Friday, November 16, 2012

Duty now for the future

EducationWith the election over, I’ve been getting caught up on issues of Time. Okay, a lot of the articles there were about the election, and I’m currently on the special double issue commemorative election issue. But this isn’t about all that, believe it or not!

One recent issue was about the future of education in our country, and I found it fascinating. It should go without saying that we have a real problem in that area. We are falling farther and farther behind in our skills compared to other developed countries, and a high school diploma is no longer a guarantee of literacy and basic skills. Even a college diploma does not mean that a student will graduate with critical thinking skills that allow them to reach beyond the immediate and obvious.

One of the topics this issue focused on was online classes. With the advent of computers and faster connections, education is more accessible than ever, especially to those in remote areas or poorer countries. There is a bit of an explosion at the moment in MOOCs, massive open online courses, and top-notch universities like Harvard and Stanford are participating. I’ve signed up for a couple myself on Coursera, when they become available: one taught by Ezekiel Emanuel (yes, brother of Rahm) on health policy and the Affordable Care Act, and one on vaccines taught by Dr. Paul Offit. I won’t get college credit for these, but that’s okay. I just want to learn.

However, these online courses are shaking things up a bit in academia, and some accredited colleges are starting to accept transfer credits for such courses through non-accredited portal sites such as Coursera. If we want to get back up to speed and become more competitive, we need to explore all options in order to reach as many people as possible. What is fascinating about many of these online courses is that they are rethinking the way subjects are taught, or at least paying attention to what past studies have shown. Rather than 45 minutes to an hour of straight lecturing, the instructor will teach for a few minutes and then engage the students in asking questions and getting feedback. They will be tasked with figuring out a problem, or discuss the concepts just presented. This makes sense to me, because I truly believe that the way we learn is changing. When I was in college, I would sit for an hour and take notes (unless it was lab time, which was always fun and hands-on). Handwritten notes! O the horror! Now I find myself getting constant input. If I’m reading something, I’ll stop after a few minutes and check for info online; I’ll pay attention to a news story on TV; I’ll watch a video I’ve come across. I’m 50 years old, and MY brain has been changed by these sorts of stimuli. How must it be for someone half my age, who grew up with such input? If you want people to learn, you have to figure out the most effective way to convey your information, and that has changed considerably in the past few decades.

I often hear older people talking about how they didn’t have computers when they were in school, and they learned just fine. Times have changed, people. The computer is an essential part of learning, whether it’s to get a syllabus for a class, research a paper you’re working on, submit that paper, or check your grades. This starts in grade school. Computers are no longer a luxury; they are an essential part of the learning process.

I believe that we need to commit to rethinking our system, and figuring out the best way to teach kids, from preschool through grad school. This involves more than money, though. My question is how do we change the culture so that we foster a love of learning? I’m all for tech schools that teach specific skills for specific jobs. Our jobs are becoming increasingly technical, and as we (hopefully) continue to expand manufacturing, we can rely on an increasingly educated and stronger middle class. But how do we promote that sense of learning beyond job needs? How do we instill a sense of curiosity in kids, one that leads them to explore and learn and grow beyond their imagined boundaries?

I still believe there is a place for four-year degrees in which you are able to take a few electives beyond the requirements for your major. Because of my high school class ranking and advanced placement tests, I was able to test out of something like 28 credit hours for English and German. I almost regret that now, because I wish I would have taken more electives! (But it was a good thing for Mom and Dad’s bank account!) Online courses can be wonderful for someone like me who still wants to learn, but has no need to get the degree or cannot justify the fees involved. As we continue to develop these online courses, it can also be wonderful for kids who hope to further their education by getting a scholarship, or for young women in countries with oppressive attitudes towards women’s education. There really is no downside here.

Beyond fostering an attitude of the joy of learning, I believe we need to condemn the opposite attitude. I’ve written before about the bizarre tendency lately to dismiss facts and numbers if they don’t jibe with your personal reality. This needs to stop. To be completely frank, part of that needs to involve keeping religion out of the science classroom. I’ve written about that, too, so I won’t go into it in depth again, but it’s long past time that we stopped treating creationism/intelligent design as a valid scientific theory. It is not. It is a religious belief. People can believe whatever they want to believe, reconcile their beliefs with scientific fact in whichever way they choose, and they can teach those beliefs in their home and in their churches. No one is stopping them from that. But they must not be allowed to push those beliefs in the science classroom. I am not exaggerating when I say that our standing as a nation invested in scientific and medical research depends upon it.

Our duty now awaits us.