Monday, December 20, 2010

Burck Smith (and Salman Khan) = Plato

by Andrew Gillen

One of the professors in Serena Golden’s story on online courses from StraighterLine declared
“I don’t think online is really teaching, to be quite honest with you”
I think this sentiment more than anything else gets to the heart of the controversy concerning higher education’s future. Until recently, I thought that online education was a new development with new controversies, but I was wrong.

As Brad DeLong reminds us, Socrates didn’t think books could do as good of a job of providing an education as “discussion and apprenticeship to an excellent thinker.” He was right of course. But that was beside the point. There are simply not enough great thinkers for that model to provide education to enough people.

In contrast, Plato acknowledged the superiority of the discussion and apprenticeship model, but saw the potential of the written word to spread ideas to a much greater audience and across much greater stretches of time then a single mentor ever could. He too was right.

Many professors take the Socratic stance with regard to online courses (though notably not for books). But this is the wrong way to look at the issue. To use a beautiful quote from Michael Hammer and James Champy out of context
“The fundamental error that most [professors] commit when they look at technology is to view it through the lens of their [existing] processes… the real power of technology is not that it can make the old processes work better, but that it enables organizations to break old rules and create new ways of working.”
What Plato did with books, Burck Smith and others like Salmon Khan are doing with the internet. The book revolutionized the provision of education. The internet will too.

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