Tag Archives: CGP Grey

What’s Missing in Digital Aristotle – RE: CGP Grey and the limits to learning with the internet

I love CGP Grey. And Hank and John Green on YouTube. But I don’t think a customized version of this sort of thing is the ideal future (or solution) to education. Here’s my take – start by watching this video:

Two experiences come to mind:

  1. I teach (and previously attended class) in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC (GSLIS). It’s regarded as one of the most highly-ranked schools in the country and has many cutting edge programs, including a distance learning system known as LEEP. While LEEP isn’t exactly what he’s talking about here it has many characteristics in common – the school acts as an intermediary for providing learning materials, assignments, guidance on subjects and evaluations, at a comparatively lower cost for all involved. Students generally pursue these materials on their own timeline (save for a 2 hr online class held at a regular time) and largely in front of a computer screen. One of the biggest problems with LEEP (in my opinion, though we have some research on this topic) is that students find it harder to be engaged when they’re stuck in front of a screen instead of amongst peers in a classroom. We try to counteract this by having on-campus days for in-person activities, which usually go well, but fact of the matter is their motivation is often less because they’re often less committed to participating in a class. Students listen to lectures while doing their dishes, slack on doing online readings and so on. And these are top-tier masters students. It’s easier for them to not care because we trust them to do more self-guided learning and we don’t check on them as much. I don’t think this problem is endemic to online learning, I think there’s a lot of variance in how much people actually enjoy learning at all. Many of the undergrads at U of I aren’t here because they like or want to learn, they’re here because it’s the path that’s been laid out for them.
  2. I’ve had a few years of experience teaching classes in informatics in GSLIS for both graduate and undergraduate students. A lot of the time we’re working on technical application skills, like building websites or learning to code, and since this stuff moves at a pace that’s too fast for even me to keep up I do a lot of referral to online learning resources like videos and sites like Lynda.com or the Khan Academy. I do what I can to inspire ideas, answer questions, provide interesting, challenging and realistic assignments and create an environment where students work together and feel supported. I encourage only self-driven potentially-independent individuals to enroll. Even in this environment I’ve noticed that as many as half in a given class has difficulty driving themselves to evaluate and make the most out of learning materials out there. They often have trouble caring about it given all of the other classes and deadlines on their plates, especially when it’s a “learn at your own pace and work at will” kind of setting.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, my issue with CGP Grey’s idea here is that he’s missing three big issues that relate to education:

  • Motivation – This varies a lot by individual but often times people can’t be entirely (or optimally or joyfully) self-driven. They need to be paid for work, get recognition for it by others, or find it constantly relevant to their in-the-moment tasks and challenges. Online learning faces a myriad of issues with motivation. Look into Nicole A. Cooke’s research for more on this issue. I think many of the people who learn online effectively in technical fields have inherited motivation and self-teaching strategies from prior in-person schooling in their early years. If my college (and above) level students struggle with this I can’t imagine what high schoolers and below in socially excluded settings go through.
  • Socialization – Another reason we have people in school is to teach them how to participate in society – as part of the workforce, as citizens in countries or communities, and as individuals. Online learning doesn’t provide as much of an opportunity for this, and I think it can even be dangerous. I make all of my kids learn about how racism, sexism or homophobia relate to technologies, regardless of if they want to because it’s part of our duty as educators to work to do so. If a learner gets to just pick and choose material Ala-cart online they’ll avoid this total package that I think is so essential to holistic and contextual learning. If we make them take ‘perspective-taking 101’ how can we assure that they’ll ever advance past the first class? How do we even know this kind of thing can be taught without real human-to-human interaction? How do we prevent ‘personalized’ from becoming ‘isolated’ in negative ways?
  • Edutainment – I’m not really convinced the internet is going to have any less interference and distraction than TV, radio or the other technologies that have failed to be our saviors in years past (see the 2:30 mark in the video). How many hours have been lost to people watching cats on the internet? There’s a reason that educational material is not the most popular – there’s not as much money there. Many instructors already feel pressured to be especially entertaining to compete with this stuff, I think this will happen on the web too. TL; DR is one of the most infuriating expressions of this I think I’ve ever run into.

So, ultimately, what am I saying? That we shouldn’t have personalized online learning? No, not at all! Does a Digital Aristotle program have a place within schools? Absolutely. Is it a good idea to split kids up by ability within given subject areas, instead of age? Sure. Can self-guided learning be powerful? Probably more so than any other type!

I’m saying I’m excited to see models where we can solve issues with motivation, continue human-to-human socialization and avoid being pwn’d by digital capitalism. I don’t know what these are yet but they’re certainly not a bunch of kids just being plugged into computer sockets in a classroom (or at home) with no real teacher. As much as the fallout from standards might cause problems (like exams being a horrible method for assessment) I think having some sense of what we want all students to know and do is useful. If we are going to implement systems like Digital Aristotle let’s be careful about ensuring they can work with an entourage of strategies to ensure well-adjusted, adaptive learners.