**This post was originally published August 10th, 2012**
In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.
That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.
On Thursday and Friday Oct. 3-4, the Hannah Arendt Center will host its 6th Annual International Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.”
At a time of blistering technological and cultural change, reformers want schools to prepare students for the future—but which future? And despite the polarizing polemics over curricular change and the learned arguments mounted by the most earnest reformers whatever their politics, we must admit that we have no idea where our increasingly virtual reality will take us next month, let alone in a decade. Which skills and knowledge will be needed? What brain enhancements will be available? Handwringing in the public square over whether children should still be taught cursive is much ado about nothing when, if futurists are correct, we soon may no longer need to learn how to die.
If we can no longer count on the ways of the past to guide us in a brave—or terrifying—new world, education must evolve with it. As such, thinking people must ask themselves how that evolution should be handled, considered, and undertaken.
In “The Crisis in Education," Hannah Arendt writes: "education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated.” Arendt worried that when politicians talk about educating voters, they are really seeking unanimity. Political education sounds like indoctrination, which threatens the plurality of opinion at the core of intellectual life and the politics that protects it.
Against politics in its basest form, Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” The educator must love the world and believe in it if he is to introduce young people to a world worthy of respect. In this sense, education is conservative—it conserves the world as it has been given. But education is also revolutionary, insofar as teachers must realize that the young people they nurture are newcomers whose fate is to change the world. Arendt argued that teachers must humbly teach what is; in this way they prepare students to transform what is into what might be.
Arendt shares Ralph Waldo Emerson's view that “He only who is able to stand alone is qualified for society.” Emerson’s imperative of self-reliance resonates with Arendt’s imperative to think for oneself. Education, Arendt insists, must risk allowing people their unique and even unpopular viewpoints, eschewing even well intentioned conformism and seeking, instead, to nurture independent minds. Education prepares the youth for politics by bringing them into a common world as courageous, independent, and unique individuals.
In the early years of our republican experiment, the American yeoman farmer participated in Town Hall meetings. Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern. Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear to graduates that participation in governance is a personal responsibility? Or is our withdrawal from politics the conscious result of modern individualism now liberated from the demands of politics by a virtual technological reality? Whatever the cause, elites imagine that the common people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the people increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed technocratic welfare state.
In the most literate and technologically advanced society in all history, we have produced citizens who are politically sterile. If it’s true that we learn by doing, most Americans have little experience with politics. With the exception of serving on juries, few engage in civic service. Voting is the only public activity demanded of citizens in our democracy. It takes little effort; and still, few vote. The old ideal of the citizen democracy is in crisis.
“Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis” asks how we can re-invigorate the cultural and educational institutions that have nurtured public-spiritedness that is the bedrock virtue of American constitutional democracy. In an increasingly global world, do we need a common public language? Is college education necessary for engaged citizenship? Should politically involved citizens have knowledge of the arts and practical skills like building and fixing things? What, in the 21st century, is an educated citizen?
We invite you to join us for the Conference. You can register here.
If you can’t make it to Bard in person, you can watch the conference via live webcast here.
And to prepare for the conference, here are a series of essays and blog posts from the last 12 months on the topic of education. These essays are your weekend reads.
Barely more than a year old, MITx and edX now dominate discussion about the future of higher education like nothing else I have seen in my time in Cambridge, MA. I have been teaching at MIT for more than 10 years now, and can’t remember any subject touching directly on university life that came even remotely close to absorbing the attention of higher ed professionals in the region the way that edX has. From initial investments of $30 million each by the founding institutions Harvard and MIT, and each month it seems bringing announcement of new partnerships with the world’s colleges & universities (27 institutions currently belong to the “X” consortium), the levels of hype and institutional buy-in have been nothing short of extraordinary.
Because of their ubiquity in the popular press, higher ed industry periodicals, and blogosphere, Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have become that most dangerous topic of discussion: a subject about which everybody needs to have an opinion. Such topics can unfortunately generate more heat than light, as the requirement to have and to express a point of view often means that the strongest and most extravagant opinions will claim attention and command the terms of debate. This is unfortunate if you favor the nuanced opinion or (as I do) feel genuinely ambivalent about MOOCs and the role(s) that they might play in shaping the future of higher education.
So far much of the discourse about MOOCs has tended to settle around two competing claims -- one for, one against -- that I articulated in a tweet a few months ago. Either MOOC providers are described as delivering free or low-cost quality higher education to those hard-pressed to afford it (and so performing a valuable public service); or MOOCs are understood to be selling a "lite" version of higher education to the poor while consolidating power and prestige with a few wealthy elite schools. In this dystopian view, the democratizing claims made by Udacity, Coursera and edX (the last formed of these outfits, and the only non-profit among them) are revealed instead to be essentially colonialist ones -- the colonialists, ed-tech profiteers hell-bent on thoroughly remaking the university as a crypto-corporate enterprise. MOOCs are understood to be an engine in this transformation, and an integral part of an overall design for reshaping higher education as a neoliberal market pursuit.
I can’t doubt that there is truth in both of these sets of claims. It is difficult at the same time to ignore that arguments for and against MOOCs look past each other in crucial respects; and leave precious little ground between them. What the accounts do share is an assumption that MOOCs will transform or “revolutionize” the landscape of higher education (for good or ill). Either MOOCs will be agents for elevating some in the less advantaged and underserved corners of the world; or MOOCs are instruments for extracting bodies from classrooms and tenure-track lines from university departments. The somewhat high-flown claims to educate and elevate underserved populations of the globe, often based on stray anecdote, are offered independently of any more substantive claim about the specific learning communities who benefit (or stand to benefit) from MOOCs. Similarly, claims about the profit motives animating the companies offering MOOCs subordinate all discussion of MOOCs to the ideological positions that they supposedly exist to promote. The designs attributed to MOOCs, and to the instructors who offer MOOCs, are such as foreclose discussion rather than promote it.
While both accounts of MOOCs envision significant future consequences from their implementation, moreover, neither says very much about actually-existing MOOCs. The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed. As a result, this or that fact about MOOCs is often considered (or not) insofar as it confirms the prevailing theory about them. 150,000 signing up for a class demonstrates a clear hunger on the part of many across the globe for access to a quality education; this fact authorizes enlarged claims for the ability to transform higher education by bringing MOOCs to the masses. Similarly, the replicability of the digital medium -- and the fact that course content such as video lectures, once made, do not necessarily need to be re-made each year -- is conceived as a key to how MOOCs will force everyone in higher ed to make do (not do more) with less: less student-faculty interaction, fewer tenure-track professors, down the road the prospect of fewer instructors (the majority of them adjuncts already) paid to teach in college classrooms.
In addition to fears that MOOCs will reinforce ongoing trends of budget cuts, adjunctification and layoffs of college teaching staff, another legitimate concern is that MOOCs will—by helping some schools with their branding strategies—have the effect of consolidating elite privilege with a few schools and the “superprofessors” (themselves overwhelmingly white and male) who teach MOOCs, leaving other lesser-ranked schools struggling to compete against a lower-priced virtual curriculum. The fear is that MOOCs will facilitate the emergence of two tiers in higher ed offerings: the “real” version, available only to the students whose families can afford the exorbitant tuition, or who survive by taking out massive student loan debts); and the second-rate online version. With proposals on the table such as California’s Senate Bill 520, which would grant college credit for certain approved online courses, and Coursera’s recent announcement that they will sell their MOOCs to 10 public universities in the US, these fears are unfortunately very real. I hope to see more MOOCs spring up to contest that sense of inevitable recentering of authority from within the elite universities that host them. However difficult the task may prove to be, we need to disentangle the genuinely democratizing outreach work done by online education from its re-inscription of elite privilege.
These are important and pressing concerns. By the same token, they hardly exhaust all that can be said about MOOCs today. A host of important questions about the creation and implementation of MOOCs -- about course content, mode of learning, assessment, and so on -- should not be lost amidst conversations about the larger tendency (whether benevolist and democratizing, or insidious and corporatizing) to which MOOCs properly belong. The movement of classroom tasks and functions online learning presents opportunities as well as risks; we should understand both. In an essay written late last year I tried to look without blinders at MOOCs, and to reflect both on the risks associated with their format and implementation as well as on their potential as instruments of learning and encounter. I wrote at the time that it wasn’t my intention "to defend the MOOC so much as...to hold open some alternative futures for it." For these alternative futures to emerge there needs to be vision, will, and coordinated effort on the part of many in higher ed. I am still willing at least to entertain the possibility that MOOCs may turn out to be an enabling, positive invention, while I acknowledge indicators that point in the direction of their being a lamentably misguided one. But the rush to condemn and dismiss online courses may be as fundamentally mistaken as the rush to anoint them the future of higher education.
Blended learning modes present opportunities for both pedagogical experimentation and outreach; neither opportunity should I think be dismissed lightly. I have heard many instructors of MOOCs (in both STEM and humanities subjects) remark that the experience of teaching online has transformed their thinking and approach to teaching familiar material in the traditional classroom -- whether in pace and timing, course content, evaluation and assessment, etc. My interest in MOOCs extends to how the format can be imagined to provide access to a university curriculum to populations that may not have had this kind of access, as this is the population that stands to gain most from them. But in addition to the flat, global learning community ritually invoked as the audience for MOOCs, we could benefit from thinking locally too. How can the online course format make possible new relationships not only with the most far-flung remote corners of the earth but with the neighborhoods and communities nearest to campus? Can we make MOOCs that foster meaningful links with the community or create learning communities that cut across both the university and the online platform?
Among other alternative futures for MOOCs, I imagine more opportunities to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. The single-delivery, “sage on stage” MOOC is no more the only online model available than is the large lecture class at a brick-and-mortar school. While MOOCs are still for the most part free and non credit-bearing, we should try out (and generate metrics to assess) as many different teaching arrangements as possible. I hasten to add that this exploration should include the intellectual freedom along with the technological affordances to create a MOOC of any kind, at any time, with anybody. With instructors and modules selected in advance, some infrastructural support in each site, and a set of shared principles for continuity of curriculum and presentation, anybody could create a MOOC. Universities like Penn have already begun asking faculty to sign non-compete agreements, presumably to curb these kind of collaborations. For as long as such arrangements are permissible, however, I would urge researchers to collaborate on MOOCs themselves. This may be a tall order; but not I think impossible.
From various quarters we have heard recent calls for a slow-down of the MOOC bandwagon. An open letter from Harvard faculty to the Dean of Faculty of Arts & Sciences calls for more oversight and reflective engagement with the question of how MOOCs offered through edX will affect “the higher education system as a whole.” I support these calls as consistent with the seriousness of the proposals to transform higher ed that are currently before us. From my modest position within the ranks of MIT administration I have been glad to see great care on the part of faculty to ensure that a spirit of experimentation and exploration with regard to MOOCs remains compatible with the core principles of the university and with a residential education. Cathy Davidson at Duke will in January 2014 teach a MOOC with Coursera simultaneously combined with a brick-and-mortar course on “The History and Future of Higher Ed,” with participation from classes at other schools and universities as well. These and other movements are to me reassuring signs, indicators of collaborative engagement around a topic of great importance. They indicate a willingness too to eschew rehearsing polarized opinions for or against MOOCs in order to attend at once to their innovative construction and to their effective and responsible implementation. The challenge is to remind ourselves periodically to think small (locally, incrementally) at the same time that we heed calls to think big.
After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.
The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,
While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.
The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.
And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university's president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, "Circuits & Electronics," offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.
But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX. San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.
The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.
Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.
In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.
While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:
We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: "The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable." This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.
The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.
The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.
First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp. We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.
Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.
Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.
The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.
A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D. It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.
I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.
The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.
We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.
The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.
I was at dinner with a colleague this week—midterm week. Predictably, talk turned to the scourge of all professors: grading essays. There are few tasks in the life of a college professor less fulfilling than grading student essays. Every once in a while a really good essay jolts me to consciousness. I am elated by such encounters. To be honest, however, reading essays is for the most part stultifying. This is not the fault of the students, many of whom are brilliant and exuberant writers. I find it trying to wade through 25 essays discussing the same book, offering varying opinions and theories, while keeping my attention and interest. How many different ways can one ask for a thesis, talk about the importance of transition sentences, and correct grammar? For some time it is fun, in a way. One learns new things and is captivated by comparing how bright young minds see things. But after years, grading the essay becomes just part of the worst part of a great job.
So how might my colleagues and I react to news that EdX—the influential Harvard-MIT led consortium offering online courses—has developed software that will grade college student essays? I imagine it is sort of like how people felt when the dishwasher was invented. You mean we can cook and feast and don’t have to scrub pots and wash dishes? It promises to allow us to focus on teaching well without having to do that part of our job that we truly dread.
The appeal of computer grading is obvious and broad. Not only will many professors and teachers be freed from unwanted tedium, but also it may help our students. One advantage of computer grading is that it is nearly instantaneous. Students can hand in their work and get a grade and feedback seconds later. Too often essays are handed back days or even weeks after they are submitted. By then the students have lost interest in their paper and forgotten the inspiration that breathed life into their writing. To receive immediate feedback will allow students to see what they did wrong and how they could improve while the generative impulse underlying the paper is still fresh. Computer grading might encourage students to turn in numerous drafts of a paper; it may very well help teach students to write better, something that professorial comments delivered after a week rarely accomplish.
Another putative advantage of computer grading is its objectivity and consistency. Every professor knows that it matters when we read essays and in what order. Some essays find us awake and attentive. Others meet my eyes as they struggle to remain open. As much as I try to ignore the names on the top of the page, I can’t deny that my reading and grading is personalized to the students. I teach at a small liberal arts college where I know the students. If I read a particularly difficult sentence by a student I have come to trust, I often make a second effort. My personal attention has advantages but it is of course discriminatory. The computer will not do that, which may be seen by some as more fair. What is more, the computer doesn’t get tired or need caffeine.
Perhaps the most important advantage for administrators considering these programs is the cost savings. If computers relieve professors from the burden of grading, that means professors can teach more. It may also mean that fewer TA’s are necessary in large lecture courses, thus saving money for strapped universities. There may even be a further side benefit to these programs. If universities need fewer TA’s to grade papers, they may admit fewer graduate students to their programs, thus going some way towards alleviating the extraordinary and irresponsible over-production of young professors that is swelling the ranks of unemployable Ph.D.s.
There are, of course, real worries about computer grading of essays. My concern is not that the computers will make mistakes (so do I); or that we lack studies that show that computers can grade as well as human professors—for I doubt professors are on the whole excellent graders. The real issue is elsewhere.
According to the group “Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” the problem with computer grading of essays is simple: Machines cannot read. Here is what the group says in a statement:
Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.
What needs to be taken seriously is not that computers can’t grade as well as humans. In many ways they grade better. More consistently. More honestly. With less grade inflation. And more quickly. But computer grading will be different than human grading. It will be less nuanced and aspire to clearly defined criteria. Are sentences grammatical? Is there a clear statement of the thesis? Are there examples given? Is there a transition between sentences? All of these are important parts of good writing and the computer can be trained to look for these characteristics in an essay. What this means, however, is that computers will demand the kind of clear, precise, and logical writing that computers can understand and that many professors and administrators demand from students. What this also means, however, is that writing will become more mechanical.
There is much to be learned here from an analogy with the rise of computer chess. The great grandmaster Gary Kasparov—who famously lost to Deep Blue— has perceptively argued that machines have changed the ways Chess is played and redefined what a good chess move and a well-played chess game looks like. As I have written before:
The heavy use of computer analysis has pushed the game itself in new directions. The machine doesn’t care about style or patterns or hundreds of years of established theory. It counts up the values of the chess pieces, analyzes a few billion moves, and counts them up again. (A computer translates each piece and each positional factor into a value in order to reduce the game to numbers it can crunch.) It is entirely free of prejudice and doctrine and this has contributed to the development of players who are almost as free of dogma as the machines with which they train. Increasingly, a move isn’t good or bad because it looks that way or because it hasn’t been done that way before. It’s simply good if it works and bad if it doesn’t. Although we still require a strong measure of intuition and logic to play well, humans today are starting to play more like computers. One way to put this is that as we rely on computers and begin to value what computers value and think like computers think, our world becomes more rational, more efficient, and more powerful, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less exotic.
Much the same might be expected from the increasing use of computers to grade (and eventually to write) essays. Students will learn to write in ways expected from computers, just as they today try to learn to write in ways desired by their professors. The difference is that different professors demand and respond to varying styles. Computers will consistently and logically drive writing towards a more mechanical and logical style. Writing, like Chess playing, will likely become more rational, more efficient, and more effective, but also less beautiful, less unique, and less eccentric. In other words, writing will become less human.
It turns out that many secondary school districts already use computers to grade essays. But according to John Markoff in The New York Times, the EdX software promises to bring the technology into college classrooms as well as online courses.
It is quite possible that in the near future, my colleagues and I will no longer have to complain about grading essays. But that is unlikely at Bard. More likely is that such software will be used in large university lecture courses. In such courses with hundreds of students, professors already shorten questions or replace essays with multiple-choice tests. Or they use armies of underpaid graduate students to grade these essays. It is quite likely that software will actually augment the educational value of writing assignments at college in these large lecture halls.
In seminars, however, and in classes at small liberal arts colleges like Bard where I teach, such software will not likely free my colleagues and me from reading essays. The essays I assign are not simple responses to questions in which there are clear criteria for grading. I look for elegance, brevity, insight, and the human spark (please no comments on my writing). Whether or not I am good at evaluating writing or at teaching writing, that is my aspiration. I seek to encourage writing that is thoughtful rather than writing that is simply accurate. When I have time to make meaningful comments on papers, they concern structure, elegance, and depth. It is not only a way to grade an essay, but also a way to connect with my students and help them to see what it means to write and think well.
And yet, I can easily imagine making use of such a computer-grading program. I rarely have time to grade essays as well or as quickly as I would like. I would love to have my students submit drafts of their essays to the EdX computer program.
If they could repeatedly submit their essays and receive such feedback and use the computer to catch not only grammatical errors but also poor sentences, redundancies, repetitions, and whatever other mistakes the computer can be trained to recognize, that would allow them to respond and rework their essays many times before I see them. Used well, I hope, such grading programs might really augment my capacities as a professor and their experiences as students.
I have real fears that grading technology will rarely be used well. Rather, it will too-often replace human grading altogether and in large lectures, high schools and standardized tests will impose a new and inhuman standard on the way we write and thus the way we think. We should greet such new technologies enthusiastically and skeptically. But first, we should try to understand them. Towards that end, it is well worth reading John Markoff’s excellent account of the new EdX computer grading software in The New York Times. It is your weekend read.
The NY Times Editorial page takes aim at online education on Monday. It turns out that studies show that more students in online classes drop out of classes, more fail, and fewer graduate. This is not surprising. But one might ask so what? Online courses are proliferating and will continue to do so because they are less expensive. For some students, they may even be better. But for high-risk students, the track record is poor. Here is the Times editorial board’s conclusion:
A five-year study, issued in 2011, tracked 51,000 students enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges. It found that those who took higher proportions of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges. The reasons for such failures are well known. Many students, for example, show up at college (or junior college) unprepared to learn, unable to manage time and having failed to master basics like math and English.
Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly. Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely. Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.
The Times’ solution is based on a common lament, that young people are caught in a double bind, what Joseph Stiglitz recently described as a Catch-22:
Without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.
Stiglitz, like the NY Times editorial board, worries that the current higher educational system is poorly suited to addressing questions of class. Both are right. College education is too expensive for most poor and even many middle class Americans. This is especially true since many people spend much of their time (and money) in college taking remedial courses where they learn little of extra value. And when these at-risk students do attend college, they too often emerge with life-altering debt rather than a transformative education.
What both the Times and Stiglitz want is to change the system of college and how we subsidize it. I leave aside the argument over whether government subsidies for higher education are the right answer. That becomes a question of how much money we want to pay as a percentage of our GDP.
But what does seem strange is that we continue to see our colleges as the problem here. As the Times rightly sees, the problem is that students arrive at college unprepared.
Our overburdened public colleges must spend a fortune on remedial education for students. And then we charge students for this remedial education, which frequently fails, leaving them with debt and nothing else.
Whereas colleges cost students money, high school education is typically free. The first line of attack on inequality through education should be reforming and improving high schools. Yet no one speaks about that. President Obama’s education initiatives focus on early pre-school education and community college. High Schools are left out. But if we could divert the huge resources currently spent on remedial college education to high schools, maybe college wouldn’t be so necessary. And maybe those who attended college might then be ready to work at a college level.
You know elite universities are in trouble when their professors say things like Edward Rock. Rock, Distinguished Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and coordinator of Penn’s online education program, has this to say about the impending revolution in online education:
We’re in the business of creating and disseminating knowledge. And in 2012, the internet is an incredibly important place to be present if you’re in the knowledge dissemination business.
If elite colleges are in the knowledge dissemination business, then they will overtime be increasingly devalued and made less relevant. What colleges and universities need to offer is not simply knowledge, but education.
In 1947, at the age of 18, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a short essay in the The Maroon Tiger, the Morehouse College campus newspaper. The article was titled, “The Purpose of Education.” In short, it argued that we must not confuse education with knowledge.
King began with the personal. Too often, he wrote, “most college men have a misconception of the purpose of education. Most of the "brethren" think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses. Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.” In other words, too many think that college is designed to teach either means or ends, offering the secrets that unlock the mysteries of our futures.
King takes aim at both these purposes. Beyond the need for education to make us more efficient, education also has a cultural function. In this sense, King writes, Education must inculcate the habit of thinking for oneself, what Hannah Arendt called Selbstdenken, or self-thinking.
“Education,” King writes, “must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking.” Quick and resolute thinking requires that one “think incisively” and “think for one's self.” This “is very difficult.” The difficulty comes from the seduction of conformity and the power of prejudice. “We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda.” We are all educated into prejudgments. They are human and it is inhuman to live free from prejudicial opinions and thoughts. On the one hand, education is the way we are led into and brought into a world as it exists, with its prejudices and values. And yet, education must also produce self-thinking persons, people who, once they are educated and enter the world as adults, are capable of judging the world into which they been born.
For King, one of the “chief aims of education” is to “save man from the morass of of propaganda.” “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”
To think for oneself is not the same as critical thinking. Against the common assumption that college should teach “critical reasoning,” King argues that critical thinking alone is insufficient and even dangerous: “Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” The example King offers is that of Eugene Talmadge, who had been governor of Georgia. Talmadge “possessed one of the better minds of Georgia, or even America.” He was Phi Beta Kappa. He excelled at critical thinking. And yet, Talmadge believed that King and all black people were inferior beings. For King, we cannot call such men well educated.
The lesson the young Martin Luther King Jr. draws is that intelligence and critical reasoning are not enough to make us educated. What is needed, also, is an educational development of character:
We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.
Present debates about higher education focus on two concerns. The first is cost. The second is assessment. While the cost is high for many people, it is also the case the most students and their families understand that what colleges offer is priceless. But that is only true insofar as colleges understand their purpose, which is not simply to disseminate knowledge or teach critical thinking, but is, rather, to nurture character. How are we to assess such education? The demand for assessment, as well meaning as it is, drives education to focus on measurable skills and thus moves us away from the purposes of education as King rightly understands them.
The emerging debate about civic education is many things. Too often it is a tired argument over the “core” or the “canon.” And increasingly it is derailed by arguments about service learning or internships. What really is at issue, however, is a long-overdue response to the misguided dominance of the research-university model of education.
Colleges in the United States were, up through the middle of the 20th century, not research-driven institutions. They were above all religiously affiliated institutions and they offered general education in the classics and the liberal arts. Professors taught the classics outside of their specific disciplines. And students wrestled with timeless questions. This has largely changed today where professors are taught to specialize and think within their disciplinary prejudices. Even distribution requirements fail to make a difference insofar as students forced to take a course outside their discipline learn simply another disciplinary approach. They learn useful knowledge and critical thinking. But what is missing is the kind of general education in the “accumulated experience of social living” that King championed.
I am not suggesting that all specialization is bad or that we should return to religious-affiliated schools. Not in the least. But many of us know that we are failing in our responsibilities to think about what is important and to teach students a curriculum designed to nurture self-thinking and citizenship. We avoid this conversation because it is hard, because people disagree today on whether we should read Plato or Confucius or study Einstein or immunology. Everyone has their discipline to defend and few faculty are willing or able to think about an education that is designed for students and citizens.
Let’s stop bad mouthing all colleges. Much good happens there. Yet let’s also recall King’s parting words in his essay:
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!
King’s The Purpose of Education is your weekend read.