Better Distance Learning

Michael Metzger

Today’s distance learning could be a big improvement over the first model launched over a century ago. That one has left us with a disturbing disconnect between the world of the academy and the business world.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted two Gallup surveys revealing a vast disconnect between education and business. The first survey indicates that just 11 percent of business leaders “strongly agree” that today’s graduates have the skills and competencies that their businesses need. The second found that 96 percent of college and university chief academic officers said they were “extremely or somewhat confident” in their institution’s ability to prepare students for work-force success. Quite a gap.

Lesslie Newbigin traces this problem back to the Enlightenment that posited “a dichotomy between theory and practice.”1 This shaped Progressivism, a 19th century movement seeking to expand educational opportunity by imposing a universal vision on the world. Progressive thinkers believe only theorists, those who observe life from a dispassionate distance, can impart a universal vision for education. This created the first distance learning. Academicians and theorists, those most distant from real-life problems, became the new “experts.” They cornered the market on education.

This pushed practitioners out of the educational picture. Having cornered the market, educators sought to educate “plain” practitioners while perpetuating their species of theorists as experts. This is why Sir Ken Robinson, a recognized leader in education, says, “The whole purpose of public education is to produce university professors.” Ken Robinson, How Schools Kill Creativity

Progressive education accounts for a great deal of the current disconnect between the world of the academy and the business world. Practitioners, mostly businesspeople, work more closely with real-life problems. They experience a messy, diverse world full of paradox and complexity. Most college and university professors don’t. From a distance, they package knowledge as static “principles” and “concepts.” Small wonder so many businesspeople remember college as “not in the real world.” Progressive academicians pay little mind to this, since they own the education market.

Monopolies invariably breed arrogance. Academicians such as the 19th century physicist Oliver Lodge venerated The Royal Institution, worshipping it as “a sort of sacred place, where pure science was enthroned to be worshipped for its own sake.” Lodge believed the finest science was theoretical science. He scorned what he and other like-minded scientists called “practicians,” the new heathen, inventors, and engineers and tinkerers who eschewed theoretical research for blind experimentation.2

George Kennan was one of the first to recoil at this. The American diplomat best known for establishing the policy of “Soviet containment,” Kennan warned that Woodrow Wilson, a Progressive, “wanted a world of reason and law, a world that looked like America in the progressive age.” But the fundamental problem, he insisted, was that Wilson “imposed an abstract, universal vision on a messy, diverse world.” Kennan believed foreign policy should look more to practitioners. As Peter Beinart writes, “In foreign policy, as in marriage, Kennan argued, general principles of conduct are far less useful than an intimate understanding of the participants.”3

This is why today’s distance learning could be an improvement. Online educational opportunities such as MOOCs level the playing field by including better kinds of experts – those closer to the action. This is how it was once assumed we best gain knowledge, as in “Adam knew Eve” (Gen. 4:1). Learning requires hands-on experience. This yields expertise, making people experts, a word drawn from the Latin expertus, “to try, test,” or gain experience. The better expert is “a person wise through experience.”

If today’s educators believed all this, they’d see how the best educational model is networking theorists, translators, and practitioners. This is the model that changes cultures according to Randall Collins, author of The Sociology of Philosophies. In a nutshell, he says the process begins with theorists who generate ideas. It moves to researchers who expand and validate them, then on to educators who translate and simplify these ideas for practitioners. I can’t attest to Collins’ sequence, but history and scripture say expertise increases according to how close an individual is to an actual situation.

Kieran Egan insists that progressivist education got it wrong from the git-go. “Knowledge exists only as a function of living tissue.”4 Practitioners have the most dirt under their fingernails, then translators, and last but not least, academicians. Working in a collaborative network, they could improve education. If they don’t rework the model, an avalanche is coming. I’ll describe it next week.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 23.
2 Erik Larson, Thunderstruck (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), p. 11.
3 Peter Beinart, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), p. 99.
4 Kieran Egan, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget (New Haven: Yale, 2002), p. 68.


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  1. Sure. “Adam knew Eve” (Gen.4:1). This is the kind of knowledge (learning) that scripture esteems. Hands on. Experiential. Adam and Eve learned via living tissue – touching, feeling, experimenting. Experiment yields experience yielding expertise, making one an expert. It’s what Michael Polanyi called “personal knowledge.” Or, as Aristotle put it, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (The Nicomachean Ethics)

    The Western World, under the sway of the Western Enlightenment, generally describes the educational sequence as observation – interpretation – application. Observation requires no bodily touch (as in observing the moon). This is a kind of knowledge that is detached. It leads Westerners to describe the second “step,” interpretation, as when we “know the meaning” of, say, a Bible verse. Ta da! Knowledge. Once we know what a verse means, we then seek to “apply it to our lives.” Scripture never speaks of application this way. Nor does it describe “knowledge” according to this sequence. Imagine Adam, after enjoying nuptial union with Eve, asking her: “How does this apply to our lives?”

  2. Is it not fair to say that there is in progression in enlightenment eyes that distances man from creation and received wisdom, in foolish pursuit of personal glory. The recording of language from oral tradition, detaching words from the vitality of humanity. An aesthethic detachment from the Hebrew to the Greek. Was it Einstein that said we discover what God already knows. With increasing data and deconstruction of the world we still lack knowledge, understanding and wisdom in our stewardship of the planet.Digitally mapping the analogue reality. Adam and Eve by thinking they knew better created a universal distance learning course. Choosing not to make sense of their full persona. Babel being the culmination of man’s ignorance at building success apart from our creative nature.Were we created to commune or compete ?

  3. This illustrates why the teaching hospital is such a successful model for education. Medical students enter with an avowed desire to become physicians, spend 4 years learning the science and history of medical care, then 3-6 more years of mentored hands-on experience before being turned loose on the public. This model began in 12th century Persia, the original center of evidence based medical science and training, and persists to this day. Modern education would benefit greatly from this time-proven example.

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