Past and Future of Education

candicecoverWhen I was a freshman in high school, I sat chafing at the horribly slow pace of droning lectures on material that I had already read in the assigned textbooks.  I would often find myself nodding off to sleep (teenagers’ circadian clocks are time shifted such that early morning classes are too early) or day dreaming.  I still got near perfect scores on exams.  I had, after all, read the textbooks cover to cover at the beginning of the term.  In my day dreaming, I often envisioned my ideal university experience.  Mine was always in ‘Ox-bridge’ like settings, where tutors who sat in cozy wood-paneled rooms with floor to ceiling bookshelves guided one’s reading lists while serving ‘tea & biscuits’, lectures were always optional, and neither were part of a set course, but were meant to provide opportunities for learning to prepare one for comprehensive exams to demonstrate competence in the material.  I took the phrase, “reading for the exams” literally.  You can imagine my disappointment to learn that university was the same as high school, but with bigger lecture halls.

But I took a different route.  I earned my lower division general education requirements from part-time attendance, and occasionally challenging courses, at community colleges, but earned the lion’s share of my college credits entirely by comprehensive exams after self-study.  I bought many of my text books at the Stanford University bookstore, others I borrowed from my roommate who had gone to CalTech before Stanford Med School.  I got very decent scores on the exams.  After earning my BS, I was admitted to Stanford Graduate School as a part-time (Honors Co-op) student, sponsored by my employer, Fairchild Semiconductor, to take or audit classes on semiconductor device theory and fabrication.  (I audited more than I took, as I needed to learn fast for my job, more than I needed the credit hours.)  I was looking forward to graduate school at Stanford, having projected my high school vision of what a graduate level education would be like.  Sadly, graduate school was very like undergraduate, but with smaller lecture halls.

OK, for a bit of honest self-disclosure.  I was born hard-of-hearing.  I get almost nothing from lectures.  Yes, I wear hearing aids… but they amplify noise just as well as voices.  The background noise of hundreds of other students squirming in the seats partially masks the teacher’s voice.  When s/he turns his/her back to write on a board, I can no longer augment my hearing with lip-reading.  Oh and that sound of nails on chalkboard that can make one cringe(?); that’s what ordinary chalk on chalkboards sound like when amplified.  What I hear is, “Now, ‘ooking a’ ‘is equat’n, it is obvious ‘at mmff..mmm {sskrsksk} and thus we have proo’ ‘at mmff.n..mmm.  Any questions?”  Although my hearing problem made it harder for me, the lecture method of instruction given our modern technology and tools, is perhaps the most antiquated and least efficient means of delivering needed information.  Can there be a better way?

But first, let’s look back at history to learn why we do this?

In pre-historic times, much of instruction came in two forms, one was oral tradition the other was direct.  Studies of hunter gatherer cultures have documented that a pre-literate society depended upon story telling to pass down history, culture, and lore.  They also pass on skills by direct demonstration and correction of mistakes by younger members of the group.  One could say that the lecture method of instruction is the direct descendent of the campfire story.

But that’s not the whole story.  As population density increased, people gathered in ever larger settlements.  With these came the need for a means of communications over both distance and time.  This lead to literacy.  But oral culture continued in full flower along side written accounts.  Further, literacy was far from universal.  It was dependent upon class and in places even gender.  Instruction in literacy was private, handed down within families or exclusive institutions.  As cities became civilization, higher education was often conducted in small group settings, again limited by class and often gender.

During these times, the written corpus was expensive.  The materials upon which they were written were either time-consuming to manufacture, in limited supply, or both.  Consider the problem for the European scholars in the Middle Ages.  Their prefered archival material was parchment, which was sheepskin that had to be laboriously processed.  It was so valuable that, to us, priceless texts from the ancient world were scraped off to provide a surface for religious texts.  These palimpsests occasionally yield historically important texts as modern methods to recover the original writing have become available.  Also consider the means by which one published a new or republished and old work.  The handwritten manuscripts had to be hand copied by calligraphic copyists.  This was manpower intensive work that could only be done by skilled workers.  It meant that books were horrendously expensive and not easily obtainable.

So, higher education was limited to those who could afford first to be privately tutored to become literate, and then rich enough to afford either a library of their own, or to travel to that innovative institution of the late-middle-ages, the university.  But even at the university, access to the limited supply of books was effectively metered and controlled.  Their value so high that they were seldom allowed outside of the library walls.  This meant that much of the instruction from the university professors was still given orally, during lectures.  This established a tradition that continues today.

But things did change.  The introduction and rapid evolution of the printing press brought the end of hand copied manuscripts.  The mass manufacture of paper to replace the far more expensive parchment lowered the cost of the media.  The combination dramatically increased the availability of books.  This meant that university libraries burgeoned and reading for one’s exams became a real activity.  But it did not eliminate the cost and cultural barriers to education.  Enrollment in ‘public’ schools took money that working class people simply had limited access to.  Higher education at the universities was out of the question for the vast majority of working and even the middle-classes as they developed from first expanded mercantile trade and later the early industrial revolution.

Around three hundred years ago a new institution began to change all of that.  The grammar or elementary school began to be introduced, increasing literacy rates.  The introduction of the “lending library” wherein one could check out the now lower cost book increased access to scholarly (and not so scholarly) materials.  Benjamin Franklin said, “The public library is the people’s university.”  Many people, Franklin included, obtained the equivalent of a university education nearly exclusively by extensive reading.

But somehow, our universities continued their tradition of mass lectures, despite that fact that reading was more instructionally, and cost, effective.  When our high schools were instituted, they slavishly copied the format.  Tradition dies hard.

Which brings us to today.  A recent innovation in universities is to record lectures and make them available online (MOOCs).  This extends the cost effectiveness of lectures, as more students view them per lecture.  But this is still a lecture, with an even bigger (virtual) lecture hall.

But with technology, the cost of books have come down as well.  Not only is the printed codex, or random access paper books, so cheap that paperbacks are more often thrown away after reading than stored, we now have means to provide digital electronic materials that make the nth copy of the book essentially free.  Our textbooks should be all available on our tablets (using a PenTile Matrix high-resolution display, of course!).  Every reference book, every text-book, that one will ever need for school from elementary through graduate school and beyond, should be instantly available and essentially free to all.  But they’re not.

Why aren’t they?  Part of the reason is again historical.  While many advanced textbooks are written by university professors, they are published by traditional hardcopy publishers.  Indeed, there is such a cachet attached to hardcopy, that people are willing to pay high prices… partly because they have no choice.

How can we fix this?  First, we should recognize that it is a national (if not international) imperative that such materials be freely available, as the new “people’s university”.  Second, we should have our universities work together to create national course curricula and materials for use in digital form.  Digital media, as opposed to the printed word or photograph, can directly meld text, diagrams, photos, video, and even interactive tutorials.  Consider the educational value of simply producing and maintaining these materials by the various university departments involving their students in the endeavor.  These should cover material from early elementary school to graduate school, in nearly all of the basics of a modern education.  This does not mean the end of the specialized text-book.  These will always be with us… and yes their authors should be compensated by the reader.  But the core materials and textbooks should be universally available at no cost to the student.

Secondly, we need to have a national (if not international) means of educational measurement and evaluation.  This means a series of comprehensive examinations that are also available free.  They should be proctored at public schools, accessible to all by being local.  It should be possible to earn diplomas, certificates, and degrees, entirely by examination.  Admittedly, many professional degrees (e.g. nursing, medicine, etc.) cannot be truly earned entirely by autodidactic means, but a basic undergraduate and some graduate liberal arts education with most majors / concentrations should be.

Online discussion fora can take the place of classroom discussion.  Indeed, among many lifelong learners, social media often becomes such (when self-selected to eliminate the anti-social “troll” element).

This does not mean the end of traditional campus life.  Universities will still be needed.  Research graduate degrees, preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers will still require lab classes and R&D facilities to conduct doctoral work.  Advanced studies in the performing and fine arts will still want and need hands on instruction.  Many people will still want the on campus experiences that help take callow youth into adulthood.

However, it should be the job of every high school to prepare every student to become an autodidact for life, by using and encouraging these new digital course materials.  Every human being should have access to higher education at any point in their life.

Excelsior!

Further External Reading:

https://www.vox.com/platform/amp/the-goods/2019/3/6/18252322/college-textbooks-cost-expensive-pearson-cengage-mcgraw-hill

https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardvedder/2018/07/02/college-degrees-by-examination-the-national-college-equivalence-test-ncee/#2f47d6dc7993

https://itif.org/publications/2016/08/01/why-its-time-disrupt-higher-education-separating-learning-credentialing

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