Residential Education

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A fairly consistent reaction to the advancement of on-line educational materials (like edX or its west-coast counterparts) is that this is the beginning of the end for residential higher education. If you can take a course over the internet, the reasoning goes, why spend the time and the money to actually go to some place for college? It is far more efficient to do your travel virtually. If the end result is the same (or even close to it) there is no need for the overhead of the residential education.

Back when I was in the commercial world of hi-tech, I used to refer to thinking like this as being an example of the Highlander Fallacy. This is the fallacy based on the assumption that there can be only one; one programming language, one database, one web-server, one network transport. The new will always win over the old, and we will unify around a single standard that everyone will use. The real world doesn’t work that way; while there may be a best programming language, database, or transport for any (particular) problem, there isn’t a best of any of these for all problems.

Saying that on-line education will replace residential education is another example of the Highlander Fallacy. But it also misses the point of residential education in so many ways that it is hard to know just where to begin. A residential education is a way to spend four years in a community that is all about learning, allowing students to experiment in ways that they won’t be able to when they are out of school. At a place like Harvard, the interaction with other students is probably more educational than any courses that you could take. And heading off to college is the first chance many get to re-invent themselves; going to a new community frees us of the history that has been built up around us in our old community.

But the real reason residential education (or at least co-located education) will never go away has to do with the different kinds of things that we learn when mastering a subject. There are multiple things that need to be learned to attain mastery in a particular subject. One set of things is the content of that subject matter. But the other, more subtle and I think more important, is a set of techniques around problem solving that are used in that subject. Back in my days as a philosopher, there was an important distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Knowing that has to do with the content of a field. Knowing how is a set of skills that allow you to think like a practitioner in that field.

Consider the example of computer science. The content of computer science includes, among other things, learning about a lot of algorithms, different programming languages, the principles of operating systems and databases, and the math needed to understand cryptography. But the techniques of computer science are none of those– they have to do with learning to decompose a problem into a set of (hopefully simpler) problems, of knowing how to build a set of interfaces between different components, or how to design a user interface so that it is intuitive and easy to learn. The notion of computational thinking is all the rage at the moment, but the real core of that kind of thinking is learning how to approach problems the way a computer scientist would.

Other fields have other ways of approaching problems, which are the techniques of that field. You need to learn the content of the field to become a practitioner, but it is far more important to learn the ways of thinking. When I studied philosophy, it seemed that most of the content of the field was uninteresting (which may be why I’m no longer a philosopher), but the techniques of analytic philosophy were very interesting (and have served me well as a computer engineer and scientist).

Bringing this back to on-line education– I think that the real promise of on-line education is the ability to teach the content of a field. But it is going to be much harder to teach the techniques of thinking in an on-line fashion. The best ways to teach technique tend to look like the apprenticeship model. I’ve talked about this for system design elsewhere, but I believe it is true for lots of other fields as well. That is where the residential (or at least face-to-face) form of teaching will still be needed.

In fact, I think the proper use of on-line learning materials will enhance the residential experience. If we can get most of the content taught on-line, we will have more time to mentor students in the techniques of a field. I’d love not to have to do lectures again, and just work on problems and code and designs with students. That sort of work needs the content to be known, but is much more rewarding for both the student and the teacher.

So don’t think of edX as replacing the residential experience. The real goal is to enhance that experience.

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