TITLE: The Disruption of Education: B.F. Skinner, MOOCs, and SkillShare AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 17, 2013 12:16 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Here are three articles, all different, but with a connection to the future of education. •   Matthew Howell, Teaching Programming Howell is a software developer who decided to start teaching programming on the side. He offers an on-line course through SkillShare that introduces non-programmers to the basic concepts of computer programming, illustrated using Javascript running in a browser. This article describes some of his reasons for teaching the course and shares a few things he has learned. One was:
What is the ideal class size? Over the year, I've taught classes that ranged in size from a single person to as many as ten. Through that experience, I've settled on five as my ideal.
Anyone who has taught intro programming in a high school or university is probably thinking, um, yeah, that would be great! I once taught an intermediate programming section with fifty or so people, though most of my programming courses have ranged from fifteen to thirty-five students. All other things being equal, smaller is better. Helping people learn to write and make things almost usually benefits from one-on-one time and time for small groups to critique design together. Class size is, of course, one of the key problems we face in education these days, both K-12 and university. For a lot of teaching, n = 5 is just about perfect. For upper-division project courses, I prefer four groups of four students, for a total of sixteen. But even at that size, the costs incurred by a university offering sections of are rising a lot faster than its revenues. With MOOCs all the rage, Howell is teaching at the other end of spectrum. I expect the future of teaching to see a lot of activity at both scales. Those of us teaching in the middle face bleaker prospects. •   Mike Caulfield, B. F. Skinner on Teaching Machines (1954) Caulfield links to this video of B.F. Skinner describing a study on the optimal conditions for self-instruction using "teaching machines" in 1954. Caulfield points out that, while these days people like to look down on Skinner's behaviorist view of learning, he understood education better than many of his critics, and that others are unwittingly re-inventing many of his ideas. For example:
[Skinner] understands that it is not the *machine* that teaches, but the person that writes the teaching program. And he is better informed than almost the entire current educational press pool in that he states clearly that a "teaching machine" is really just a new kind of textbook. It's what a textbook looks like in an age where we write programs instead of paragraphs.
That's a great crystallizing line by Caulfield: A "teaching machine" is what a textbook looks like in an age where we write programs instead of paragraphs. Caulfield reminds us that Skinner said these things in 1954 and cautions us to stop asking "Why will this work?" about on-line education. That question presupposes that it will. Instead, he suggests we ask ourselves, "Why will this work this time around?" What has changed since 1954, or even 1994, that makes it possible this time? This is a rightly skeptical stance. But it is wise to be asking the question, rather than presupposing -- as so many educators these days do -- that this is just another recursion of the "technology revolution" that never quite seems to revolutionize education after all. •   Clayton Christensen in Why Apple, Tesla, VCs, academia may die Christensen didn't write this piece, but reporter Cromwell Schubarth quotes him heavily throughout on how disruption may be coming to several companies and industries of interest to his Silicon Valley readership. First, Christensen reminds young entrepreneurs that disruption usually comes from below, not from above:
If a newcomer thinks it can win by competing at the high end, "the incumbents will always kill you". If they come in at the bottom of the market and offer something that at first is not as good, the legacy companies won't feel threatened until too late, after the newcomers have gained a foothold in the market.
We see this happening in higher education now. Yet most of my colleagues here on the faculty and in administration are taking the position that leaves legacy institutions most vulnerable to overthrow from below. "Coursera [or whoever] can't possibly do what we do", they say. "Let's keep doing what we do best, only better." That will work, until it doesn't. Says Christensen:
But now online learning brings to higher education this technological core, and people who are very complacent are in deep trouble. The fact that everybody was trying to move upmarket and make their university better and better and better drove prices of education up to where they are today.
We all want to get better. It's a natural desire. My university understands that its so-called core competency lies in the niche between the research university and the liberal arts college, so we want to optimize in that space. As we seek to improve, we aspire to be, in our own way, like the best schools in their niches. As Christensen pointed out in The Innovator's Dilemma, this is precisely the trend that kills an institution when it meets a disruptive technoology. Later in the article, Christensen talks about how many schools are getting involved in online learning, sometimes investing significant resources, but almost always in service of the existing business model. Yet other business models are being born, models that newcomers are willing -- and sometimes forced -- to adopt. One or more of these new models may be capable of toppling even the most successful institutions. Christensen describes one such candidate, a just-in-time education model in which students learn something, go off to use it, and then come back only when they need to learn what they need to know in order to take their next steps. This sort of "learn and use", on-the-job learning, whether online or in person, is a very different way of doing things from school as we know it. It id not especially compatible with the way most universities are organized to educate people. It is, however, plenty compatible with on-line delivery and thus offers newcomers to the market the pebble they may use to bring down the university. ~~~~ The massively open on-line course is one form the newcomers are taking. The smaller, more intimate offering enabled by the likes of SkillShare is another. It may well be impossible for legacy institutions caught in the middle to fend off challenges from both directions. As Caulfield suggests, though, we should be skeptical. We have seen claims about technology upending schools before. But we should adopt the healthy skepticism of the scientist, not the reactionary skepticism of the complacent or the scared. The technological playing field has changed. What didn't work in 1954 or 1974 or 1994 may well work this time. Will it? Christensen thinks so:
Fifteen years from now more than half of the universities will be in bankruptcy, including the state schools. In the end, I am excited to see that happen.
I fear that universities like mine are at the greatest risk of disruption, should the wave that Christensen predicts come. I don't know many university faculty are excited to see it happen. I just hope they aren't too surprised if it does. -----