Education needs a human element

A few weeks ago, 60 Minutes aired a feature on a nonprofit organization called Khan Academy. Its mission statement is bold: “A free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” As a website, KhanAcademy.org contains a free supply of over 3,000 short video tutorials on any classroom topic imaginable.

The tutorials aren’t simple recordings of a given lecture or a teacher next to a whiteboard. Rather, the face of the instructor never appears. Viewers see step-by-step doodles and diagrams appear on an electronic blackboard, a format inspired by Yahoo’s Doodle notepad. The site also features online exercises and homework assignments to complement the tutorials. This format has been highly successful, and curious individuals are not the only ones taking advantage of it. Khan Academy is being incorporated into more and more elementary, middle and high school classrooms, heralding an electronic transformation of education. Whether this is an inherently good thing or not is still, in my mind, an open question.

Whenever new educational technology appears, it is almost always embraced wholeheartedly. The benefits are easy to see and are enjoyed immediately. What many miss is that these technological innovations have negative consequences as well. We are not as mindful of them because they appear slowly, silently and after the technology has already been adopted. Understanding this blowback is especially important in the classroom.

Educational technology is adopted at the expense of education’s human element. This was quite evident as the 60 Minutes cameras sat in on a class that had been structured around Khan Academy. After her students sat down at computer stations, the teacher fed the students a web address, instructed them which links to click and gave them a login ID and password to access the course content. Afterward, the teacher silently roamed from station to station making sure students were on task. The students, eyes glued to the screen and ears encased in headsets, paid her no attention. I found the image striking. Educators, who had spent years honing their pedagogical technique and mastering the content of their field, had been reduced to classroom custodians. The teacher had become a technician and was really only there to make sure that the computers were working properly and not being misused.

In the long run, deemphasizing physical classrooms and human teachers is not the way educate young people in a high-thinking society. The benefits of something like Khan Academy are easy to see; it offers easy and instantaneous access from anywhere to a large store of knowledge, software that automatically records statistics and the ability to track students' progress.  However, all widely disseminated technological learning operates on a principle that I think is dangerous: the assumption that there is only one right way to teach something. Assuming this (false) premise, it is a short jump to argue that, once we have declared the ‘right’ way to teach a concept, we should record it and disseminate it, so that living, breathing human beings no longer have to waste time teaching it. If you find the technique of your electronic teacher unhelpful, that’s just too bad because technological teachers don’t adapt to your preferred style of learning. In fact, there isn’t much room at all for varied learning styles in the centralized world of electronic education – there is only room for one, and it is imposed on the student.

Electronic learning kills one of the vital functions of a true education. Education must transmit knowledge, but it must also inspire. We all learn much while enrolled in school, but the knowledge gained in four short years is never enough to last us a lifetime. Our teachers understand this, and it is why they encourage us to become life-long learners. If they are successful, their students will leave and look back on their schooling as the beginning of their education, an education that they are now charged with continuing for themselves. If a student leaves college without this aspiration, his education has been a failure.

Computers cannot inspire. We are inspired when we see our teachers present, explain and synthesize new knowledge in front of a class. We are awed by the amount of knowledge that they carry in their memories, and their ability to access it without returning to a computer. What is inspiring is the idea that a person can carry such a breadth and depth of knowledge with them, and that we can become just as knowledgeable if we so choose. Nobody wants to emulate a computer.

When we embrace the ease with which electronic media communicate the factual content of a lesson, we rob the lesson of its human element and thus its ability to inspire — this doesn’t just apply to one non-profit, it affects us as well. As the University moves more introductory classes to an online format and outsources our education to companies like Pearson Education, fewer students are being inspired. Once it has been completely uploaded to the web, college will become a heartless, valueless exchange of data analogous to a file transfer.  Knowledge gained this way is dry, shallow, lacks force and is a poor excuse for an education.

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