Friday, February 16, 2007

Nontraditional learning

Here’s an New York Times article on the problems at the University of Phoenix:
Troubles Grow for a University Built on Profits
The story lays most of the blame on UoP’s for-profit business model. I don’t doubt that the pressure to meet earnings targets made it easy to cut corners. I also think that the distance learning model for education suffers from serious flaws.

After all, from Socrates in ancient Athens, to the first universities in the Middle Ages, to our modern campuses, traditional education has meant gathering students around teachers. The model persists through the ages despite technological, economic, and ideological changes. Maybe there is something intrinsically valuable in that model.

Such ideas are anathema to the flacks of the Next New Thing. By suggesting such I have labeled myself an enemy of the future.

One of the “benefits” of non-traditional universities is that they accelerate the attainment of a degree. This feature is also a bug. Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote that “we learn to swim during the winter, and to skate during the summer.” Or oin the words of Jacques Barzun: “the inner integration of experience takes place slowly and during inactivity.” Speed kills. In the case of these programs what they murder is a real education.

Charles Taylor has an interesting idea about personality. He suggests that an important facet of it is inherently dialogical. We grow and mature inside “webs of interlocution.” One signal advantage of the traditional college education is that the student is immersed in new webs; they initiate new dialogues. Online learning, in contrast, is bereft of such opportunities.

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