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Learning is hard, but it isn't work
Responses to criticism (including my own) of my NYT essay on the college learning breakdown
My New York Times opinion essay from last month about the breakdown in college learning has gotten quite a response. I received dozens of email messages, most of them highly appreciative, from university faculty at all stages of their careers and all types of institutions. I wish I could respond to them all — or, really, to more than just a few. As it is, I have a hard time keeping in touch with close family and friends (sorry, by the way).
In addition, the Times published several thoughtful letters in response to the essay. John Warner offered a critique in Inside Higher Ed. Robert Zaretsky wrote an uninspired response in the Chronicle of Higher Education. For the real nerds out there, there was a post and discussion on Leiter Reports. I have even heard tell that the essay is being brought up in faculty meetings.
The Times also asked me to respond to a few reader comments. Here is the resulting Q&A-style essay. I tried to be a little uplifting in my answers.
I came across a few critiques on Twitter — as well as in my own mind — that I didn’t respond to in the Times because they didn’t show up in the comments on the article. (At least, not that I found; I read many, particularly the most-upvoted ones, but not all.) Here they are:
Online learning is good, actually. The point of the essay was not meant to be, “online bad, in-person good.” I do think most people do learn more effectively in person, because we humans are highly adapted to learn that way. Like other mammals, we have practice with in-person learning from our earliest ages. That said, online learning is obviously possible. It’s just a lot harder for most people.
Pro-online-ed supporters like to trot out studies showing that students learn as much or more in online classes, compared to in-person ones. That’s great. But in all those classes, the students know ahead of time they’re going to take an online class. They perhaps have made an assessment of their abilities as learners and determined that they can do it. That is not what has happened in higher ed for the past two years. Rather, students expected in-person classes but got something else. Indeed, a few students have sued their universities (unsuccessfully, so far) for exactly this bait-and-switch.
In the past two years, the main question has not been whether online classes are as good as in-person ones. It’s been, “What happens when students lose the structure in which they have learned for their entire lives?” The answer is, they don’t do well.
Students with disabilities need online classes. It entirely depends on what you mean by disability. That category covers many conditions; to determine the accommodations a student needs, colleges take them on a case-by-case basis. Students with immune disorders, for instance, have good reason to take classes remotely during a pandemic; a camera and mic in the classroom might be the only way they can “attend” class meetings. Students with ADHD, on the other hand, may need the opposite; they tend to do worse in remote classes.
One way to resolve this problem might be to make all classes both in-person and remote and let students choose how to engage. But as college instructors have seen over the past two years, when students don’t have to be in person, they won’t be, and they often won’t engage with their missed classes later via recorded lectures. (And the reason isn’t, “Students / kids today are bad”; just about everyone would act the same in the same conditions.)
Offering everyone a remote option might accommodate the most adept learners, but it puts the rest, including ones with certain disabilities, in circumstances where they’re less likely to do well. The best solution might be the imperfect, bureaucratic one colleges have been using ever since the Americans with Disabilities Act: Favor in-person classes, and make individual accommodations as needed.
Remote classes can democratize higher ed. Online classes can be cheap and thus can make higher education more widely available to poor and otherwise-excluded people. For asynchronous classes in particular, most of the labor happens upfront, and a class can be re-run semester after semester with comparatively little effort. In fact, a living teacher is even somewhat optional; an art historian who had been dead for two years recently “taught” a class at Concordia University in Montreal via recorded lectures.
But there are problems with this argument. First, do you remember MOOCs? I do. A decade ago, massive, open online courses were all the rage. They were going to revolutionize higher education and put pricy in-person colleges out of business. Finally, good-quality education would be available to the masses.
The problem was, the completion rate of most MOOCs was in the single-digit percentages, and the people who did complete them tended already to have advanced degrees. That’s because people who are already experienced learners are best-positioned to do well in remote classes. They already have the habits they need to learn well in just about any conditions.
The people who most need a quality education (because they don’t have it) are in the worst position to get it, because, by defintition, they are less-experienced learners. This paradox — that, in order to learn something, it seems like you already have to have learned it — is an old one. Socrates claimed that the way out of it was to posit the immortality of the soul; but I think Socrates shows the way out through his teaching, which is immediate and responsive to the person he’s trying to teach.
Do I contradict myself? Aren’t I the guy who’s always saying we should work less? And yet I’m also saying students need to work more? What’s that about?
There’s nothing inherently contradictory about workers in general needing to work less and students in general needing to work more. To a large extent, they’re different people doing different things for different purposes. And even to the extent they’re the same people (i.e., students with jobs), someone who worked less at their job could spend more time doing stuff for school.
But I also think what students need to do more of is not work. This whole idea that school is a form of work has got to go. The class I visted at the University of Dallas did not impress me because the students were “working hard”; it impressed me because they were interested in what they were doing and seemed to be gladly trying to help each other learn.
Arguably, school is more like leisure than work. (The Greek word skholē means leisure, after all.) No one gets more revenue if students put in an extra hour on their homework. Undergraduate students don’t get paid to study. I can fail my students if they don’t turn in their assignments, but I can’t “fire” them.
What I want students to do more of is learn. Learning takes time and effort. That doesn’t make it work. But our moral imaginations have been so constrained and warped by the Total Work society that we cannot see anything good that isn’t work. We should change that. I wrote a book about how we might.