Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Idaho's Ignorance, Technology, and Privatizing Schools

Idaho just passed a law mandating on-line classes as a requirement for a high school diploma. The argument is (1) it saves school districts money by outsourcing teaching to private firms instead of paying public servants (that is, teachers), and (2) it prepares students better for the real world in which this sort of learning will become standard. It does indeed save money, but that's because you will generally pay less for an inferior product. Idaho is undermining their educational system.

I teach. That's what I do. My most effective pedagogical tool is my eyes. A teacher sees everyone in the classroom. You see the faces. You know who is engaged, who is sleeping, who got it and -- most importantly -- who is struggling. You can see the faces and adjust how you say something in working through the question again, take two steps back and build back up to your point, make a joke and relax the person before trying again,... There are any number of strategies teachers pull out on the fly to connect with students so that the students learn. But in an on-line course, none of this is there. Going back to the ancients, the key to education has been a relationship between the student, the teacher, and the material. On-line education does not allow for that relationship to form and as a result, the foundation of healthy human learning is undermined.

Can you learn in other ways? Of course. In grad school, I needed to pick up tensor calculus, so I got a couple of textbooks on the subject and taught myself. It can be done and with certain studies, especially those that are about skill acquisition, it may be easier than those that deal with abstract reasoning or wrestling with questions of ethics or meaning. But even in the learning to do type classes, on-line is inferior. When I have a struggling student in my office and I watch him try to work on a problem, I can see the thought process. I know what he is looking to do, what he is missing, and when the light bulb goes off. I know how to give hints so that I don't do the problem for him, but help to prod him along the way to the light bulb moment. None of this is possible in on-line learning.

Do the folks in Idaho know this? I don't know. there seem to be two possibilities.

Maybe they don't know it. It's a conceivable mistake. Ever since the end of World War II, we have had a cultural infatuation with technology. Anything technological is presumed to be superior to anything more natural. We yearn to be the Jetsons because theirs must be a better life. Labor-saving devices are leisure-enhancing devices and leisure is when we are who we really are. So, technology makes us healthier and more human.

Of course, this is false. Along the way two things happened. First, we confused technological with corporately mass produced. TV dinners, Big Macs, and twinkies became food and food became less than food. The technological stopped being tools we used and became things we consume. Second, the technology may have made us more efficient, but that doesn't mean that it increases our leisure time, our time to pursue our projects and activities that lead to self-improvement and growth. No, it has meant that we can no longer separate ourselves from work, we are not only more efficient, but we are never off the clock. We have, in deep ways, lost ourselves to the technology. And so, the people of Idaho may wrongly think that they are helping their children when in fact they are harming them.

But maybe they do know. Maybe they are fully aware that the education will be inferior and just don't care because either education doesn't really matter to them or it matters less than not paying the taxes needed to support teachers. Maybe in a state as conservative as Idaho, ideology has become so poisonous that decreasing taxes is seen as more important than educating their children. Cynical, horribly, horribly cynical. Of course, cynical and false are not synonymous.

Either way, I am sorry for the children of Idaho. Good luck and feel free to audit the philosophy course here at the Playground. It's fun, but not as good as my real classroom.