Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Tabarrok on MOOC: Interesting but....
Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has an extremely interesting post comparing education and music performance. At its core is an analogy: the student’s experience of learning is like the listener’s experience of hearing music. Best of all possible worlds is having direct, personal exposure to the best: being in the best classroom with the best professor or in the club or concert hall with the best musicians. But recorded music has become the vast majority of all music because live music by great performers is too expensive to provide more than the occasional listening experience for most people. Moreover, the flexibility and repeatability of recordings gives the listener many more choices in when, where and how to listen. No reasonable person would want to ban or even discourage recorded music. So why not embrace digital dissemination of education?
Again, this is a great post and an aid to thinking clearly. My concern is that the analogy is wrong, however. Educating students is not like entertaining or inspiring a musical audience; it is like educating musicians. Education is about creating something—an ability to accomplish certain feats of understanding, technique and problem-solving. This is also true about educating musicians in particular. Could music instruction be carried out separate from direct contact with music teachers? For centuries it has, in part. That’s what all the books of etudes were about. (I learned a lot about music and the piano from working through the first half or so of Bartok’s Mikrocosmos.) But only in part.
What this tells me is that there is a big future for online education. I think the methods are still rather primitive, in fact, and its value will become clearer when people learn how to employ the technology more creatively—and as the technology itself advances. But to learn is to create something, and there is no reason to believe just yet that this process can be entirely solitary, separated from the give and take between teacher and student or student and peers. Digitize this and we can revisit this question.