Toward a better education

This post by Daniel Bachhuber prompted me to think more about what I see as the next step in the education system and where the problems in the current system lay. In it Daniel advocates for a move toward what he phrases as “peripheral education” He defines this as, “learning through continuous exposure to the increasing quantity of quality information. It is the hidden pearl of networked education, the process culling information you push yourself to absorb, letting it change the way you think, and then understanding the connections between the information.” Much of this I agree with; it would certainly be great if education were to come to resemble this model more than the centuries old model of information dispersal. At the same time I disagree on some major points which I’ll try to explain below.

One of the more significant points of difference that is drawn between traditional education and peripheral education is the ability for there to be real collaboration in the new model. Peripheral education would abandon the centralized, top-down method of traditional universities in favour of a more open and moving flow of information. While this is an understandable difference to draw between the two models of education I think it is still leaves something to be desired.

First, there are opportunities for real collaboration between teachers and students even in traditional systems. For example, just in this year alone I have worked with a professor on a video editing project and helped to edit a chapter of a professor’s book that will be published with Oxford University Press. I think that these types of collaborative experiences are helped, not hindered, by bringing people together in a centralized, physical location.

The open collaboration of a largely digital medium would certainly allow for a far greater quantity of collaboration, but not necessarily a greater quality. There’s something that I see as inherent to a college system that brings people together to a central campus for four years. Here at Whitman there’s the opportunity to take multiple classes from a professor and to really get to know that professor and one’s fellow students. Even in one of the larger majors on campus, Politics, I’ve taken many classes with many of the same people; because of this I really know about those other students and what they’re knowledgeable about.

Ultimately, I like many of the aspects of what Daniel talks about as peripheral education, but still believe in holding on to many of the aspects of a traditional model. I think that what education needs is a more open and inviting campus. The experience of joining together with students and professors in one place for four years does more for collaboration than leaving one to one’s own devices. I believe that this could be accomplished by creating smaller campuses (much like Whitman, or even smaller) where the students actually know a large majority of the student body, are familiar with one another, and are in classes of 12-20. In addition, I just have a hard time believing that any significant portion of students will feel motivated to push themselves intellectually without the institution of a college to help them accomplish that. It’s sad, but I really do think that the majority of students (and people for that matter) need some sort of carrot dangled in front of them to push themselves to work.

Another important change that I view as necessary is in the fundamental thinking of professors. Even in this age I think too many professors believe that their purpose is to get students to some kind of understanding of knowledge that the professor views as necessary. On this note, I think that were professors to change the motivation for students from grades toward independent learning then it would be an important step toward creating a culture in which a real peripheral education could be feasible and successful.

By fostering a small campus community where professors work with (not at) students I think much more will be done to advance education and collaboration than moving entirely away from a traditional college model.