Online-only self-service education will never work? -Fredrick DeBoer

Fredrik DeBoer, a professor at Purdue has an interesting article on how there needs to be some realism injected into the debate on online education and MOOCs (massively online open courses) and the world-changing exuberance that usually accompanies these debates.

He points out that the only way he’s found to get students to learn is to meet with them every day physically and drive discussions with them. Here are his arguments:


I’ve tried all number of ways to do that outside of class meetings – marking papers extensively, using Track Changes, real-time online collaboration – and it never, ever works. Most them don’t look, and most of them don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

The idea that students need to be “dragged” to learning is something that most real teachers will understand, while most other people will dismiss, saying, “the good ones don’t need to be dragged.”

Fredrik goes on:

I will have lost some of you with that verb. “Drag them! How presumptuous! That’s so insulting.” I assure you: no, it’s not. No, it’s not insulting to use the word “drag” to describe educating undergraduates. I promise you it’s not. Of course, there are in most classes one or two or three students who are both very bright and self-motivated. They’re wonderful to work with. But most students require a frankly endless amount of pushing, pulling, cajoling, motivating, and yes, dragging to competence. Some actively resist. I’m not complaining: this is what I love to do, and it’s why they pay me.

The system has been set up in such a way, that learning is not really a goal for most students:

I’m just relaying reality, in context with an education media that simply doesn’t want to hear it: our college students are not an army of young autodidacts who are pursuing knowledge out of a love for learning. They just aren’t. They’re here, in very large measure, to collect a degree that they identify as being a largely or purely economic instrument. Who could blame them? That’s what their culture is telling them education is for: making money. So they proceed rationally from that premise.

So, what’s the solution?

So you work, and you work, and you work, and you sit with them in conferencing and you revise their papers again and again and you chase them down when they don’t submit by deadline and you make your instructions explicit again and again and you hope that they’ll bother to come back to class after spring break and you work, work, work to get them to a reasonable level of ability. And then when you give them a B+ they write outraged emails to the dean about what a horrible injustice that is. But of course they do. Again, it’s natural: their culture teaches them that everyone is equally capable of everything, and that any problems in education are necessarily the fault of educators and not of students, so they rage when they get a grade that is commensurate with their work. They’re a product of their culture.

And just in case you feel that this really reflects the (poor) quality of the students, note this:

And trust me: my students here at Purdue are not unusually unmotivated or unintelligent. Just the opposite; they’re remarkably bright, attending a competitive public research university, in a period where getting into good colleges has never been harder or more competitive. Yes, they’re a restricted range. They’re restricted near the top, not the bottom. Still, it’s a struggle to educate them. I’m just trying to be honest with you.

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