Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The locus of learning. A series on Education, Part I

One of the greatest teachers of all (known) time, Socrates, taught in the streets of Athens.  He and others whose work we know, were basically paid by well-off young gentlemen to instruct them.  They were largely peripatetic--literally, walking about while teaching.  Although schools existed, they probably were not like the campuses where we learn today.  No powerpoint lectures.  And, while they participated in blood sports, the arenas weren't on campus!

The first major European universities came about only about 1500 years later, in the middle ages.  There, too, basic subjects for gentlemen, including theological, legal, medical, and military training were taught.  The professors had to attract students to pay them, as they didn't have TIAA/CREF retirement plans, and so on. 

Over the centuries, these evolved into the grand, architecturally and even intellectually centered (or ossified?) institutions we know and work in today.  Oxford, Cambridge, major universities in Italy, Germany, and France all grew to be stationary campus-centered places, with physical libraries and classrooms.  Learning was largely from lectures and in-person discussions with tutors.  Even as far back as 1618, an Oxford don named Robert Burton wrote a play called The philosophasters, which satirized university professors, and their scams for making money and avoiding work---some things that seem true today were already in place back then!  (spoof though it was, however, it was written in Latin for performance in an Oxford college).

Now, johnny-come-lately universities all over the world have modeled themselves on this static, physically centered (or stadium-centered in the US) institutions.  Students arrive in droves, sit in soft chairs by the hundreds, take notes (or doze), and regurgitate on exams.  The curriculum is based on being there (though, these days hungry for tuition, we don't usually actually take attendance).

But is this the right or best way to learn?  Could it be that a modern version of the older ways would be as effective, or even more so?  A New York Times story asks about this.  Online learning is booming, whether or not it's as yet up to the same standard as sit-in universities.  'Real' universities are scrambling not to lose too much business to the basically fake online offerings of some online universities.  But various companies are offering online or equivalent at-home courses, and the major universities are hastening to get into the act.

Will this be better for knowledge?  Or is it an excuse for pretending to have an education, getting a degree, and offering that to employers as evidence of achieved knowledge and skill?

In the 19th Century, Darwin's famous advocate, Thomas Huxley, worked very hard (and often nastily) to oppose the elitist Oxford-Cambridge traditions, by offering lectures to the working class of England.  Science was at that time largely denigrated by 'real' universities as beneath a gentleman's time.

The spread of this form of teaching and learning to the general publisphere may, like social networking, transform not just how we learn, but what we learn and how we adjudicate interpretation of knowledge.  Time will tell.

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