Merely Delivering Information?

Jul 08 2011 Published by under Learning

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The summer issue of Harvard Business Review includes an interesting piece synthesizing several books about higher education. Justin Fox argues that academia is overdue for change in Disrupting Higher Ed. He opens with the following:

Last summer my family moved from Manhattan to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thanks to a lucky break in the rental market, we ended up with part of a house in a lovely, leafy neighborhood near the Harvard campus. Many of our neighbors are Harvard professors. They’re lovely (not leafy) folks. Smart, friendly, funny. Did I mention smart?

They’re also among the most privileged people I’ve ever met. Privileged not because they inherited large sums of money or lounge around eating bonbons. Privileged because they work in rewarding, stimulating jobs—with lots of opportunity for variety and personal initiative—and seemingly don’t ever have to worry about losing them.

A few paragraphs later, after discussing the last decade's disruption in the media, the fallacy sets in:

Higher education, like the media, is in the business of delivering information.

Uh, no. Even in BA/BS level courses, the idea is not to merely read and remember stuff; most faculty want undergrads to integrate the facts into understanding. The information delivered should be used, ultimately, to generate new knowledge: new interpretations of history, new pieces of art, new search engines, and new science break-throughs. The purpose of higher education is knowledge, including its communication, generation, and preservation. As students mover higher up the system, through the masters and doctoral levels, the emphasis on communication of knowledge lessens. Especially for the PhD student, the emphasis becomes research, taking what is known and integrating it in new ways, perhaps with new facts.

Higher education is like making the information, then delivering and editorializing on it, ultimately hoping that someone will make more new information with it all.

As a medical school faculty member, I have to communicate certain facts to the students; if they do not learn how to calculate the anion gap, they cannot use it at the bedside. However, what they really need to know is what the anion gap means,what it tells them about the patient's pathophysiology. I want them to understand the systems of the body, to appreciate the interactions of all of these systems, and to juggle this level of complexity when they see the patient. These latter skills do not happen in the lecture hall; they occur at the bedside. While some of this complex consideration of everything can be simulated (in really expensive, high-tech teaching halls), nothing compares to actually using new information in the care of a patient.

Students learn by grappling with knowledge, fighting with the facts and figures for mastery. Some students learn visually, others by reading, and others by hearing. Often, providing ways to manipulate and understand new knowledge in multiple ways can help students grasp stuff faster. The online world makes this easier, by letting those of us who do teach post videos, songs, and other non-traditional materials that students can use. However, I do not see anyway a student could get a meaningful degree just by learning facts online.

I have participated in some online learning myself through webinars with interactive discussions, both in real-time and via asynchronous message boards. For short courses it works pretty well, and interactivity can be generated. I was forced to use the facts I read between sessions and to support my actions with my teacher and my peers. Learning can be done via new technologies. I don't know that I would have wanted to do an entire degree program via that format; it took far more effort on everyone's part than gathering a bunch of students in a classroom. As an extrovert, I also gain energy with people. I like the social aspects of education, even the camaraderie of a class learning with a bad teacher!

I agree that we in academia are privileged. I make less than my counterparts in private practice, but I have a stimulating, rewarding job. I can justify a lot of wide-ranging interests as part of my profession, including readings on adult learning, social media, and even creative non-fiction writing. I would not give up that aspect of my career! Of course, my job security comes not from that part of my job, but from my clinical skills. In the current era of funding cuts, having MD behind my name provides far more salary guarantee than tenure, even in the Ivory Tower!

Fox presents recent books demonstrating the "disruption" that is occurring outside the Ivy League. One book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, he describes as an "entertaining, informative history of higher education as seen through the joint lens of Harvard and BYU-Idaho." It sounds like a great read, but it won't be available until July 26 (and not yet in an eReader format for pre-order; hello, disruptive technology?).

How do you see higher education in this online media age? Disrupted or supplemented? Do you think we professors and instructors are merely in the business of delivering information?


2 responses so far

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    One of my professors insisted on the distinction between knowldege, skills, and understanding.
    Knowledge is, primarily, mastery of information. This is the principal objective of primary and secondary education.
    Skill is mastery of activities. This is the principal objective of training.
    Understanding is the mastery of relationships. This is the principal objective of most post-baccalaureate education.
    Information is relatively easy to convey remotely. Understanding, less so. Skills?
    Medicine is practically unique in postgraduate education in that it balances the three more than almost any other field.

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