‘Has the Internet obsoleted formal schools?’

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro
Editor

Earlier this evening, I googled “post-school era” and all the hits were related to after high school topics. All except one. I clicked on it and found myself at Yahoo! Answers, a website where anyone can post a question and anyone can post an answer.

Based on the vague dating, the question was posted “2 months ago” by someone calling her-/himself “tell the truth on Net”:

Post-School era: Are formal scholling still needed in Internet-age. Free 24/7/365

Note: users can use Free internet at school / library / home 24/7/365 and pay almost nothing.

How can K-12 schools or local communuity college have more information used by a 1-billion people 24/7/365.

Has the Internet obsoleted formal schools?

Shortly after, someone named jeff_jus posted a response:

You still need to go to school to learn how to spell and use the language correctly.

That was the only reply over the two-month period, and it has borne the “Best Answer – Chosen by Voters 100% 1 Vote” crown all that time.

I’ve never used Yahoo! Answers so I have no idea how popular, useful, or reliable it is. Perhaps if Tell the Truth posted the question on a site with heavier traffic, she would have gotten more and better answers. Then again, maybe not.

I sense this is a serious question for Tell the Truth. It was for me when I began my search. I wanted to see if anyone had published on the idea of a time when schools as we know them will become obsolete because of the internet, and the first search term that I could come up with was “post-school era.”

Tell the Truth beat me to it by two months. She’d already asked a question that I hadn’t even conceived. She’s explored territory that I didn’t even know existed, and she’s already given it a name that I’m only now conceptualizing.

And like many great thinkers ahead of her time, no one paid her mind. The one person who did thought it was a ripe opportunity for a joke — at Tell the Truth’s expense.

I wonder how much — or what kind of — attention she would get from her classmates or her teacher, if she’s a student. I’d like to think that they would all see the merit of the inquiry and join her in a dialogue. Or if her classmates can’t see the diamond for what it is, perhaps the teacher would guide them to open their eyes and see.

But maybe that’s pie in the sky and the only one in class who would even bother to comment would be another jeff_jus.

One of my profs once said that any damn fool can come up with answers, but it takes a truly wise person to ask a worthwhile question. His point was that it takes a lot of knowledge — and a lot of thinking about that knowledge — to come up with a good question.

When I look at Tell the Truth’s question, I see that knowledge and thinking, and I wonder at the vision and imagination behind it. This is an extremely bright and thoughtful person who has the courage to follow a thought beyond the box, the envelope, the classroom walls, the known, the traditional.

And I wonder who she is, where she is, and how she’s doing in our educational systems. Will she survive? Thrive? Or will she succumb to the jeff_jus’s and keep her mouth shut because she can’t write correctly?

15 Responses

  1. Jim, the other “Yahoo! Answers” questions asked by Tell the Truth on the Net present 2 main categories: contempt for non WASPS, especially in education (“too much money for them”), and childish anti-religious provocation. The general Yahoo profile linked to in her Yahoo! Answers profile purports to be of a 57 year-old female, and is in the name of charlesd (presumably for Charles Darwin as her yahoo IM nick is darwinnow2000). As an atheist, I wish militant neocon atheists stopped invoking Darwin (and Voltaire, another big fav of theirs) in vain to bash fellow humans.

    She and jeff_jus are both compulsive contributors to “Yahoo! Answers”, so they may have already sparred before: people often do there, because the format of “Yahoo! Answers” favors superficiality and idle sparring: differently from Twitter, you apparently can’t link to more elaborated reasonings in “Yahoo! Answers”

    So “Tell the Truth ” may have hit on an important issue with the rhetorical question you mention. But it’s not surprising that a provocative and prolix 57 year-old xenophobic anti-religious neocon should get provocative answers.

    By contrast, Michael Wesch is only 35 year-old. But doesn’t the 2007 A Vision of Students Today video he made with his students:

    offer more discussion opportunities on the issue than the rhetorical question by his senior Tell the Truth? So far it has elicited 77 video responses, 8,916 written comments, has been viewed 3,837,249 times: in 34 months and not in 2, granted. But even if you divide these figures by 17 , they remain impressive.

    True, Wesch and his students study media literacy issues in their Digital Ethnography course, so their media know-how and means are above average, presumably. But e.g. herminbean‘s 1:10 Life of a Student 1:10 response to “A Vision of Students Today” also offers a cogent argument with simpler means:

    What both videos have in common is that they are thought out and aimed at fostering discussion. Whereas when someone chooses “Tell the Truth on the Net” as a nick and calls upon Darwin to back her, her rhetorical question (in the one you mention, the blatant message for those who have read her other contributions: “Stop wasting money on education, especially for minorities”) can only bring the kind of ironic one-line response it got from jeff_jus.

  2. LOL! I pictured Tell the Truth as a high school student from a poor family for whom English is a second language. The truth is weirder than we could ever imagine. I can’t stop grinning. Thanks for the eye-opener, Claude. -Jim S

  3. :D I learned to check the backstage ropes of online stuff after having very often got mislead by appearances too.
    Apologies: I only noticed your reply after I finished editing my comment to add the 2 videos,.

  4. The first video depicts the university world well. The primary difference between today and when I was there is that today there’s another choice.

    However, online universities in this country are not realizing their potential. My opinion: too many are profit-driven or, if non-profit, driven by the need to make up deficits in the rest of the school.

    Other countries appear to have different approaches such as the UK’s Open University.

    After 20+ years in “school,” I began to work for a company in the “real” world. There, I discovered that I could learn by myself and for myself. No school required. This moment was liberating.

    Fortunately for me, my years in school had somehow taught me to read and to think. I did end up spending an additional 6 years in academia and even went through half of an MBA.

    Now, the Internet and books provide me with all necessities for growing intellectually.

    If you can simply allow young people to explore, you only have to provide guidance. The second video clearly depicts what happens when you impose artificial requirements on young students. Learning should be fun, not drudgery. Even if not always fun, it should be engaging enough that they’ll choose to do it.

    As much as I hate seeing those clichés “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side,” there’s truth there if you dig deeply enough. Young people need guides and mentors. Even in my superannuated state, I need them too and was just last week fortunate to find some to help me learn.

    Internet technology can be distracting or it can be liberating. It’s the job of educators of all sorts to bring us to where it’s the latter. It’s particularly incumbent on entrepreneurs and innovators in education to make that end possible by creating enabling technologies that cost less, not more, than the last-century ways of doing things.

    Is that not the dream of technology: better, faster, cheaper?

  5. The idea that people can educate themselves well is not new and requires no technology whatsoever. Look at Abraham Lincoln. Clarence Darrow did not go to law school before becoming one of the greatest attorneys in American history. Percey Shelley was similarly “uneducated” when he went to Oxford, where he found that the education he received on his own put him squarely out of sorts with the rigid norms of that university and led to his near immediate dismissal. (He still seemed to do all right.)

    The idea that the mass lecture is possibly the very worst form of education is not new either. It exists today only for one reason–it is an incredibly cheap way to hold a class and still pretend that the student is learning from a professional educator. In my last experience with this format, in which I was part of an experimental program at the Colorado School of Mines, by late semester the mass lecture halls (fortunately not taught by me) were nearly empty, for students had learned that they there was nothing they were learning there that could not be learned by other more efficient means.

    Technology does offer us a much more efficient means of learning than was available to Shelley, Lincoln, and Darrow. The problem is that we live in a different world than the one that allowed them to thrive on home-grown educations. Our society now demands that all important stamp of approval from an accredited University to verify that learning has actually taken place, as meaningless as that stamp of approval may be.

    I think that for the future we have two choices:

    1. Universities (and state legislators for the high school level) must finally find a way to provide that stamp of approval without requiring antiquated forms of instruction under the ridiculous guise of maintaining standards.

    2. We must find a way to recognize and accept the learning that occurs outside of a formal classroom.

  6. Claude, in a sense, the background info for Tell the Truth and jeff_jus is not critical to the point of my article — that great ideas may be clothed in language that some may consider substandard. We are often distracted by appearances and fail to see the value of ideas beneath the surface flaws. Thus, insights from speakers of English as a second language may be ignored simply because their mechanics are “not correct.”

    With the mushrooming trend toward a global village, we won’t be able to — and we shouldn’t — let “correctness” get in the way of communication.

    In the classroom, teachers and students need to be open to classmates who aren’t yet fluent in English. This lack of fluency isn’t equivalent to stupidity.

    Thus, the point of this article isn’t so much the obsolescence of formal schools but the need for more caution in applying standards of language correctness in a virtual world that may eventually rely on English as the lingua franca. If or when that day arrives, I have a feeling English will have evolved into forms that are quite different from what we’re accustomed to today.

    Still, I like the direction this discussion has taken so I’m pleased. -Jim S

    • Jim, I fully agree with you on “the need for more caution in applying standards of language correctness in a virtual world that may eventually rely on English as the lingua franca” – being a denizen of that world who does.

      Also,in the early 1990’s with another teacher of French as foreign language in Ticino (CH) high schools, we changed the grading norms, because we disliked having to fail students just because their spelling was atrocious (not a few of them were actually native speakers of French). So we separated the various assessment parts: this way students could abysmally fail the spelling part, but still pass if they were able to communicate what they meant in an otherwise understandable and convincing manner. Several of these atrocious spellers then decided to have a go at learning some basic rules and at checking words with a dictionary, in order to get something better than just a pass ;-)

      But in the case of Tell the Truth and jeff_jus, I got the impression that jeff_jus was only using the “correct writing” argument to ironically put down someone who peeved him off by claiming in her nick she hold the Truth, and by uttering questionable statements on that basis – maybe as rhetorical questions, but rhetorical questions are just a device for reinforcing statements.

      This “correct writing” put-down happens quite often in online discussions, and in other languages too (e.g. in the comments to Le Post articles in French). But not, usually, when the person is trying to contribute constructively to a debate, or has a genuine question.

      So, people who are not native speakers or don’t have a good command of a language are a leeeeettle bit hampered in their polemical vein, but at times it’s just as well ;-)

  7. “Internet technology can be distracting or it can be liberating. It’s the job of educators of all sorts to bring us to where it’s the latter.” –Harry Keller

    In this thread, and even in my own last comment, there seems to be a drift toward the idea that students can do their own learning in their own way, no teacher required. I have some thoughts on this that I almost appended to my other comment, and then decided to wait.

    Let me begin with a seemingly unrelated story. (I love these stories!) In my first decade + of teaching, I laughed at the idea of becoming an administrator. Why on earth would I leave the joy of a classroom to deal instead with budgets and discipline? Even in my earliest years I had never met an administrator who knew as much about instructional theory as the average teacher, and I theorized that administrators were generally pulled from the ranks of teachers who were not particularly adept or happy in the classroom and were looking for an escape.

    My own administrators seemed to confirm that by choosing not to observe my classes before handing me my semi-annual official blessing (or formal evaluation). I went nearly 12 years without an administrator walking into my classroom. I don’t think any of them in that period could have told me anything meaningful if they had peeked in.

    When I later read research that said that effective school reform only took place when it was led by an administrator who functioned primarily as an instructional leader, I was incredulous. I had never heard of such a thing. I had never heard of such a thing. When I was part of a team that investigated such schools personally, I was stunned. I saw educational leaders of a kind I had never dreamed existed. Had I known early in my career what I learned all too much later, my life would have taken a different path.

    When I read about the Internet obsoleting formal schools and students becoming their own instructors, I wonder if something similar isn’t going on. I wonder if some people have never seen truly effective facilitative instruction at work and are unable to imagine what it must be like. In the 19th century, John Ruskin observed that the ancient Greek fantasy creatures of myth were not wholly imagined–they were each a combination of parts of familiar animals. He believed the human mind is incapable of truly imagining what it has never seen. I wonder if this isn’t true in this case.

    Nearly 50 years ago B.F. Skinner said that any teacher who could be replaced by a machine SHOULD be replaced by a machine. Perhaps that is what is at work here. Students learning on their own via the Internet may well be an improvement over traditional “here are the facts” instruction.

    On the other hand, a skilled facilitative instructor can work wonders with tools like this, wonders that may be beyond the imagination of some who have never seen it.

  8. So tech will kill higher ed? Hardly. Higher ed is bullet-proof. It’s endured centuries of change outside its ivy-covered walls. It’s akin to Mark Twain’s quote: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

    Will tech change higher ed? It already has, depending on the institution, office, and classroom observed. Online learning, clickers in the classroom, PowerPoint, etc. are merely blips on the radar that denote change in some superficial ways but not affecting the fundamental mission or operation of higher ed in any substantial way.

  9. John A, I think if we unbundle “school” from “education,” a lot of the heat would dissipate. The end of schools (or colleges) doesn’t necessarily mean the end of education. It simply means the end of concrete factories where students are moved along a conveyor belt on a bell schedule.

    This model of education is based on industrial technology.

    Virtual technology provides alternatives that include the elimination of physical campuses and classrooms.

    The total elimination of teachers from education is an option, I guess, but I’m not proposing this, and I don’t think most educators are.

    But the role of teacher is changing. When we unbundle education from schooling, we realize that the traditional classroom model is only one of many other possibilities.

    Furthermore, the internet changes the resource of information and how we access it. This alone tells us that teacher as sole source of info is no longer viable. What this does mean, though, is that the teacher must re-envision today’s wired and networked students and the ways in which that connectedness can be used to facilitate learning.

    To continue to aim instruction at a vision of students in pre-digital days is futile. Those students are long gone. The ones before us today are already living, functioning, playing, and learning online, and educators need to go there to work with them — not remain in their classrooms and lecture halls with smartboards, clickers, and powerpoint slides.

    And when they enter the virtual world, the old relationships, based on the industrial model, are irrelevant. It’s a whole new ballgame. -Jim S

  10. “This alone tells us that teacher as sole source of info is no longer viable.” –Jim

    When I participated in the creation of the teaching standards of performance for our school district, I ran into some interesting research regarding the common teaching styles of teachers with different levels of academic preparation. The results were probably counterintuitive to most people. Teachers with strong academic preparation in their subject areas were most likely to focus their instruction on thinking skills and project-based learning. Teachers with the weakest academic preparation tended to focus instruction on rote fact retention, with themselves as the primary sources of information.

    The research did not not attempt to explain why that was true. Because it was a phenomenon I had observed myself over the years, I had a theory of my own. I believed there were two factors at work.

    The first was a lack of understanding on the minimally prepared teacher of how very much there was to know and what a tiny percentage of it all could possibly be taught. This led poorly prepared instructors to overestimate the importance of the fraction they knew and believe that in forcing students to learn that, they were doing a more complete job of educating them than they really were.

    More strongly prepared teachers knew that they ability to use information effectively was more important than mere fact retention.

    More importantly, though, I believe poorly prepared instructor fear the unknown. Will they be able to handle concepts students encounter if they were to stray outside the teacher’s knowledge base?

    I had that thought when, at the same time I was encountering that research, a student engaged in a project asked for some help. She had encountered an article that referred in an off hand way to a certain author’s “epistemological negativism,” and she needed an interpretation. I did happen to know the meaning of the phrase, and I was also able to tell from the context that the student did not really need to know that in order to continue on her way. If I had not known the meaning of the phrase, I would have known that there was no shame in not knowing it, and I would have had the confidence to work with her to explore the topic.

    It is similar to the time I decided to teach a short story by Yukio Mishima (“Swaddling Clothes”), which I had never read before making that decision. I read it, and then came up with a unique assignment. I told student that they should come to class with a list of the key points they would make if they were to teach the story themselves. One of the students laughed and said, “In other words, you have no clue what it is about.”

    She was right, and I admitted it. The next day we had one of the greatest class periods of my life, as we energetically and enthusiastically examined the story as equals.

  11. Ah, one more comment!

    I think formal schools are doing a good job of obsoleting themselves, and let me illustrate this by describing the recent experiences of two young men I know very well.

    Both began their university experiences with the typical lack of a clear idea of what hey wanted to do. They started with the normal breadth requirement classes and began to think about a major. Both decided that their futures lay in the world of business, but the university said that was not an option for them. The requirements for a major in any subject are so many that it is almost impossible to graduate in 4 years without nearly devoting every class taken to the major, so taking business classes meant majoring in business. Unfortunately, the boys were only average math students at best, and all the possible business options required second year calculus as a prerequisite.

    One of them majored in history instead. Upon graduation, he got a job working in a business that had absolutely nothing to do with history. After a few years working for that company, he learned enough about the business to start his own company. He now runs his own successful business. He did manage to learn a good deal on his own, but he would certainly be in much better shape if he could have taken the courses he wanted while he was at the university.

    The second was really dissatisfied and left school after two years, getting a job in a local business. He, too, sought information about how businesses work, chiefly through the Internet. Today, at age 28, he owns that thriving business and employs about a dozen people.

    Neither of these two successful business owners can imagine how knowledge of second year calculus could improve their business performance.

    Both of them can imagine how the courses they were denied because they could not do second year calculus could have helped them.

    And so, both of them went independently to the Internet and other sources for the education they needed, but ti was not their first choice. The education policies of their formal universities gave them no other option.

  12. “I think formal schools are doing a good job of obsoleting themselves…” — John Adsit

    Good example but may give some people the wrong idea. Many apparently useless university courses other than second-year calculus provide (or should provide) excellent background to be a citizen, not just a business (or other) major.

    For example, courses that allow students to improve their communication skills should always be included. These may include literature courses even though students aren’t specifically focused on communication.

    Some calculus will be necessary for some courses in a business major because of advanced economics and operations theory.

    Having said that, I still agree with John’s basic thesis.

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