The “He Said/She Said” of Education

Jay Rosen provides a smell test for he said/she said journalism:

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, shaking my head, wondering how anyone can continue to claim journalistic excellence while indulging in such a model.  Yet even such eminences as Bill Keller of The New York Times continue it.
Today, when I opened the opinion page, there he was, with a piece called “The University of Wherever.”  At the end, he writes:

There are disrupters, like Sebastian Thrun, or Napster, or the tweeting rebels in Tahrir Square. And there are adapters, like John Hennessy, or iTunes, or the novice statesmen trying to build a new Egypt. Progress depends on both.

Who could be against an experiment that promises the treasure of education to a vast, underserved world? But we should be careful, in our idealism, not to diminish something that is already a wonder of the world.

Though he waffles a bit, trying to put both sides on the “right” side, Keller is saying, essentially, that there are two models for the future of higher education, online and classroom.  He’s putting things in terms of a back-and-forth that’s both unnecessary and illusory.  As in most he said/she said situations, this is not a matter of one or the other… and a definite conclusion about what is “right” can easily be drawn from a little bit of study of the history of education.  Keller’s waffle at the end, the classic dodge away from taking a stand, isn’t needed at all.

This is a topic I’ve lived with my entire life.  My father was an experimental psychologist quite involved with the teaching-machine movement of the 1950s.  Later, following the lead of another Keller (Fred, of Columbia University), he abandoned machines as the center of his courses, returning to human interaction and what came to be called The Keller Method or the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI) or, in a related form, Mastery (I’ve written a bit about this in the past).  As a teacher myself, and a writer on culture and technology, I’ve long explored online learning possibilities, first using digital aids in the classroom some twenty years ago, before I gave up teaching for good (or so I thought at the time).

What I see is that the “online v. traditional” divide is a false one.  The two sides don’t even need to be yoked together explicitly, as in what is now called the “hybrid” classroom.  Digital possibilities in education are simply additional tools, not a new way of education working independently of more familiar ones.  Instead of arguing over which side is right, we should be trying to see what we can use of each in our quest, which should be never-ending (if it is to be effective), towards better education.

Exclusively online education gives up things that needn’t be abandoned.  To focus on the classroom alone, on the other hand, needlessly restricts us from effective new possibilities.  Creating a divide between the two doesn’t help anyone.

What we need to do is create a new model for education that can incorporate both traditional and digital possibilities.  This probably means abandoning the traditional “classroom” model, but it does not mean getting rid of face-to-face interaction.  In our chapter “Education Amid the Digital Revolution” in Robert Leston’s and my forthcoming Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, I present a (Fred) Keller based model that embraces both.

What I suggest isn’t even unusual.  Few educators actually see a divide, not in how they address their classes, at least.  There are certainly physical problems that need to be overcome for an education that makes full use of online possibilities… one being the layout of our classroom buildings, which are themselves constructed to divide learning by providing discrete classrooms.

In education, as in journalism, he said/she said deflects us from both understanding and progress.  It sets up a milieu of perpetual debate, not solution, not understanding, and certainly not of consideration of what might have been learned in the past.  Fortunately, classroom teachers are rarely sidetracked by such red herrings.  They have teaching to do and education to improve.

Keller might have done better than simply presenting two sides.  He writes:

It’s true that online education has proliferated, from community colleges to the free OpenCourseWare lecture videos offered by M.I.T. (The New York Times Company is in the game, too, with its Knowledge Network.) But the Internet has so far scarcely disturbed the traditional practice or the economics at the high end, the great schools that are one of the few remaining advantages America has in a competitive world. Our top-rated universities and colleges have no want of customers willing to pay handsomely for the kind of education their parents got; thus elite schools have little incentive to dilute the value of the credentials they award.

But it is not one or the other; it is both.

That, however, is a much more difficult story to write.  It is a continuing story, one that began with the advent of the computer more than half a century ago, and a story of constant experiment and revision.  But, as Rosen would say, it is the real story, and is what a real journalist should focus on.


Aaron Barlow | Associate Professor, New York City College of Technology.  Aaron is the author of several books including The Rise of the Blogosphere, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, and the forthcoming Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children.

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