One of the fascinating things about the Internet is that it gives us an opportunity to meet new people and connect in some fairly meaningful ways – often people whom we would in our ordinary run of life never encounter. In my case, one of these people is a very interesting gentleman named Warren Metzler. He and I have been engaging in some running debates on some of the online blogs, and I have a great deal of respect for his ideas, even though we have some fairly profound disagreements about some issues. In response to my last posting here regarding “education as a market”, he raised a number of interesting questions in a comment. As you’ll see if you glance down, they are fairly complex questions and I thought they deserved a fuller answer than I could give it a comment response, particularly as they offer me an opportunity to extend my remarks on the previous subject.
First, Warren raises the issue of the definition of education itself, noting that it is not a process solely of providing mental and moral values. I certainly agree, and would concur with his more instrumental definition of education as a process of coaching someone to success. However, I would suggest that any such instrumental view depends on both mental and moral values as well. The definition of “success” is by itself both a mental and moral issue. There is no doubt that top-rated business schools have been highly “successful” in training their graduates both in skills and networking, thereby enabling them to move to the top of major financial institutions and come very close to absolutely ruining both this country and the international economy in the process. That’s instrumental education at its best – but apparently also a failure at instilling a basic sense of a moral community and the obligation not to ruin your neighbors casually. So the distinction that Warren proposes between authentic and inauthentic education is perhaps incomplete; authentic education, and perhaps even good inauthentic education, requires that the student absorb not merely technical skills but also a sense of the context within which they are to be used and the consequences that might come from using them.
I sense from his comment that Warren disapproves of what he terms “inauthentic” education; that is, education not directed toward some real-life condition. I would argue that there is a great deal of education that does not have any immediate or even midterm practical consequences, but that serves to improve the student in the long run, or at least to provide a nonthreatening way to explore underlying issues. In high school, I studied four years of Latin and some Greek. I’ve never had occasion to carry on a conversation in Latin, and so its practical value has been limited. On the other hand, I found it of enormous help in improving my English vocabulary and in understanding and learning many aspects of basic rhetoric and style. Indirect effects, all of them, but real nonetheless. There’s a lot of the body of knowledge out there that doesn’t really translate into direct or concrete benefits, but that nonetheless improves a person as a human being, or at least as a conversation partner. So there may be room for what I’ve termed “good inauthentic education” as well as the more practical skills.
I’m going to hold for a few days a further discussion on Warren’s issues regarding the teaching of ethics; there’s a lot bound up there and I don’t want to short the issue. It would like to briefly respond to his questions regarding courses in nonacademic institutions such as Udemy, which was a principal issue in my previous post. Having participated in many different kinds of educational institutions over the years, some with high academic rank and some with little to none, it’s my observation that the quality of instruction and the value received by the student is often largely independent of the nature of the institution. While I was at NSF as a program manager, I learned about the degree of privilege accorded to top-ranked research universities in qualifying for NSF grants; the theory was that since they had all these excellent facilities and all these high-priced professors to support, they needed consideration for their academic infrastructure as well as the technicalities of the grant in question. There’s no doubt that ivy-covered halls and ivy-covered professors cost a lot of money, and libraries and laboratories are also nice to have. But whether these always translate into academic value is less than certain.
I believe, therefore, that there is a great market for quality education through nontraditional kinds of institutions like MOOCs or Udemy. As an example, I’d like to mention the course that I plan to offer (in cooperation with a dear friend and colleague) through Udemy – specifically, a course in the application of sociotechnical design principles to the implementation of new technology. This is, of course, the field that I devoted roughly 30 years worth of academic study to, while my colleague has been approaching the same things from the practical consulting side. Assuming that I can manage to describe this accurately, I think there is a great deal of value to be delivered and, I hope, a considerable potential market. I should note that I have spent roughly the last 25 years at three separate institutions trying to convince my academic colleagues that such a course was worth offering and that it had appropriate academic rigor, largely without success. Nobody ever really said no, but nobody ever really said yes either. My adaptation was to use this sociotechnical framework as the basis for the entire information technology management curriculum at my last institution, where it has served quite adequately as a basis for training quite a number of IT managers. However, I’ve never had the opportunity to really approach this as a systematic course stressing both the underlying science and the practical application. Now, through Udemy, I’m going to have the opportunity to see if this will go together and if it will actually sell. I don’t have to sell this first to an academic body with its own agenda of professional concerns and issues; all I have to do is sell to the students. It’s going to be an interesting process. Even 5 to 7 years ago, there would have been no institutional mechanisms to facilitate this alternative approach to education. Now there are.
There will in fact be practical consequences to my performance in this alternative educational approach; if I teach people the wrong things about implementation, it could cost a great deal of money. I believe that my approach is useful and correct, and I accept that it is my obligation not to do harm through my teaching. How I plan to implement this ties right into consideration of Warren’s concerns about ethics and education, so it’s a great segue into my next column. Watch this space. I don’t know what Warren will have to say about these ideas, but I know it will be interesting.