Too Much Information: The Value of Organized Education in the Era of Everything on the Internet

In June of 2008, when I first began working at Full Sail, I ran across an article about a Texas professor who decided to make his whole course available online because he believed that just having access to the course materials was not nearly as important as access to the professor or the learning community. I copied the link down, but when I later went looking for the article, it had been pulled down. There are those who believe that one is giving away everything if one does what this Texas professor did and post all of the course materials. I mean, why bother registering for the course or paying the expensive tuition if it can be had for free online? This really speaks to heart of the question about what one is getting by paying tuition and attending class. This also speaks to those who believe that once good curriculum is set, all one needs is a decent facilitator and one should have a fully-functioning classroom.

So, when I was creating my course for Full Sail, it should not be too much of a surprise that I took my 13-year experience working in public education, research from the Internet and combined it with the style of course materials I saw my co-workers using to create my course. My doctorate brethren, no doubt, used materials from their dissertation or prior work, that eventually led back to research that probably had components found on the Internet. What I’m trying to say is that a lot of what goes into classes can, in fact, be found on the Internet. So what are we paying for again? This subject is much bigger than can be fully addressed in a simple blog post, but I think that three observations can be made about the value of organized education in the era of everything on the Internet.

The first one is anecdotal, but why is it with all of the courses available to me on Lynda.com, ScreencastsOnline and iTunes U do I rarely bother with taking any of these amazingly well produced courses? With so much information and training available to me 24/7 365 days a year, why do I rarely spend any real time there? It certainly isn’t a problem of access to high quality materials. I’m afraid that as much as it might have been one of Steve Jobs’ desires to unbundle great coursework and learning from what he probably felt was antiquated institutions, it’s not enough to just post the course materials. Even if the materials are available for free, something is still missing. My thoughts are that these antiquated institutions well know that humans, without a certain level of structure, set goals and deadlines, won’t set aside the time or energy to avail themselves of the potential learning. Without some level of structure and purpose even the most professionally produced courses available to anyone willing to engage are all like disjointed sounds that have the vague familiarity of a song but blow by on the wind with no effect and no memory. Jobs himself, with everything that was available to him, never made it through even one year of study. Something about dropping into classes with no structure, may be appealing, doesn’t have enough energy or capacity to achieve the level of learning possible by a full program. A class here or there… but committing oneself to move up the learning ladder requires more than just the availability of courses.

The next two elements are based on a thought that I have been continually harping on, especially since coming to Full Sail to teach online: Real Learning is Not Solo Learning. The official teaching profession been trying for some time to make the factory model of education work, where the teacher bestows upon each individual student the magic mark of “Now Educated” on their person (hopefully close to their cranium). Alas, it’s much more complicated than that. And the first error seems to be the emphasis on learning as the achievement of individuals. Etienne Wenger in Communities of Practice and Situated Learning postulated that what we call learning is much more than just the acquisition of data, but also the social movement from being outside the learning circle as a non-participants, toward the center becoming participants and novices, and possibly eventually masters within the learning circle. Even in traditional institutions the individual is brought into the fold by the teacher, the master within the circle, and moves from outside the learning circle to a position within the circle. Essentially the idea of getting a degree is about getting the recognition of being a part of the learning group based on the strength or credibility of the learning group. Thus, if the credibility of the university is suspect than the value of the degree is diminished. Wenger recognized that the strength of education wasn’t in the individual but in the strength of the community.

Woman with a computer on a white background

So, getting back to our professor in Texas, he may have understood that he wasn’t risking anything by posting his course online because the real power and value was the relationship his students might have with him. Add to that, my experience has been, particularly in online learning, that it’s all the more re-enforced and strengthened based on the strength of the relationships between students. As much as we may want to make it all about individual achievement, it’s completely meaningless without the recognition, renewal and camaraderie of fellow participants. Given the amount of hours spent together and difficulty of the achievement, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that education is at it’s best as a communal experience. Perhaps it’s most obvious in online education because it’s least expected by participants and some educators. But when it’s done to the greatest extent of its potential, it is not the work of one, but the work of many, often working as one.

So those fearing that putting courses online will be the end of the teaching profession don’t know what they’re talking about. And those who assume that the role of the instructor can be filled by any warm body or that it’s not important to have student work as much together as possible, are selling a luke-warm version of something that could be revolutionary and life-changing. Given the effort it takes to get ones education going, why would you settle for anything less than the best?