Why cut out the classroom?

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On his The Daily Show with Jon Stewart appearance, Governor Pawlenty suggested a way to save money on higher education through the implementation of new technology.  Pawlenty’s plan assumes that teachers are still using the old ways of thinking about education, which have been replaced, in many cases, with teaching methods far more effective at preparing students for the future.

The governor’s suggestion goes like this: “Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one-size-fits-all monopoly provider that says, ‘Show up at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning for Econ 101’? Can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or my iPad whenever the heck I feel like it from wherever I feel like, and instead of paying thousands of dollars can I pay a hundred ninety-nine for iCollege?”

The governor’s plan suggests using technology to reduce costs and increase access, which on the face of it sounds great. But it runs in direct conflict with the old adage, “You get what you pay for.”  This plan creates a scenario of cutting costs by using a professor to create the curriculum for the masses, and dozens of graduate assistants to facilitate the actual course work. This cheats students out of the rich experience they would have gained from a seasoned teacher’s vast knowledge.  That’s just one of many downfalls.  Short of this drastic cost-cutting measure, online classes would cost the same as those taken in-class, which is the current case – at some institutions online courses are even more expensive.

Personally, as a student of a private liberal arts college in Minnesota, I’m shocked to hear the classroom spoken of as something to be removed from the education process rather than something to be enhanced.

In recent decades, education philosophy in the United States has shifted away from the model where a teacher places knowledge into the brains of his or her empty-headed students, toward a model where learning is created through interaction between the teacher and with fellow students. For example, in Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to Present Day, the authors write of Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s philosophy of education, “even though programming has contributed to structuring the learning material in a better way than before, one has more and more begun to realize the importance of the personal interaction between teacher and student… the teacher-student interaction is of crucial importance.” And in Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, authors Sharan B. Merriam and Rosemary S. Caffarella raise similar arguments when they write, “Foremost among these [modern] critiques is a challenge to the fundamental notion that learning is something that occurs within the individual. Rather, learning encompasses the interaction of learners and the social environments in which they function.”

Governor Pawlenty is right about one thing: technology certainly has a place in the future of education. But it should be used to enhance what works rather than reform our education system to the detriment of students’ learning, all just to keep the price tag down.