The Age of Virtual Learning?

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The kinds of learning that matter, both to individuals and to a complex society, cannot be 'delivered,' no matter how intriguing the package.

"My English teacher takes a long time to return papers," explained my son patiently when I asked about the verdict on his latest assignment. "He has 90 kids in his sections, and only 15 of them are any good at writing. The others, even a lot of the kids in the honors program, are pretty bad. So it takes him a long time to do all the comments and give us advice."

These days, most high school graduates—about 72 percent—will go to college within a year or two of leaving school. And many of them, like my son's peers, will still be "pretty bad" at writing when they get there. Their teachers' best efforts aside, most will need a lot more practice, feedback, and mentoring before they can successfully use writing as a tool for analysis and persuasion.

That's what higher education is supposed to accomplish. With practice, over time, students move from apprenticeship to accomplishment. They develop higher-order capacities and the ability to use knowledge in context—or at least, they should.

Here are some other high-priority goals for college learning: analytic reading, scientific inquiry, the critical evaluation of sources (including all those data sites on the World Wide Web), problem formulation and solution, the ability to work in a team. In an age infused by mathematics, students need to learn how to evaluate arguments made with numbers. They need knowledge of diverse cultural traditions, at home and abroad, and usable skills in a second language. Arguably, they should develop media and visual sophistication as well, not to mention a deeper understanding of democratic principles and challenges, in the United States and around the world.

How, in the face of greater expectations for student learning, do we educate an entire generation for this world of complexity and near-constant innovation?

The list of essential literacies for our knowledge-intensive society is, in short, long—and getting longer. How, in the face of these greater expectations for student learning, do we educate an entire generation for this world of complexity and near-constant innovation?

Currently, two scenarios for improving student achievement dominate the airwaves. The first, aimed at schools, features specific standards for learning in basic subjects, and high-stakes, machine-scoreable tests to see whether students are meeting the standard. As this vision catches fire, teachers and principals around the country are under intense pressure to drive up student scores on these tests. In response, many teachers report that they are spending less rather than more time on writing and research projects. Teachers can't justify the hours that a writing project takes. So much for students to memorize! So little time!

The second scenario tells us what to do with these harried students once they actually enter college. At this level, the new vision of choice is the virtual university, offering online courses assembled from all over the world. Students, we are told, will be able to get an education without actually going anywhere. Very soon, champions promise, we can have colleges without faculties, course-taking without campuses. Savvy investors will pay all-star faculty members to do lectures; producers will add the graphics and glitz; contract assistants—or maybe machines—will do the exams. Students, redefined as customers, will be able to study anything they wish, anywhere, any time. Courses ( a la carte.

As these visions unfold before us, we need to keep in mind all those 16-year-olds who, as even their friends can see, are still "pretty bad at writing." Will high-stakes tests and high-speed courses produce college graduates who can turn out a persuasive piece of prose? Will either of these learning scenarios actually prepare students for a world in which everything depends on the ability to work constructively and collaboratively on novel problems whose solutions hold real consequences for human lives? Problems where there is no multiple-choice "right answer"?

The reality is that both the high-stakes testing movement in the schools and many of the most arresting designs for virtual universities are based on an outdated information/banking model of learning. In both these scenarios, teachers deposit information and students store it, at least long enough to get through the end-of-term examination. No one expects students to connect their learning over time; only a few will ever be asked to produce something that stands as a culminating performance.

Invented in the age of the assembly line, this banking model of learning is all wrong for an age of dynamic innovation—and just exactly the opposite of what my son and his friends actually need for the long run, either as workers or as citizens.

At the school level, students need to spend more time, not less, learning how to evaluate information and how to use different sources of knowledge in generating their own solutions to questions and problems. They need to write, rewrite, and write again, at intentionally more demanding levels of analysis and argument. By the time they leave high school, they should have experience in doing research projects intelligently supported by new technologies.

Memorizing information may help students pick the right answer on a machine-scoreable test, but it most assuredly will leave them unequipped for the challenges of a dynamic, complex, and constantly innovating society.

At the college level, we need to resist the dazzling designs for virtual universities that ultimately, when the glitzy marketing plan is peeled away, offer only an array of disconnected courses, developed—at a distance—for students whose abilities and needs the all-star faculty cannot possibly know.

We have to surrender the outdated idea that powerful learning can emerge from memory drills or jazzy but ultimately disconnected courses.

We should put both tests and technologies to much more productive uses. Tests can be used diagnostically, to help faculty members and students see what intellectual practices students actually need. The new technologies can be used, both in high school and in college, to offer students much more intentional sequences of assignments and intellectual practice than most learners would have experienced in the past. They can support new designs for collaborative learning and problem-solving, both in courses and in the community. Optimally, technology can free up teachers from the information-delivery business, so that they can spend more time helping students learn how to analyze and innovate.

But to make the most of these new possibilities, we have to surrender the outdated idea that powerful learning can emerge from memory drills or jazzy but ultimately disconnected courses.

The kinds of learning that matter, both to individuals and to a complex society, cannot be "delivered," no matter how intriguing the package. They have to be acquired through repeated effort and practice.

And, as even my 16-year-old knows, it all works better when there's a teacher on hand who knows the student as well as the subject, reads the papers, and gives advice.

Carol Geary Schneider is the president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington.

Vol. 19, Issue 33, Pages 43, 64

Published in Print: April 26, 2000, as The Age of Virtual Learning?
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