Peripheral education

There are two points I’d like to argue about education as it stands today. For one, the traditional university system is fundamentally incompatible with the information transformation we’re now swimming in. This redesign will have to happen in the next decade, or else major pipes are going to break just like they’ve broke with the music industry and how they’re now breaking with newspapers. Number two, a type of non-traditional learning has arisen which I find particularly valuable: peripheral education. Many of these ideas around these two points have been floating in my mind for the last six months, but recent events have made me more inclined to write them down. The first was a darn astounding Twitter conversation last Saturday night about J school educations, captured nearly in full by @greglinch, and the second was a recent post from Jeff Jarvis about hacked, organic education. As he argues, we’re moving from an analog world to a networked, digital one. The analog industries who do not make a hasty, well-executed evolution will be unsuccessful in the digital realm.

Let me begin with my first point: the traditional university system, just like newspapers and General Motors, is obsolete, ineffective, and outdated. It is a monopolistic institution designed for the 19th and 20th centuries, eras when information was a scarcity. In the networked world, access to information is ubiquitous. Of the five classes my friend DJ has at USC this fall term, he only goes to two lectures. One because he doesn’t have the textbook, and the other because it’s the only class he values. My other friend Shane feels most classes are just regurgitated from the textbooks, which I tend to agree with. Another friend, an honors student, is kept so busy that he doesn’t have enough time to do his homework. In the end, he copies it from Personally, I have to take school one term at a time because the things I’m learning in class are so far removed from the education I hold valuable outside of the university. Case in point: this term I am taking Physics 201 for my Environmental Sciences major. Unfortunately, most of the information covered in the course I already learned in my junior year of high school IB Physics. More than any other course I’ve taken, this one is just for the grade.

To work with the key issues, one needs to understand what the core strengths of universities are and how these traditional strengths are eroding. The why is ubiquitous access to the network. According to Jarvis, universities serve four functions: teaching, testing, research, and socializing. Teaching is imparting knowledge upon students, generally a one-way flow. Testing is ensuring the students memorize the information well enough to pass the final exam. Academic research is still a monopoly universities can hold, but does little to add to their business model. A parallel could be journalism to newspapers. Journalism is crucial service newspapers have provided in the past, but hasn’t been what pays the salaries of the reporters. Socializing is synonymous to both networking and group learning. Three of these four roles, in my opinion, are almost lost to the network already. Testing, the fourth, will be lost to the network as soon as a suitable ISO-esque certification for education is established.

It is not as though education is becoming any less important, however. Part two of my argument is that one type of learning, what I call “peripheral education”, is becoming increasingly valuable. There are three types of education relevant now: technical, experiential, and peripheral.

Technical education is the knowledge you learn to fulfill a specific role or position. Let’s talk metaphors. If I wanted to be a mechanic, learning the different car parts, how they work together, and what to fix when they didn’t work together would be my technical education. If I were a developer, this education is technical knowledge to prove my skill in Python, databases, etc. For journalists, technical education is learning the tools of the trade. When Pat Thornton went through J school, the tool was Quark. In my case, the tool is InDesign. These tools don’t need to be imparted in class, however. Greg Linch taught himself InDesign in high school, and I’d like to say I’ve taught myself 99% of what I need to know based on previous experience with Photoshop (which I learned on my own in high school). With exponential change in the tools, it is more efficient to teach technical education via tools like Lynda than in the classroom environment. It is simple economics of scale.

Experiential education is learning through the hands-on application of knowledge. Whitman Direct Action, and our Sadhana Clean Water Project of last spring, is one approach. Students give themselves specific goals, and learn on their feet how to achieve those objectives. In our case, it was compiling a book on water development issues in India, hosting a conference in Mumbai, and researching the socio-political constraints to clean water access. This type of education serves two purposes: the students learn leadership, planning, and implementation skills through the process, and the project results in valuable contributions towards whatever issues it is trying to address. Institutions need to make the transition from squandering student creativity and brainpower, to applying those characteristics to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. Taking this to journalism, many newspapers and news organizations are shutting down their bureaus as cost-cutting measures. If universities were innovative, they would launch foreign bureaus staffed by J school students to steal that market back. To date, I haven’t ever heard this happening.

Peripheral education is learning through continuous exposure to the increasing quantity of quality information. It is the hidden pearl of networked education, the process culling information you push yourself to absorb, letting it change the way you think, and then understanding the connections between the information. In an increasingly digital world, understanding how information works together is critical. One key part of this philosophy is that the information you absorb at any given point isn’t necessarily related to what you are working on at that given moment. Instead, peripheral education is about exposure to a wide variety of information types. Podcasts are one enabling tool of peripheral education. In Our TimeTED Talks, and Social Innovation Conversations are all information sources I consider as valuable, if not more, than classes in the traditional university system.

In addition to the types, the tools for education changing too. Blog posts are the new social essays. The traditional format, obviously, is to write an essay, submit it to the professor, have the teacher’s aide grade the work, and then recycle the paper. The essay served a single, cradle-to-grave purpose. Blogging, however, is the art of cultivating conversation. When I write a post, I can be quite certain to get organic feedback on both the content of what I write, and the format it takes, by more than one person. Twitter is the new class discussion. Saturday night’s conversation about the future of J schools was far more enriching than most any other class I’ve had this term. Twitter offers somewhat organized, niche conversation about a wide range of topics. In the “traditional” classroom setting this is almost unmanageable, but on Twitter it can happen organically. I think having this type of valuable, enriching, and constructive conversation via Twitter, and not in the classroom, only strengthens the argument that real education can easily happen outside of the university system. Furthermore, I completely disagree with Kevin on podcasts. Podcasts, audio and otherwise, are the new lectures. It’s about sourcing your information correctly, just like picking the right university or the right professor.

Schooling has traditionally been a top-down approach. We are quickly moving to a networked paradigm. For universities to survive the changes, they need to transition to an approach which fosters creative action. To take a newspaper parallel, this is early 2001. The internet has been around for several years, but doesn’t pose a serious threat to their core business. Yet. What happens to the paid teaching positions, though, when the students can educate one another?

Correction: I inappropriately attributed the Twitter conversation transcription to @gmarkham when it was really @greglinch. My sincere apologies for the error.


albert November 26, 2008 Reply

No offense meant to you or anyone involved in that discussion, but J-school has always been at best a trade school, just a way for people to get the experience necessary to transition into doing it as a job.

Probably, most of the reason why journalism school is useless is because journalism as a field doesn’t care about it’s own history, unlike any serious academic field.

In most subjects, a university education serves two purposes, to teach students how to think and become culturally literate (that’s the reason everyone used to learn Latin and Greek and read Cicero), and to bring them up to speed in the cutting edge by putting bright young students in the same room as researchers on the frontier. (Try doing research on differential equations if you haven’t learned calculus).

A third, as a perk, might be to prove to employers that the student isn’t an idiot.

So while journalism education might be dying, I doubt any students in harder fields feel the same way.

me November 27, 2008 Reply

What would you say about psychology or political science degrees then? Or business for that matter?

I think what I tried to hint at while breaking down the types of education I see as relevant now is that there are a few basic types. The “hard sciences” I assume you’re alluding to above, such as math, physics, and chemistry would fit under my technical education classification. I do not believe you are limited to just the university setting to teach these areas.

Furthermore, I’m not quite sure that you’re arguing against the premise of my piece: a digital, networked education takes a far different form than an analog, linear one. While I do understand a traditional university education serves to teach “cultural literacy” (although Latin and Greek sadly speak nothing of Eastern culture) and bring them up to speed on the cutting edge, I see no reason that both of these end goals cannot now be achieved more effectively and efficiently off the campus. In fact, I would argue that students can learn at a far greater pace on their own and in collaboration with their peers, than in the classroom.

DJ Strouse November 28, 2008 Reply

To offer a word from a student in the “hard sciences” (I’m doubling in Physics and Math), the university isn’t dead but it sure is broken.

One, the live lecture is overrated. There’s no reason for a professor at my university to give a lecture on topics that are (a) available in textbooks and (b) available via excellent video lectures from institutions like MIT and Stanford. Now, you might say, “But then the students get to ask questions!” Properly networked ebooks and video lectures, however, DO allow them to do that.

Two, discussion are particularly underutilized in the hard sciences. These fields indeed are plagued by a stodgy atmosphere of consumptatory learning. Never have I had a discussion section for a math/science course dedicated to discussing new applications, pondering new directions of research, or inventing paradigms from which to approach the material. Again, networked education could help address the problem by offering forums for discussion.

Shane Lofgren November 30, 2008 Reply

Haha, quick first note, I plan on being an entrepreneur, and I would think that anyone with a university degree in a couple years IS an idiot, for spending four years and a lot of money to get something that could have been better achieved for free. In a time when knowledge was only available at universities, a degree meant the holder had special knowledge. Now that that same information can be had for free, a degree means little.

Some would argue that a degree shows businesses that students can commit to a four year program. To me, commitment to a broken system is no virtue. I want the people with passion, not thoughtless “work ethic,” who will work their asses off for me and love it, but only if I provide them with challenging and interesting tasks. I want people with enough vision to realize the new opportunities and who are willing to disregard tradition and take advantage.

Now, I’m not entirely opposed to the university system. I have had great classes with great teachers who offered me an experience that couldn’t be had anywhere else. One of my best was an International Studies teacher. After taking his class, I was totally ready to be an INTL major, until I signed up for a few other classes and found that they were uninspired and irrelevant. One of the problems with the university system is that it insists we get a major in a given field, which means that inevitably we’ll end up having to slog through at least a few worthless classes. Find some way to make sure that each class I and others take is an experience I can’t get anywhere else, and I’ll back universities again.

For now, I’m an economics major. If I were an employer and saw that, it would mean less than shit to me. Everything taught in an econ class can be read in a textbook. So, what do I do? I don’t ever go to econ classes; instead I read the book for a couple hours before tests (my parents, the school and the state are paying for it, so it passes the cost benefit analysis test). The rest of the time I spend going to unique and inspiring classes like the one I talked about (for free), discussing things like this with my friends (for free), or reading and learning on my own (for free).

Daniel Bachhuber November 30, 2008 Reply

Ha. Shane, I think we’re communicating in an echo chamber, though. What are the weaknesses to the argument?

Dougald February 25, 2009 Reply

Hi Daniel –

I’m joining the party rather late, but thanks for pointing me towards this post.

I think there’s a lot of value in having a conversation about the future of higher level academic and professional education – and the possibilities for organising these outside of traditional institutions. We’re starting to host conversations about this around School of Everything – for example:

I guess my question in response to your post is, how large a face-to-face element do you envisage in your alternative to university? I think that relates, also, to the question of whether education can adequately be described in terms of information transfer. Steve Talbott makes the case against this pretty powerfully:

It might be worth thinking about the social role of university. One thing it gives you is a group of peers, some of whom you stay in contact or cross paths with for years afterwards. What other side-benefits are there which turn out to be important reasons people go to university? (The student lifestyle…? The virtual bar on non-graduates in many desirable areas of employment?)

I think it’s extremely likely that we will see a trend towards disaggregation of the set of roles currently packaged together by universities. I also hold out a hope (though I don’t take it for granted) that one side effect of this disaggregation might be the creation of new spaces of reflection and scholarship, closer to the heart of what the university has historically been about. (This possibility is suggested by some of Ivan Illich’s late writings on the history of bookish reading.)

Just a few thoughts – but I’d love to carry on the discussion – and I hope the School of Everything forums might provide a space to bring together people from various directions who are asking similar questions.

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