Education vs. Learning vs. Courses

This started out as a comment on Stephen Downes’ post on using the words “course” and “education” to describe connectivist MOOCs. Right away, I realized that it was quickly going to get unwieldy as a comment, so I decided to move it over here and link back.

When I took courses in Adult Education a few years back, the definition of learning vs. education we worked with focused on the fact that education was intentional.  So making a point to watch a documentary on PBS because you want to learn more about the history of Jazz (or whatever) counts as education, whereas if someone else discovers that same documentary while flipping channels and watches it because there’s nothing better on, then they may still learn the same content, but it doesn’t count as education because there was no intent for that learning to happen.

(Sidenote: serendipitous learning is awesome, it’s just not the same as education.)

I personally like this definition of education, because it honors all effort dedicated toward learning, and removes the institutional bias that so many in higher ed have.  It’s still education even if it’s not happening in a classroom.  It’s still education even if it’s not similar to what usually happens in classrooms.  It’s still education even if it doesn’t need a “knowledgeable facilitator”.

That institutional education bias reveals itself every time I say something along the lines of maybe not everyone needs to go to college.  Depending on the person I’m talking to, their tone may be gleeful or sad, but the content of the response is generally the same: “Yes, I suppose the world needs ditch diggers too.”  But that’s not what I mean.  Being educated and having formal schooling are not the same thing.  (Plus, that mindset implies a false dichotomy between intellectual work and unskilled labor, ignoring the existence, and importance, of skilled labor careers.)

My husband is a very successful developer (a computer programmer).  He never went to college at all, and all of his professional skills are self-taught.  Does that mean he’s uneducated, and fit only for digging ditches?  Baloney.  He’s brilliant and hard-working, just not classroom-oriented.  Once, back in one of those master’s-level adult education courses I took, there was another student who had gotten a CS degree and after having trouble finding/keeping a programming job (he was the sort of guy that insists that C++ is the only real programming language and that women are inherently inferior at such things, to paint you a picture) and came back to get a master’s in Educational Technology.  After I shared some information about my husband in class (it was relevant to the class discussion, I promise!) this other student reacted angrily, and finally said “Why did I put in all that seat time getting a degree if guys like that get the jobs?”  I really don’t remember what I said, but I wish I had said something like “Duh.  Maybe because you thought of it as seat time?”

The best part of Stephen’s post is this:

I challenge that the artificial forms we have come in recent decades to call ‘courses’ and an ‘education’ are outright fabrications, plasticized facsimiles of the real thing to be offered at the greatest fee the market will bear to an unwitting public, while those who can afford it continue to have their much less formal and much more rewarding education at elite institutions.

What you have when you assemble an education filled with structured courses, formalized exams, and high-priced credentials, is a potemkin village, a cargo cult experience in which people attending Your City High School or the University of Your State act out as though they were graduating Eton or Radcliffe and Harvard or Yale but merely go though the motions, obtain a piece of paper, and move on with their lives not realizing they have been cheated out of what could have been a worthwhile education.

No, I do not yield the ground regarding the terms ‘course’ and ‘education’. I take them back from the institution, and I return them to the people.

The trappings have become more important than the substance of an education in popular discourse.  Of course, it’s easier to check off classroom seat time than it is to accurately evaluate a person’s skills.  I have had students be sincerely surprised and puzzled when I suggest that the purpose of their education ought to be something other than going through the motions to obtain a piece of paper.  There were students last spring who (respectfully) said that they felt that the blogging project was pointless, because the skills they built in that project were not tested on the final exam.  Now, some of that is clearly the result of having students indoctrinated by years of high-stakes standardized testing.  What’s important is passing a test.  If it’s not going to help you pass the test, why spend time on it?

Which makes me consider– what should the point of a course in Applied Calculus be?


4 thoughts on “Education vs. Learning vs. Courses

  1. I wrote this in October, two days before my son was born, and it’s been hanging out in my drafts folder ever since. I went ahead and posted it without proofreading.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    Congratulations on your new son! I hope that you are getting some sleep.

    I really like your definition of “education,” but I am going to try to answer your last question. My current answer for “applied calculus” is this: if students are taking applied calculus, there isn’t much chance that they will be directly doing calculus in later courses (otherwise they should be taking calculus). If this is true, then I think that the point of the course should be to teach the concepts and a tinytinytiny bit of calculations, since that is what they will likely need it for.

    I am not completely satisfied with that definition, though, since it seems pretty short-sighted. What I would really like for any course is: figure out what the goals for any college student (regardless of major), and figure out how applied calculus (or whatever) can be used as a tool to achieve some subset of those goals. My first answer then becomes a secondary goal, then.

    I don’t know much of anything on how to do this. Some examples of goals might be “use and demand evidence in arguments” and “see things from other people’s points of view.”

    Part of my summer will be figuring out how to make this work.

    • Thanks!

      I’ve been having a sort of edu-existentialist crisis lately (okay, it’s been building for a couple of years), asking myself what is the point of all of this. And not in a bleak way, although it does feel that way sometimes. I think it’s a question that sincerely needs an answer.

      Applied Calculus feels like it should be one of the easier ones to answer for. We have two flavors of it at Texas State: Business Calculus and Calculus for Life Science. But sometimes I feel like the (unspoken) answer is “The business school wants the students to jump through this hoop. It’s my job to hold the hoop.” I’m definitely not satisfied with that answer, but on the other hand that’s a part of it that can’t be ignored.

      I’ll be interested to see how you come along with your planning this summer.

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