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David Brooks has, I think, made progress in the discussion about MOOCs and online education.  His central idea is that given the increasing sophistication and decreasing cost of online learning as a delivery mechanism for technical knowledge and skills, universities can no longer cling to a business model in which they charge a small fortune to impart technical skills.  As Brooks flatly states, “There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.”  One thing they can do–perhaps with a somewhat lower price tag–is specialize in the acquisition and development of practical knowledge and skills–the “Practical University”:

So far, most of the talk about online education has been on technology and lectures, but the important challenge is technology and seminars. So far, the discussion is mostly about technical knowledge, but the future of the universities is in practical knowledge.

Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it. It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.

While Brooks’ notion of “practical knowledge” is a bit thin (column-sized), the point is important.  What makes all of this possible is the “flipped classroom.”  While humanities teachers have generally shaken their heads at and pooh-poohed EdTech, the flipped classroom is a game-changer.  Lectures on Plato, colonialism, and Melville can now be placed online (and software can check to make sure students are watching them), while class time can be used exclusively for seminar-style interactions in which students can develop prized social skills.  As Brooks notes,

Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Let’s face it:  where and when do we deliberately try to develop these “soft”, “people” skills?  One might carp at Brooks using an example of a corporate environment–a critic might say that this just makes university seminars into a lab for “behavior modification”–but we can view his point more expansively:  that universities taking this approach are helping to develop the whole person; in that sense, they could become more congruent with the original liberal arts ideal.

Whereas before professors had to (often awkwardly) balance lecture and discussion, now they can have a clearer division of labor.  I can testify to the challenge of “getting through” lecture–transmitting the ideas, interpretations, facts, etc., that you want to highlight from the reading–to get to what, in my heart, I consider the real business of teaching:  the conversations that you foster and facilitate in the classroom.

Brooks explains how technology might be used to enhance the classroom environment:

The goal should be to use technology to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar (I’m borrowing Anders Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice). Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.

In this way, technology can create the space in which a stronger sense of community can take root in the classroom.  Moreover, in reviewing their performance on video, they would be able to see how they appear in public.  This would make students uncomfortable in the very way that we want them to feel uncomfortable.

The general sense in these sorts of discussions is that all of this EdTech stuff is bad news for humanists.  However, notice that the technical knowledge sounds like stuff that robots can do; as Kevin Drum details, the long imagined future of the robot worker is not too distant at all.  This might lead to a cruel irony:  online learning is maturing–through gamification, analytics, adaptive learning mechanisms, and so on–at around the same time as automation.  What is the sense in equipping the masses with all of these technical skills if robots are just going to perform the jobs to which they are suited?  Then, you might say, people should be trained how to build the robots and do the programming and engineering, etc.  But the reality is that there are only so many people who will be needed for this kind of work.  All of which begs the question:  just what the hell are all of these people going to do for a living?

But this might put humanists in a surprisingly good position.  Daniel Pink, one of the new darlings of the business self-help industry, has argued that Right Brainers will rule the future.  And indeed, Forbes recently listed the Top 10 In Demand Skills in 2013–check out the top four.  What is driving this?  I think it’s the fact that life in our new Technopolis is creating problems and raising questions that are not scientific and technical problems and questions.

My chief concern with Brooks’ proposal is not about substance, but about scale.  It’s easy to imagine something like this going on at Harvard et al.  But at Wannabe University?

(image courtesy of marketingzen.com)