Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Brief History of Education

Here is a wonderfully brief but insightful review of the history of education by Brad DeLong, economics professor at UC Berkeley:
Thus the first online-learning revolution, the first adaptation of technology to higher education, came in 390 BC when to cut the costs of education and allow for more students Plato invented the philosophy book and substituted it for the in-person teacher, thus leveraging the words and thoughts of Socrates (or at least of Plato’s version of Socrates) over many more people and many more millennia than Socrates could himself teach in person.

Books, however, were very expensive back in the days of manuscript production. According to “The Secret History of the Industrial Revolution” by U.C. Davis’s Gregory Clark, the price of books in the early fourteenth century was perhaps 100 times their price today. We in the post-industrial North Atlantic today are perhaps 100 times better-off in material things than were our medieval predecessors. Thus a single book in 1300 cost as large a share of a typical person’s income then as $50,000 is today: acquiring a single book was as great a relative investment and expenditure as a full year of a private college—tuition, fees, room, and board—is today. Plato’s invention of the philosophy book was a technological advance in education, but it was not a large enough advance.

It was not a large enough advance because in medieval Europe bishops and kings found that they needed staffs. Bishops needed theologians and experts in canon law. Kings needed judges and administrators. How best to train all these additional intellectuals? Providing each would-be theologian and judge and canon lawyer and administrator with the books they needed to study was prohibitively expensive. They needed an alternative

The solution that mid-medieval Europe hit upon was the system of the western university, the system that originated in Bologna and Paris. Assemble all those who wished to learn a book in one place. Have somebody—a reader, in Latin a lector, in modern English a lecturer—read the book aloud to them as they sat before him in a group and took their notes. At 4000 words an hour for twenty hours a week a student could absorb about thirty books a year in his time at university. Admittedly the notes he took away and the memory of hearing the book were third-rate compared to the second-rate possession of the book of a first-rate thinker. But it was good enough. And so the western medieval universities grew and flourished. This was the second online-learning revolution.

Then came the third online-learning revolution: the printing press of Johann Gutenberg, and the seventy-year explosion of print culture that followed. By 1500 a book was no longer the same share of income as $50,000 is today but was rather more like the share of $2,000 today. The extraordinary expense of books that had provoked the foundation of the western university and the institution of the group lecture was over. Now everybody could have their own copy of the books they needed. The necessity for gathering all would-be intellectuals together in a few towns and having them sit in groups listening to a speaker had passed.

Yet the university survived. The lecture class survived. They survive to this day. And they have grown and flourished—even though their original reason for being, the tremendous expense of books, is now more than 500 years in the past.

Today we are in the middle of a fourth online-learning revolution. To properly understand and manage it, however, we need to understand something crucial about the third online-learning revolution. What is it about the institution of the university that allowed it to survive the third online-learning revolution? For the fourth will be a catastrophic bust and distance-learning will die—unless we figure out how to replicate online those features of the university which kept it alive in the post-Gutenberg years after the third online-learning revolution.
I don't think "distance education" will die out. The Internet is the biggest, most wonderful "distance education" experiment ever run. It is creating more avid intellects than you can imagine. The problem with Brad's thinking is that it is too entrenched in the third revolution and too university-centric. I agree with Brad that this new revolution will not usurp the universities, but it is making changes everywhere. I would bet that the quality of community college instruction has leaped up a few notches by access to syllabuses from elite colleges and course notes from premier professors. I suspect some kind of "university of the Internet" will crystalize with access to a core curriculum across all human knowledge. Great students will access this and then use this as a springboard to assault the great universities. I suspect the quality of applicants at the great universities will soar over the next 20 to 30 years.

One problem humans have is an inability to see the immediate changes around them. It sneaks up on even the experts who are looking for it because the eye has to be trained to see the new. Without training, most of us miss the new right under our noses.

Another problem is that they anticipate change will move more quickly than it does. It takes a generation for any fundamental change to toss out the old ideas and minds then replace them with the new younger generation. I hate to say this, but crises usually spur this changeover. Maybe the current Great Recession with its budget impacts will force the older generation to cede ground to a new generation with a new vision of education.

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