Jailbreaking the degree: Voids warranty and may cause data loss

David Blake writing in TechCrunch discusses higher education and the failure to meet commoditized demands by breaking the degree structure into modules. Similar to many writers before his concern is about the trivial courses that mean nothing to the outlet the student desires. His concern is alliterated as jailbreaking (similar to how you open a mobile handset to uses unintended) and iTunes where albums were no longer the granularity of the content. This really isn’t a set of new concepts to higher education. Inherent in this discussion is the student as consumer and expectation that the consumer knows best.

David Blake writes, “The problem, to date, is that formal, online education is still being packaged in all-or-nothing degree programs, falsely constraining education innovation.”

Is it a problem that as a collective over the last ten centuries a process of delivery of educational material has derived a program of study that is inclusive and holistic rather than segmented and servile? Is the structure of education so far behind the cognitive and learning strategies of a rapidly evolving human species? I admit technology has revolutionized human interaction and ability to grasp concepts but is the guy from 1000 years so significantly different mentally and physically?

If you suggest the mere aspect of being a modern human means you are exposed to more information then breaking up the university curriculum falls on the sword of inherent requirement. It being that if there is more information and the human being only having so much input and output capacity more time may be needed and more focus required to educate the student. If the argument hinges on the requirement for depth rather than breadth in which aspect will you allow the student to cut? The trivialities of ethics, law, and mutual citizenship thus eroding further the bounds of society and the social contract of expectations?

David Blake writes, “Technology creates efficiencies by decreasing unit size while increasing utility.  To falsely constrain anything to historically larger canons is to render technology impotent to do what it does best.”

Though I’m loathe to say it the aspect of utility is illusory. In what utility is calculus to the student studying it? What aspirant to engineering hasn’t sat back and looked at a tool like MatLab and thought, “Why in the world do I need to do this stuff by hand?” Yet, the thinking and problem solving strategies of working through a quadratic calculus problem instantiate significantly more than an understanding of negative one versus one. Until experienced this is learning unsought and not understood in many cases until long after the student has left the university.

Expecting the student to know what they should know is a logical false statement and determination of parochialism by those who force it. Though logically false, how many of the people suggesting this form of unstructured learning were successes from that unstructured learning environment? A kindergartner should not be put in a course with high school seniors. The absurdity of the edge cases should inform us of the risks in the center cases. Who are you willing to leave behind?

David Blake writes, “Jailbreaking the degree and making courses the “unit” of education will unlock a flood of unmet demand and a new wave of possibilities in how we learn and consume education.”

Though mildly appealing I have seen the results of breaking learning into learning units, modules, or subsections. It is one of those mind boggling educational unicorns that is fanciful for a variety of reasons. Most of the educational module systems that have been designed have to have a hierarchical and inherent structure behind them because learning is based on learning techniques or strategies prior to moving on to the next level.  When you break courses up into modules you lose the flow of the course, the engagement of students, and the group interaction and peer to peer interactions.

The learning module works across a hierarchy of peer courses but will not work in a depth of courses. You must take arithmetic prior to taking trigonometry prior to taking calculus. There has to be a level field of students moving into each course module. Otherwise a large number of them are abandoned. The resources to assist students and provide feedback in a large course of study would be cost prohibitive. The expectation that all (or even most) students enter prepared for anything is elitist.  The sink or swim approach may be inviting to some, but all are paying customers. So another element of the hubris of the argument is uncovered.

It is TechCrunch and not the Chronicle of Higher Education. Mr. Blake has an interesting analogy for the learning environment, but not one that is sustainable across the university system. The educational system contrary to many peoples beliefs in my opinion is not broken. It has been eroded and bent upon the anvil of politics, but in ten centuries it has done pretty good by our ability to create and innovate. I would fully admit that our costing system, administrative system, and various other widgets of corporatism in education are broken. I don’t think that those high impact items reflect the educational environment between student and professor.

In the end this argument like many in higher education is about who pays for what. The push to distance learning education is in my opinion is a good direction. I enjoy watching lectures by the best people in the field and the use of interactive training and education tools. The denigration of the university education has to stop. It is an affront to faculty and students alike. A university education isn’t a hamburger and you shouldn’t be able to get it at the drive thru. Education is a process of discovery and some of that discovery is uncomfortable or even distasteful.

A technical degree program has a liberal arts core because it supports the educational development of the student whether they want it or not. A liberal arts degree program will have math and technical courses because students need that background too. It is easy to argue against a single course, but it is quite another to argue against the system. Innovation and expression are important across the curriculum and inherently there are elements people feel they don’t need. What is ignored is that the mashing together of students into courses they may not want to take serves more than their purpose. It may serve the purpose of the university or even society.

Another aspect to “jailbreaking” the degree is that you don’t always know where you’re going when you start. I’d like to think that most of the discussion is in the students interest and not part of the business plan of people looking at the bones of academia as a way to make a buck. I’d like to think most people realize that higher education was never meant to be a jobs program and that attending university was supposed to be a elitist effort as in only the most academically elite could attend. The fact that businesses in the interest of cutting costs cut their training programs and now want a vote on what universities teach is laughable.  Though I do see the same mistake being made by government within the Joint Professional Military Education environment. There are dozens of ways to cut costs to students and decrease the overall costs of higher education. Ripping the heart out of the university and the denigrating the experience because it is currently trendy is not the best course.


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