Lunatics Might Topple Ivory Tower

(Ignore the title for a second — it will make sense at the end of the post.)

Online education is still not accepted as a legitimate source of education. As a (self-proclaimed) tech-savvy educator, this is a puzzle to me. My first instinct is to pigeon-hole all non-accepters as (dare I say it) Luddites. But it’s more complicated than that. An article I came across in a Forbes magazine blog aims to tackle that very question, in the face of contrary evidence:

meta-analysis published by the US Department of Education reviewed more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning and concludes that, “on average, students in online learning conditions performed modestly better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Yet, the public largely continues to assume online learning is of inferior quality. A recent Pew survey reports that while 51 percent of university presidents (themselves a bit of a skeptical bunch) believe online courses provide equal educational value compared to face-to-face instruction, only 29 percent of adults among the general public believe this is true. Why is this the case?
The answer is actually quite simple: consumers of higher education use prestige as the signal of higher quality because commonly accepted measures of actual student learning do not exist. Since we have no way of knowing if students at “University A” learn more than those at “University B,” we use institutional prestige as a proxy for the quality of instruction to differentiate the schools. Ignoring the fact that prestige may be a poor proxy in the first place, the problem for online learning (and new universities primarily offering online courses) is that building prestige takes a long time and requires considerable resources. [link]

This, it seems to me, is a problem. There are no universally accepted metrics for measuring instructional success. They author goes on to say that:

The next step for educational innovators is to face the traditional sector head-on. The only way to compete successfully will be for them to measure and report the actual learning gains of their students. Ironically, it seems that innovators may end up driving the changes in information and incentives, rather than following them.

If I understand him correctly, he is saying that eventually — God forbid — the lunatics will run the asylum. By that I mean, the people (i.e., the lunatics) who are currently innovating ways in which to increase the spread of education by reaching a larger mass of people will, eventually  — through competition — develop metrics to measure one entity’s success over another. These metrics will over time replace any of the vast myriad of techniques currently used, and will take over this process. In other words, the markets will decide which one is best. An interesting thought, but those Ivory Towers stand firm, and they stand strong, so are difficult to topple. Not that there’s anything wrong with toppling them. I, for one, will welcome our new, mad overlords…


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