THE DISRESPECTED STUDENT — OR —THE NEED FOR THE VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY

Roger Schank [8.15.99]
Topic:
Introduction By: John Brockman

Roger Schank is a computer scientist and cognitive psychologist who has worked in the AI field for twenty-five years. Like Marvin Minsky, he takes the strong AI view, but rather than trying to build an intelligent machine he wants to deconstruct the human mind. He wants to know, in particular, how natural language — one's mother tongue — is processed, how memory works, and how learning occurs. Schank thinks of the human mind as a learning device, and he thinks that it is being taught in the wrong way. He is something of a gadfly; he deplores the curriculum-based, drill-oriented methods in today's schools, and his most recent contributions have been in the area of education, looking at ways to use computers to enhance the learning process.

THE DISRESPECTED STUDENT — OR — THE NEED FOR THE VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY 
A Talk with Roger Schank

ROGER SCHANK: Universities are scrambling to get into the distance education business. They see the computer as vital to this enterprise but it is not obvious that they know why it is vital. Universities want to deliver courses via the web. They want to do this because they are frightened that someone will do it before them and gain more prestige or more student revenue. The people who are putting their courses on the web are not doing it because they are interested in the exploration of new teaching methods. They do not see the web as a revolutionary instrument. But that is just what it is.

It is easy to imagine that universities have suddenly become fascinated by the power of the computer, or that they have begun to worry about the kid from Dubuque who will never get to Boston let alone attend Harvard. But what is really going on has nothing to do with computers or with education for the masses. Universities are concerned that if Harvard ever got their act together and decided to deliver every Harvard course via videotape lectures and developed some way for students to interact with TAs to have homework graded, then everyone else would be out of business.

JB: Is this what Harvard has in mind?

SCHANK: Harvard isn't going to do this because they are Harvard after all, but what if some other very reputable and less stuffy place decided to give it a try? Would anyone go to Contra Costa Junior College if Virtual Harvard were available at the same price and at whatever time fit your schedule? This is what everyone is worried about.

This is not what we ought to be worried about however. Rather we should worry about what kind of education these Virtual U's are going to serve up. I am afraid I know the answer: the same old stuff they have been serving, only this time there will be no football, no fraternity parties, and nobody to b.s. with until three in the morning. It is reasonable to ponder how living in an isolating society is going to get even more so, but that is not our issue here. No one will stop this rolling freight train. But giving the train a reasonable direction wouldn't be a bad idea.

We know that Virtual U will serve up electronic courses, and therein lies the excitement. People are actually thinking about designing courses in a new way. They are not doing this because of the opportunity to redesign and rethink the concept of what a university can and should offer. They are designing courses in a new way because the new medium forces them to do so. Nevertheless, we suddenly have the opportunity to ask: What exactly should the offerings of a university be? What should a course be? Should there be courses at all? How can we make education better?

 

As with most aspects of society that we take for granted, courses have been with us for so long that we simply accept that they have the structure, length, and characteristics that they have and leave it at that. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Web courses are basically parodies of existing courses. They have what the real courses have, only less. No real interaction with faculty, no real doing, no real excitement. But, this state of affairs will not continue for long. In a competitive market, the web will open up competition in university education (and later on in secondary education) in a way that few have imagined. Web courses will undergo a transformation over time and that transformation will begin to change education (and perhaps society itself) forever.

Web courses will be different from existing college courses for three reasons. (1): current college courses aren't very good; students are often dissatisfied with what their school is offering; (2): the length, material covered, and general methodology in college courses were derived from practical considerations that are irrelevant in this new medium; (3): it's on a computer, dammit — and computers are inherently doing devices rather than listening devices, so courses can be based upon doing.

JB: Is doing important to how people learn?

SCHANK: That people learn by doing is an idea that has been around for a long time. In fact, John Dewey (1916) lamented that even though everyone knew that people learn by doing and cannot "learn by pouring in" there seemed to be no way to change the schools. Well, now there is. Learning by doing needs a medium and computers can be that medium. Existing college courses, when they allow for doing can succeed. But, a great many courses, especially introductory courses and service courses have little or no doing in them at all. This will change when the Virtual University ascends.

Current college courses fail not only in their means of delivery, but also in what they are trying to deliver. This is true for a variety of reasons, the two main ones being the idea of a curriculum and the concept of service courses. Colleges have the sense that they know what students should learn so they create curricula that require students take a course in X or fill the Y distribution requirement with a number of possible courses. So students who are interested in learning to do Y find a set of hoops to be jumped through in order to do Y, including a variety of prerequisites.

 

The problem is that every time a student takes a course because he has to, he finds himself faced with a serious motivation problem. If you don't know why you need to know something it is difficult to learn it and what you learn won't stay in memory for long. If we don't use something, or at least see how we might use it, it is difficult to retain it. A course in calculus may well be useful for an economist, but since the actual course likely has very little to do with economics and the calculus that would eventually be used by the economist, the student will have trouble caring about or retaining what he learned. If he never uses what he learns, he'll forget it entirely.

JB: How long should a college course be?

SCHANK: The current answer is about forty hours of seat time spanning a twelve-week period. Does some great educational truth underlie this? No. It simply has always been done this way. How long should a course actually be? As long as it takes to learn to do what the course is teaching you to do. This is so obvious it seems almost absurd to mention it. And, it would be absurd if it weren't for the fact this ideal is violated in nearly every college course.

JB: Isn't one big exception the PhD thesis which takes as long as it takes.

SCHANK: Right. By and large graduate education is much closer to a learn by doing philosophy. In fact, courses that take as long as they take are really not possible in current university environments. Each student can't get his own length course; professors can't be available for as long as this takes. There had to be some standardization on time.

The web changes all that — take a course when you want and learn as much as you want until you can demonstrate that you can do what the course is trying to teach you to do. This makes sense. Naturally, this is not what current web-based courses are doing for the most part. Just as early films were just filmed plays, early web courses are just regular courses on the web. This will change. And when it does the structure of the university system will have to change with it. You won't need so many course credits to graduate because the concept of "credits" will have become meaningless. What is needed is a new concept, based upon performance. Graduates should have accomplished certain things, not necessarily have sat through certain courses.

JB: Let's talk about how the computer fits in to all of this.

SCHANK: Education on the computer has been, by and large, a disappointment, over-hyped and under-realized. Computer-based training has meant putting a book on a computer, allowing the student to press a button to get the next page and take a quiz at the end. Edutainment has meant some silly game that purported to be teaching valuable facts to children.

JB: So can we do better?

SCHANK: You bet we can. The air flight simulator is a very good piece of educational software; there is no better way to learn to fly that isn't dangerous. Learning by doing is a practical reality given good simulations. The problem is both to build those simulations and to reinvent a curriculum based upon this new technology and the idea of learning by doing.

 

JB: How does the Virtual University work?

SCHANK: The rise of the Virtual University allows us to reconsider education. It is reasonable to assume that education involves learning and we are all under the impression that school is a place where learning goes on, or at least it is a place where learning is supposed to go on. Business is so dissatisfied with the state of education today that we find corporation after corporation creating their own "universities" where employees may attempt to relearn what they failed to learn in school or where they can learn what they might need to know on their jobs. Even so, those businesses that have recognized that school didn't work out for their employees are nevertheless of the belief that school is the right model for learning Curiously, business training tends to be a copy of existing school systems. This seems quite odd to me, because everyone agrees that the schools are broken — although very few people agree about why they are broken.

At the beginning of my classes I usually ask students why they are in college and they tell me things like, "it is a four year vacation," "the parties are goo d," "it will get me a good job later," "it is what everyone does so I never thought about an alternative" and so on. The issue of learning never comes up. Why is that? School isn't really about learning at all. It is about certification. College students attend school to get a degree that they hope will get them something they want. They pick schools on this basis, and they attend school with the concomitant attitude. We never ask a student if he learned a lot, we ask how well he did. Self-evaluation is based on the judgment of others when it comes to "official" learning. Students feel they did well when others say they did well. It is the rare student who says that he learned a great deal and thus was very happy with his education.

Recently I attended the commencement exercises at Columbia University because my son was graduating. The valedictorian gave a speech in which she said that she had always disliked school and that while she felt that she couldn't help but work to be the best at it, she was sorry she worked that hard and would never do it again. It was an odd speech, and most people in the audience were upset by it. I, on the other hand, was happy to hear someone tell it like it is. Education ought not be a competition. Learning should be fun. The stress that students endure in school and the arbitrariness and general lack of real world relevance of what they learn make learning anything but fun.

While I was pondering this young lady's speech I glanced at the program notes and was reminded of why school is the way it is. The notes mentioned that the commencement address had been given in Latin until quite recently. Latin has been a dead language for well over a thousand years and yet still, because it once was the language of erudition it remained so for a thousand years. Talk about inability to change! How can we fix the schools if it takes a thousand years to get rid of something as basic as what language is being spoken!

 

We have the opportunity to create some massive changes in what it means to be involved in obtaining an education. To do this we must change the model of school completely. Many professors in today's universities are not motivated to provide high quality teaching. They know students will not act like consumers despite the fact that they are paying the bills. Rather, since students need the certification and recommendations universities provide, professors are in a power position and not in a service providers position.

Professors understand that they can dominate students and create various hoops for students to jump through in order to get a good grade, but that they don't really have to worry whether anyone has learned anything. In this model it is all too easy to just lecture and test and forget about real education.

This is all okay with students as it turns out. There is an implicit gentlemen's agreement about school. Teachers make demands, students satisfy those demands, and those who play the game by the rules win. "You give me the grade, I'll get the degree, I'm out of here."

JB: What motivates professors? Why do they teach?

SCHANK: There is a certain naivete on the part of students in universities about why the professors who teach them are there. They assume teachers teach because it's their job and that the model that held in high school of the professional teacher applies to the university as well. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Professors at the top universities teach because they have to, or ought to, rarely because they see teaching as fundamental to their life's work. At my university, professors who don't get research grants or contribute to the university in other ways are "punished" by having to teach. A top notch professor, one who is world famous and brings in lots of research dollars, may teach as little as one course every two years. On the other hand, his colleague who has none of these attributes may teach as many as four courses a quarter.

The best professors may or may not be the best teachers. This is actually a complicated idea because the issue of what defines "best" is subject to question and what defines good teaching is a very open issue. In the competitive world of American universities "best" has a clear meaning. Universities vie for the services of professors who have the biggest reputations. Top professors get great deals as they are sought after by the top schools. These deals include higher salaries, but as universities can only go so high, other issues matter as well. One of the biggest is teaching load. As a result, the best professors have teaching loads of nearly zero and sometimes of literally zero. Clearly, in such an environment teaching is not valued, despite what these same universities say to their prospective students.

Nevertheless, these same professors who happily avoid teaching are often the best teachers. The reason why this is so is not obvious to the prospective buyers of these services. Typically, when students attempt to decide between Harvard and Amherst for example, they say in Amherst's defense that the professors there are professional teachers and care more about the students and pay more attention to teaching. Like any generalization this one can be dead wrong, but on the whole it is true. The real question is: of the professors at each institution, who knows more? On the face of it this seems like a silly question. A course in the classics is a course in the classics. The best teacher would teach the best course, and the knowledge of any teacher is likely to be the same.

 

While this may be true for the classics it is not at all true for a field like Artificial Intelligence (AI).Artificial Intelligence as a field is being invented today. The people who are inventing it reside at big, well-funded research labs that allow them to build their toys and experiment with all kinds of hardware. They don't do this at Amherst. If you want to learn about AI you can take a course about it at Amherst, but the teacher of that course will be someone who read some books about it rather than someone who is doing it. (Actually Amherst students can sign up for AI courses at the University of Massachusetts nearby which despite not being a university considered to be of the quality of Amherst is far better equipped to teach them.) At the very best the small college teacher is out of date on the subject, at the worst he really doesn't understand the issues all that well. I have been doing graduate admissions in AI for thirty years and I can count on one hand all the applications we have gotten from students at the "best" small colleges. Students at these schools never even find out about this subject much less decide to make it their life's work.

Of course, you could go to MIT (a very good AI lab) and take a course from the best professors in AI. But these are the very same people who don't teach all that much, who don't value teaching, and who, when they do teach, have classes with hundreds of students in them. The best professors in AI are not professors because they want to be teachers, they are professors because they want to be researchers. They want to build robots or explore how the mind makes generalizations or figure out how to get a computer to be world chess champion. Teaching is one of the last things on their minds.

So, the short answer to the question is that in the best schools they teach because they have to not because they want to, and in the good teaching schools there is a very good chance that they teach what they don't understand all that well.

JB: Let's talk about curricula.

SCHANK: The curriculum is one of the major problems with today's schools. When you tell a professor he is to teach a certain class, you might assume this means he will teach what any other professor might teach in that class. One high school history course is like another, so one might assume that this is true of college as well. But curricula in college are professor-dependent. This wouldn't be such a problem if it only meant there was slight variance in how a given course was taught from year to year and professor to professor. Unfortunately, the issue is bigger than that.

Professors teach what they know. There is no standard set of things to be taught in anything but the most introductory courses. So, introduction to psychology is pretty similar in every university, as is freshman calculus. But, any advanced course is subject to the professor's unique view of his field. This is fine because one goes to university to meet interesting faculty and to learn what their view of the field is. Or one ought to. This is what universities have to offer, an opportunity to engage a world expert on his own turf to discuss ideas he created or is deeply involved with and for just a few weeks to pretend that you are a world class economist or sociologist dealing with issues just as professionals in those fields do. This is the ideal. The reality is something else again.

One of the problems with this view is that students by and large don't share it. Most college students go to class expecting to learn the facts. They want to know how economics or sociology works. When I teach a class on how the mind works, students want to know how it works and I should please tell them. The difficulty with this view is that most professors don't actually know the answers to the questions students pose. Economics professors don't know how the economy works and sociologists don't know how society works and I don't know how the mind works. What we all do have are deeply held beliefs about these subjects. And we all fervently want to get students to see things our way, to absorb our point of view and to understand why our academic enemies are idiots.

 

Students have no idea that this what they are getting into. They just want to know what is true.They don't want to hear one professor's viewpoint. But that is what they get every time. For this reason one university is quite different than another and every course in AI is different at every school. This is the fun part of teaching. Professors like talking about their own work and their own ideas. They love trashing their enemies. They love talking about the research they are doing. The question is: Is this what students came to learn? By and large I think it is not.

JB: How do university requirements get established?

SCHANK: Requirements get set in a university body, from general graduation requirements for a B.A. to PhD requirements in any field, by a committee. This committee represents various interests. When I became a member of the computer science department at Yale I noticed that in order to get a PhD in Computer Science one had to take a course in Numerical Analysis (NA) and a course in AI. I couldn't imagine a bigger waste of time for my graduate students than to take a course in numerical processing by computers when they were trying to build smart machines. One thing had nothing to do with the other. The requirement was there because of political compromise. No one knew what it meant to get a PhD in computer science so they simply required a little bit of everything of everybody. This could take an entire year out of a graduate student's life for no reason, but no one questioned it. I got rid of the requirement by making a deal with the top guy in NA. His students didn't need to take our courses and ours didn't need to take his.

Now, it turns out that deals like this are very hard to make in a university. The top NA guy was reasonable, and more important he was someone whose livelihood was not threatened by such a deal. When professors lose students they may find themselves in deep trouble. Nontenured appointments can be eliminated and tenured faculty may wind up teaching subjects they know little about. Unless your subject is very popular, the only way to keep teaching your favorite subject is to make it a requirement. Believe me NA was not popular, but it was well funded so the NA guys weren't worried. But there is no way to eliminate the Linguistics requirement at Northwestern short of a revolution. No one would ever take such courses otherwise. University requirements are about politics not education.

JB: Do the students understand this? What are their expectations?

SCHANK: Students tend to have the view that the university knows what is best for them and that if they follow the recommended course of study their lives will work out fine. I once had a freshman advisee who asked me what courses to take. This was at Yale where course requirements were quite minimal. I said the world was open to him and he should take what he had always wanted to know about. He told me this was no good. He needed to know what would get him ahead in life and that he thought I was pretty successful so he wanted to know what courses I had taken my freshman year. I assured him that I went to school in the dark ages when one had no choice at all and that he should be happy he lived in such enlightened times. He insisted. So I mentioned that I had taken Western Civilization, English Literature, Physics, Chemistry, and Calculus, all required of all freshmen at Carnegie Tech. Those are the courses he took.

Students expect that the curriculum set forth for them by the faculty is meant to help them get where they want to go after school. This simply isn't true. In computer science for example, the skills that will get students jobs include various programming skills that are used in industry. One might think that computer science departments around the country would make sure that all these employable skills are taught in their curriculum, indeed one would expect them to be the center of the curriculum. Sorry. Most computer science professors are not familiar with the commercial packages that are in use on a daily basis in industry and even if they happen to know them, they consider them to be of little intellectual interest. So, a computer science student will learn the mathematics involved in making calculations about what is computable, they will learn the theory of designing programming languages, but they will not learn much of what they will ever use in the real world. Computer scientists want their field to be a science and they want students to attempt to practice that science despite the fact that the students are there because they want jobs in industry.

 

Why is Introduction to Psychology in every university a tedious survey of every aspect of psychology that no student likes and that no student can avoid? This is a simple question. You can't get around this awful course because, anyone who has taken it will recall, you are required to be the subject of psychological experiments in order to pass it. That requirement is made by the faculty because they need those subjects for their experiments. Without a course that anyone who wants to take psychology must take, there would be no subject pool. Psychology professors lobby long and hard to make this course required for graduation from the university so that they will have even more subjects in the subject pool. They make sure every aspect of psychology is covered so that any faculty member can teach it and thus no one hogs all the subjects. A typical student signs up for a course in psychology because he wants to understand his parents, or his friends, or analyze his various personal problems. Universities make sure there is no way you can take courses on these subjects without having gone through other psychology courses that no one would want to take (on visual perception or on statistics for example). If departments responded to what students want, there would only be clinical courses offered and all those experts in experimental psychology would lose their jobs. When research interests of the faculty fail to coincide with student's course interests, ways are invented to make sure the faculty wins.

This conspiracy is not always supported by the faculty actually. I once asked some chemists who were interested in improving teaching in chemistry about the required first year chemistry curriculum. I asked what percentage of their student were premeds and got the unsurprising answer of 95%. I asked if the first year of college chemistry had anything in it at all that would be relevant to the life of a doctor. They said "no." I asked if there was chemistry that might be of importance in the career of a doctor. They said "of course." So why wasn't the chemistry curriculum revised to include the chemistry that might matter to doctors as opposed to the chemistry they will never need? Because medical schools and various certification boards and publishers had established what courses would be counted towards the requirements for medical school and there was no changing it. In this case even the chemistry faculty was frustrated by this, but there was nothing they could do about it.

JB: How does a first-year student decide what to study?

SCHANK: One of the serious problems with required courses, standard curricula, and other unchangeables in the current university system is the effect they have on the future of students. It is the rare student who comes to college knowing what he wants to be when he grows up. He usually knows what subjects interested him in high school, and maybe he knows something about the profession of his parents or other people he admires. But, those are usually the only guides he has. The fact that the high school curriculum is also unchangeable means that each student is familiar with having taken math, English, history and some science and thus their first thought is to continue this course of study.

Students want guidance. The guidance they get is not necessarily what they need however. My daughter loved biology in high school and had thoughts of becoming a biologist. When she went to sign up for college biology it turned out that she had already taken the course in high school so she was told to take a required chemistry course that was a prerequisite for second year biology. She hated the chemistry, didn't finish the full year course and had to find a new major. She never got to find out if she really liked biology.

 

Students are typically directed, either intentionally or through coercion of other students, into the majors that are "in" at their school. At Yale vast numbers of students are English and history majors despite the fact that there is no call for such majors in the job market. They decide on these majors because it is well known that the faculty at Yale in these areas is first rate. Students at Yale have absorbed the ethic that a liberal education is what matters, not job potential. I was once booed at a meeting where department chairs advertised their departments to freshman when I said "major in computer science and you'll get a job when you graduate." This was not the zeitgeist at Yale. College education at Yale is the same as it was in the nineteenth century, a place to study the classics. Fortunately, the students of that era had daddy's business to go into. Today, students get the same advice, but find themselves with only law school to attend when they graduate.

JB: There appears to be dissatisfaction in corporate America with the students of many universities. How do employers view the graduates?

SCHANK: The dissatisfaction is real enough but the blame is often oddly placed. What would employers like students to know that they don't know?

Corporations across America worry about students knowing basic business concepts (like accounting), knowing about how to work in teams, knowing how to write well, make oral presentations, and generally knowing how and why businesses work. But, where would students learn all this? Even a major in business might not learn all these things, and most universities discourage undergraduate majors in business. So, a student interested in business is likely to major in economics where he learns about macro and micro economic systems and learns next to nothing of what I have listed above.

Of course, I am not recommending that a college education ought to be proper training in business. (Although the idea that, in our world, understanding business is considerably less important that understanding Dickens is of some mystery to me.) The problem is really with the conception of a liberal education and the monopoly on education that is held by those who have that conception. Students think they should go to college to get a job and colleges think students are there for some other reason entirely. A compromise might be nice. Colleges do have some obligation to raise the consciousness of students beyond their initial aspirations. On the other hand they also have the obligation to respect the practical exigencies that are extant in today's world.

Political science majors presumably want to work in politics and usually do not want to work on the theory of political systems. Psychology majors presumably are interested in the mind and might want to work in health related fields and are not likely to become experimental psychologists. Do these fields care about this when they design their curricula? You bet they don't. Professors often share the idea that they are really training their students to become academics like themselves and that their job is to cater to the one or two students who show promise in that regard. All other students, those who will become practitioners in these fields, are given short shrift and not taken seriously by the curriculum committee. Individual professors can and do work around the system they have set up, but by and large the system does not enable or even care about future student employment.

JB: Given this focus on making students into mini-academics, don't colleges prepare students for graduate study? How do the graduate schools view the graduates?

 

SCHANK: When a student enters nearly any PhD program the U.S. he is assumed to have learned little of value in college. The only time we ever give credit to PhD students for work they did in college is when they took the identical courses we offer to our first year graduate students. Given what I said about the idiosyncratic courses offered by professors around the world, this means, in effect, that only the undergraduates who went to our school, who actually took the identical courses they would be forced to take again, actually get credit for and can skip some courses.

All around the U.S. the best graduate programs believe that if a student learned anything in college it is a mystery how this could have happened and that they certainly couldn't have learned it the right way (that is "our way") so they better take it again. Given that this is the prevailing attitude in graduate school, and given that employers have roughly the same attitude, one is left to wonder why students go to college at all. The answer is simple: both employers and graduate schools require an undergraduate degree. They don't much care what you studied in college because they know they will have to teach you all over again. This is, of course, a vicious circle, one that allows colleges to continue their total disrespect for the needs of students since no one expects the product to be of value anyhow.

JB: So, who or what, is to blame?

SCHANK: Deep down inside this drama of the disrespected student is the real villain in the piece: grades and tests. We assume there should be grades and tests because there always have been, and school is almost unthinkable without them. After all, how will we know who is the best, who succeeded and who failed, who did the work and who sloughed off without grades and tests? How will graduate schools know who to accept and how will employers know who to hire?

To put this another way, everyone involved in the drama of indifferent education, faculty, students, and administrators, knows that the real role of our universities is certification not education. You can't certify without grades and tests, or can you?

Imagine a professor lecturing to a class of 500 for a semester course. How does the professor know if anyone is paying attention? In fact, it is a safe bet that most students are drifting off most of the time. Students know there will be a test and so they try hard to stay awake. No test? Then why fight the hangover? May as well stay in bed. Without tests, the system doesn't work.

Actually tests are indicative of why the system needs fixing. The problem is that tests and grades are so ubiquitous it is difficult to imagine a school functioning without them. The problem stems from the certification mission of schools. As long as the next school or employer expects that the current school will tell them who is good, the system can't change. One wonders why the onus of certification is on our educational institutions at all. Why shouldn't employers figure out who is good on their own? (One of things I have always been amazed by in this regard is the following: Andersen Consulting actually requires new employees (hired from college) to list their SAT scores. This might make sense if the SAT were something other than what it is, — namely a test about geometry, algebra, synonyms and antonyms--but there is little on the test that is germane to working at a consulting firm.)

As long as tests are the yardstick in school students will go along with the measure. Students vie for grades and refuse to learn something if it won't be on the test. Students routinely inquire whether they are "responsible" for the material being discussed and if they are not, they turn off. They cheat, they compete, they wangle their way around, they argue for grades, they whine and complain to teachers about their grades; they stress out, they cram and then forget what they crammed. They do everything but love learning.

JB: But they do love getting the right diploma.

 

SCHANK: Universities will never grow out of their certification mission. Too much depends upon it. It is hard to imagine that as many people would go to college as do now, if no one really cared about whether you had been to college. No one would fight to go to Harvard if going to Harvard didn't matter. But what matters about it? Not the education. No one asks if you learned a lot, they just assume you are smart because you went there. It is time to rethink this.

We won't get rid of certification but perhaps we can contemplate new kinds of certification. Students should be certified as having accomplished something or as being able to do something. Like Boy Scout merit badges or Karate black belts or Truck Driver's licenses, the proof should be in the pudding. A student should show his stuff, he should be able to do something and the attestation to the doing should be the certification.

Such changes are unlikely to occur in current universities. It is the rare faculty member who will willingly stop teaching the same old course he has taught for thirty years and design a new one that will be more work for him to teach because it requires more individual effort. This will not happen unless the venue and the circumstances of education change radically.

Here then is why we can begin to have some hopes for the Virtual University. It is not the case that these changes can occur only at VU. They could occur anywhere, but they won't. The inertia is too great at State U. VU has such promise because VU is virgin territory. There is no entrenched establishment that will block change. John Dewey would have been ecstatic.

JB: In the face of everything you have outlined, why are university administrations acting as though they are paralyzed.

SCHANK: The most well meaning college president can change none of what I describe. The former Provost of my university used to say "with faculty, everything is a la carte." He couldn't ask a professor to do a single thing beyond his normal duties without being prepared to promise something in exchange. As they say, tenure means never having to say you're sorry.

The uproar amongst students and faculty alike would be enormous if grades and tests were eliminated, if lectures were abandoned, if tenure were abolished, if all requirements were dropped, even though it is all these things that keep the universities forever promising real education and only partially delivering. There is simply no way to implement such things. Take tenure for example. No administrator thinks tenure is a good idea. Every first rate university is saddled with "dead wood," — professors who once were good but are no more. There is no way to get rid of them. My university employs a professor who goes around the country denying that the Holocaust ever took place. Can they get rid of him? No. They can't even lower his salary. (Though he hasn't gotten a raise in a long while, you can bet.)

 

If Harvard eliminated tenure other universities would surely follow, but even they can't take the first step. As soon as they did, Yale would get a great many more faculty applications. When requirements were eliminated at various schools in the seventies this was seen as the decline of standards and soon other schools were bragging about their "core curriculum" that centered on the humanities. When grades have been eliminated they have often been replaced by essays on student performance that were both onerous for the faculty to write and annoying for employers and graduate schools to read. When professors have been required to teach more than they do (in a good university they typically teach one course a semester) then the best of them went off to another school where they could get a better deal. Research universities hire great researchers not great teachers and they will not be motivated to stop this practice unless their very roots are attacked.

There really is no way to fix all this because universities are not motivated to change. But they will be motivated when they are seriously challenged in the free market. Right now, and maybe for a long time, Harvard is safe. But what if the best physics course in the world was put together virtually using the best faculty in world? Would it be better than Harvard's physics course? Would Harvard use it? They might well use it if students preferred it. They wouldn't be seriously upset by having to use it since the average Harvard physics professor can be assumed to not want to teach introduction to physics in the first place. Harvard would then say that was fine because now students would have even more real contact with faculty and labs because they had already taken the virtual course. This is fine with me, too.

But, one should be aware that after awhile there will be many great courses out there and the system may evolve such that courses themselves are no longer the currency of a university education. Further it might happen that the line between high school and college might be blurred by these courses as they become available to high school students. Little by little change will happen.