, a lab, a study-abroad program, or a group project. Precisely this kind of confrontational education leads to true critical thinking, the real payoff of a college education and the skill most sought by employers.

Every time a bank or corporation or law firm visits our campus and we ask, “What are you looking for in a new employee?” the answer is invariably, “Someone who can write, who can communicate, who can think for herself, who can solve problems independently, who can take on a project and complete it, a self-starter.” The fact is, a student in the 21st century who thinks she can learn everything by interacting with a computer is going to offer a poor employment prospect to any organization seeking a dynamic, bold, entrepreneurial, self-guided individual. Moreover, this naïve championing of online learning utterly disvalues the plenitude of other learning that occurs on a college campus beyond the traditional classroom, where the real goal is to educate the whole self, beyond mere technical skills.

The American university system at its best develops a fiercely independent thinker who can excel in any situation; the online learning concepts currently touted offer rote and passive learning that is more comparable to 19th-century models of industrial education, hardly suited to the demands of the 21st century. Ironically, digital and technological learning is filled with exciting possibilities, and it is precisely at the great universities that we see the most exciting innovations in teaching and learning going on, including complex interweavings of campus-based and Web-based teaching tools.

The media image is that technology is way out in front, and the antiquated university is stubbornly looking back to an era of dusty chalkboards. The reality is virtually the opposite. And while the discussion of online learning focuses overwhelmingly on cost savings, the universities are focused on how technology can enhance teaching and learning. The American university will continue to integrate technology into its teaching and research methods, as it always has, and will continue to place a premium on a highly skilled professoriate that challenges its students to think, to critique, to transform and to lead. The fact is, great education is not cheap, nor can it occur in a factory. We are educating the leaders of the future, not the assembly-line workers of the past.

Marc Conner is associate provost and James M. and Jo Ballengee Professor of English at Washington and Lee University.