Last week Annie Murphy Paul published an incisive piece on Slate, "Bill Gates Is an Autodidact. You're Probably Not."
Paul notes that autodidacts--those who are so motivated to learn a topic that they will climb any mountain or blaze any trail to do so--are rare. Bill Gates is such a person when it comes to computer coding.
This is laudable, but most people require structured learning experiences under the guidance of instructors. Relying on the Gates model as a guideline is poor policy.
But this is precisely what may be happening. Educational technology initiatives such as Massive Open Online Courses are stronger on the technology than the learning theory. Just give the students access to course materials from MIT, and watch the magic happen.
Not true. For all of the faults of earlier models of education--droning lecturers, over-reliance upon standardized tests--they do provide structure and systems of accountability between student and teachers. MOOC drop-out rates are often high, because such cornerstones are often absent.
So what should we do? Go boldly forward with our use of educational technology--but intelligently, not evangelically.
Experiment, learn, iterate, repeat. We should take the time to get this right, despite alarmism about the death of the university. The Internet offers untold new potential for teaching and learning, just like the printing press did centuries ago. But it took a while for books to become standardized throughout Europe. This is why we denote anything printed in Europe before 1501 as "incunabala." Gutenberg's printing press came along around 1450, or maybe earlier--so it took at least 50 years for books as we know them to develop.
With that in mind, let's remember that the Internet on broad scale is just 2 decades old. In some ways it's more radical than the printing press; communication on the Web is instantaneous, voluminous, and protean. Of course it will take some time to figure out how to use this thing.
So let's slow down, be thoughtful, and learn how to learn online.