By Pamela Hieronymi
This spring, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a $60-million venture to offer free classes online. Just last month the University of California at Berkeley said it would also join the effort. John Hennessy, president of Stanford, recently predicted that a technology "tsunami" is about to hit higher education. When justifying their decision to remove Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors cited, in part, the need to ride this wave.
As we think about the future of education, we need to sharpen our understanding of what education is and what educators do. Education is often compared to two other industries upended by the Internet: journalism and publishing. This is a serious error.
Education is not the transmission of information or ideas. Education is the training needed to make use of information and ideas. As information breaks loose from bookstores and libraries and floods onto computers and mobile devices, that training becomes more important, not less.
Educators are coaches, personal trainers in intellectual fitness. The value we add to the media extravaganza is like the value the trainer adds to the gym or the coach adds to the equipment. We provide individualized instruction in how to evaluate and make use of information and ideas, teaching people how to think for themselves.
Just as coaching requires individual attention, education, at its core, requires one mind engaging with another, in real time: listening, understanding, correcting, modeling, suggesting, prodding, denying, affirming, and critiquing thoughts and their expression.
A set of podcasts is the 21st-century equivalent of a textbook, not the 21st-century equivalent of a teacher. Every age has its autodidacts, gifted people able to teach themselves with only their books. Woe unto us if we require all citizens to manifest that ability.
Of course, computers do much more than deliver podcasts. They enable new forms of communicating. They present information in incredibly understandable and previously unimaginable ways. They even interact with students, correcting assignments for which there are clearly delineated standards of error and success. They can greatly expand the power of the multiple-choice quiz; they can learn which drills remedy which errors. Computers are getting ever better at correcting grammar and expressions in natural language.
These capacities should be celebrated. But they should not be confused with the training provided by one mind interacting with another—when, for example, a teacher discerns what is on a student's mind (even though the thought may be novel and half-formed); sees how it relates to the material; and knows how to question, encourage, challenge, or otherwise prompt the student to find his or her own way out of confusion, to a clearer expression of thought or a more powerful argument or analysis.
In their online venture, Harvard and MIT may evaluate essays in the humanities with natural-language programs and crowdsourcing: peer-graded essays for everyone, all the time. It is as though elite educators, upon noticing that we can't program a computer to discern what is on the mind of an undergraduate, decided to pretend that if we just let those seeking an education talk among themselves (in grammatically felicitous sentences), they will somehow come to express difficult ideas in persuasive arguments and arrive at coherent, important insights about society, politics, and culture. As someone who spends time with students in directed conversations on difficult subjects, I'm sure this method won't work. We will, instead, produce graduates who cast assumptions they've never really questioned into grammatically correct slogans, and the sloganeers with the catchiest phrases, the most confidence, and the most money will shape the future.
Education matters because ideas matter. Oppressive regimes around the world recognize this and restrict the flow of ideas. Our approach has been, instead, to train ourselves to traffic in ideas, civilly and judiciously.
Technology can make education better. It will do so, in part, by forcing us to reflect on what education is, identify what only a person can do, and devote educators' time to that. (When we build machines that do everything a person can do, we will have created either fellow citizens or enemies; we'll then have other problems.)
Can technology make education less expensive? College is expensive, but colleges do things other than educate. Many courses simply convey information and provide technical vocational skills. These could be automated, presumably at savings. The price tag includes the campus experience—an education of a different sort—with all its lovely, cherished amenities.
But the core task of training minds is labor-intensive; it requires the time and effort of smart, highly trained individuals. We will not make it significantly less time-consuming without sacrificing quality. And so, I am afraid, we will not make that core task significantly less expensive without cheapening it.
Pamela Hieronymi is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Los Angeles and, this year, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.