Friday, November 22, 2013

Dear Sebastian Thrun

An open letter to Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor, CEO of Udacity, and pioneer in Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Thrun announced last week that his company would de-emphasize providing online course content for universities, which has worked poorly to date, and turn its focus to specialized corporate training. Thrun's announcement has met cheers and mockery from predictable circles.
I blush to admit, I was one among the cackling chorus of educators dancing circles around the mouldering carcass of your high-minded promises. Your utopian vision of digital education is expensive, resists meaningful measurement, and suffers ebola-like attrition rates. It encourages an essentially private, passive relationship to education, with bleak implications for life and career. We who teach for love of students dreaded the failure of empathy your model betokens.

But once the giddy exhilaration of vindication wore off, I paused to ask myself why I felt so strongly. As a fan of Neil Postman, I initially attributed my doubts to the medium. Like TV, the online environment rewards entertainment, short attention spans, and spectacle. It doesn’t reward independent thought or context. But that doesn’t hold water, or I couldn’t write this blog. Online education’s well-documented limitations must run deeper.

Professor Thrun, you come from an industrial research background. Your contributions to exciting new programs like Google Glass and Google’s newly announced self-driving car approach legendary. I applaud your accomplishments, because they transform our relationship to information and knowledge. But your public statements reflect your industrial background, openly treating school like a machine shop, and students like interchangeable parts.

Not that you’re alone in such opinions. Many writers utilize industrial metaphors to describe schooling in the coming era. I’ve reviewed some of these books here. But consider what this metaphor implies. You’ve redefined humans to have worth only instrumentally; that is, we derive meaning from our ability to work and make money. This contravenes the reasons we tell students to study liberal arts, because education makes our souls free.

Online education advocates have been appallingly unalert to the limitations inherent in their model. From government studies to academic guidelines to the popular exposés linked in the prior paragraph, authors excitedly espouse classroom-free learning as education’s liberation. Even before these mass-market analyses, I remember an awestruck series of MacArthur Foundation white papers breathlessly expounding how digital technology would imminently render classrooms, institutional schools, and professional educators obsolete.

These books and studies all share one limitation, however: they evaluate digital learning venues according to responses from people who finished the courses. Even the US Department of Education, a fierce cheerleader for new technology in education, concedes when cornered that these courses feature an attrition rate approaching ninety percent. These courses particularly disadvantage poor students, minorities, and men—the populations already disadvantaged by the current system.

In an interview last week, Professor Thrun, you openly disparaged poor students for entering your company’s courses unprepared. But nobody is born knowing how to “do school.” Children model what they see growing up. I was fortunate enough, as you presumably were, to grow up in a household brimming with books, where my parents modeled self-improvement as a cardinal virtue. Therefore I started school already attuned to the learning process.

Your model places 160,000 students under one or two teachers’ guidance, as occurred with your celebrated Stanford Artificial Intelligence class. But teachers cannot guide 160,000 students. You cannot possibly read 160,000 papers, conduct 160,000 personal counseling sessions, or know 160,000 names. You can only offer standardized tests, which evaluate students’ rote memorization ability, and never determine whether they’ve thought about what you taught them.

Education is not about conveying information from one mind to another—or, it shouldn’t be. We don’t invite students to sit down and passively receive data into their otherwise blank minds. Such behavior invites helplessness and confusion—and, oh look, that’s how most students greeted your classes. Students may parrot your lessons without ever gaining significant understanding. Inexperienced students, especially from underprivileged backgrounds, need personal guidance to make the intuitive leap from fact to insight.

Let me state that another way: ours is not an information economy, because economies rely on scarce and desirable commodities. Information, today, is common as dirt. Rather, ours is a processing economy, where our ability to synthesize separate knowledge increments into greater wholes creates value, as you, Professor, did with Google Glass. Such processing requires guidance, mentorship, and nurturance, not an undifferentiated fact dump.

If I’ve learned anything at the factory, it’s that technology makes human discretion more valuable, not less. Machines are ultimately helpless without humans to guide them. But students entrained to passively receive information cannot guide anything, because they need guidance themselves. You yourself, Professor, have created a world where free-thinking minds making profound logical leaps are more valuable than ever. And you cannot create such minds by making students stare indifferently at a screen.

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