David Brooks Comments on Online Learning, Technical and Practical Knowledge!

Dear Commons Community,

David Brooks comments today on online learning and its influence on higher education.  Specifically he separates technical knowledge and practical knowledge and posits that the blended/hybrid learning environments are moving us to the “practical university”.   For example:

“My own [Brooks] stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is the sort of knowledge you need to understand a task — the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do.

Technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook. It is formulas telling you roughly what is to be done. It is reducible to rules and directions. It’s the sort of knowledge that can be captured in lectures and bullet points and memorized by rote.

Right now, online and hybrid offerings seem to be as good as standard lectures at transmitting this kind of knowledge, and, in the years ahead, they are bound to get better — more imaginatively curated, more interactive and with better assessments.

The problem is that as online education becomes more pervasive, universities can no longer primarily be in the business of transmitting technical knowledge. Online offerings from distant, star professors will just be too efficient. As Ben Nelson of Minerva University points out, a school cannot charge students $40,000 and then turn around and offer them online courses that they can get free or nearly free. That business model simply does not work. There will be no such thing as a MOOC university.

Nelson believes that universities will end up effectively telling students: “Take the following online courses over the summer or over a certain period, and then, when you’re done, you will come to campus and that’s when our job will begin.” If Nelson is right,then universities in the future will spend much less time transmitting technical knowledge and much more time transmitting practical knowledge.”

We can poke holes in Brooks’ position.  For instance, his examples assume that presently all college courses use a lecture model.  This is not the case.  Surely, many professors employ dialectic techniques, collaborative work, role playing, lab work, practicums, etc.  Furthermore, there are many college courses designed not to simply impart content or technical knowledge but to build skills in writing, critical thinking, and problem solving.  Regardless, Brooks raises legitimate issues and provides a rationale  for the blended/hybrid model of instruction.



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