These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally

My own effort at hyperbole with my post title here….

From The Wall Street Journal comes “Daphne Koller on the Future of Online Education,” It’s a pretty non-news/routine interview of Koller talking about MOOCs and Coursera, though one interesting little bit I hadn’t heard before is Coursera is planning on rolling out a MOOC MBA program. That makes a certain amount of sense, but that is also a far cry from the days where she was giving TED talks about bringing higher education to the slums of South Africa.

Anyway, what got me here was the opening paragraph:

“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,” says Daphne Koller, co-founder of the online-education company Coursera. The same couldn’t be said for agriculture, manufacturing and health care, she notes.

If I were to read this paragraph charitably, I’d say Koller was being hyperbolic: that is, she knew this was an untrue exaggeration meant to draw attention to her argument. The problem with that reading though is this “nothing has changed until now” trope has been invoked far too many times by her and by EdX’s Anant Agarwal and by Peter Norvig, and I’m sure by others too. It has crossed from hyperbole to “truthiness” in the sense that if you repeat something often enough, you start to convince yourself (and hopefully others) that it is actually true.

No, I think Koller et al have drunk their own kool-aid.  When Koller says nothing has changed in education for 300 years– until now!— I think she believes this to be literally the case. Think what you want about MOOCs (and my own feelings about them are much more complicated than they are “good” or “bad”), but this “nothing has changed ever in education” claim drives me crazy. So, let’s parse this out a bit: what would the professor from 300 years ago think if they were plopped into today’s classroom?


In the most base sense, these teachers from the early 18th century would recognize that yes, the physical space where education tends to take place involves a group of humans speaking with each other, and there is one person in the group, the “teacher,” doing most of the talking to others, “students.” But this similarity, this marker for our teacher from 300 years that indicates “exactly” where they are, is trivial.  You could say the same thing about any face to face exchange over the last 30,000 or more years– and that would include the face to face exchanges that happen in agriculture, manufacturing, and health care, too.

No, I think we need to dig much further than that. For starters, if we are talking about the U.S. in 1715, higher education options were limited– Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, a few years later Princeton, and that was about it. There were some more organized “Grammar” and “Latin” schools– aka, elementary to about eighth grade or so– but these too were few and far-between. Widespread public grammar school education was still 100 years off, and the differences between “high schools,” “seminaries,” and “colleges” doesn’t really become clear until late in the 19th century.

Our teacher from 1715 would also certainly be perplexed by the elaborate bureaucracy of higher education today, what with all of its credit hours and certificates and degrees and grades and accreditation systems and all of that. In fact, I’d even go so far to say that higher education of 1715 probably in some ways resembled MOOCs: not in terms of the technology obviously, but in terms of the nature 0f self-motivated and less systematic study. That 1715 teacher would also be confused by the wide variety of fields and disciplines in higher education nowadays, especially since the main reason why someone attended college 300 years ago (besides to solidify their membership in an elite social class) was to be a minister, a teacher, or to study law, and/or to study the classic liberal arts– Greek, Latin, ancient history, logic, rhetoric, and so forth.  According to Wikipedia (so it must be true), there was no systematic study of medicine in the Americas until the 19th century (doctors in Colonial America learned as apprentices). No one went to college in 1715 to major in something like history or English or communications, and certainly no one was working on their bachelors degree in business. And never mind the many many fields of study that simply did not exist 300 years ago (Koller’s discipline of computer science immediately comes to mind).

And then there is the obvious difference in the population of higher education classrooms today, both in terms of the numbers of people and the variety of people (particularly at opportunity-granting institutions like Eastern). According to Wikipedia (again, so it must be true), there were fewer than 40,000 degrees of any sort awarded in 1910 in the U.S, and around 2.3 million in 2009. A tiny percentage of Americans attended college in 1900, and those numbers were certainly much smaller in 1715. And of course, most students were white men of means. Today in America, more women than men are pursuing a college degree, and our students are not all white, either.

Oh, and I haven’t even gotten to “technology.” Besides all of the every day technologies around us that are natural to us that would be a wonder to anyone from 1715 (automobiles, airplanes, plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling, television, radio, etc., etc.), there are the naturalized technologies of the classroom that any observant teacher would surly notice: chalkboards, cheap paper, giant libraries (a “very large” library in those days had fewer books than most community college libraries nowadays, never mind a research library) ballpoint pens, projection screens, laptops, networked computing.

Other than the fact that humans look about the same now than they did 300 (or 3,000 or 30,000) years ago, nothing would be familiar to the teacher 0f 1715 in the classroom of 2015. Everything would be different. Every. Thing.

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16 Responses to These hyperboles about the slow change in education make me want to eat my shoes while jumping off of a bridge, literally

  1. Alan Levine says:

    Indeen that 300 year old instructor might be surprised to see so many women and non white students in their class.

    There are some sort of name for this line of argument, but BS suffices.

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