Virtual Unreality and the Difference between Mist and Fog

Such dutiful chattels are we

That, caught in the digital spree

With the budgets all shrinking,

We give up our thinking

And cheer for the on-line degree.


Apologies to the friend who sent me the original limerick: I reworked it a bit, but the theme is important. My friend, who works at a public institution of higher learning, made the alarming discovery that a sister institution now awards on-line master’s degrees in “instructional science and technology.” In an acronym too good to be true, the program is called MIST. A visit to its web pages will reveal the FOG within, but first we must allow Thomas Kuhn to shed some light.

Kuhn says that scientific knowledge exists within “disciplinary matrices.” I have suggested that this is true not just of science but also of any home base of learning. We must therefore examine not just an offered array of “knowledge” but the matrix in which it is held in order to make full sense of it.

The MIST program’s chief aim is to respond “to the increasing demand for professionals who understand learning theory, instructional design and technology, interactive media, assessment and research.” I immediately wondered where this demand is coming from. In my own twenty-five years of experience teaching, I have not encountered a demand for a “professional” who “understands learning theory.” Nor am I sure what is meant by “understand…research,” which could mean a number of things: know how to conduct successful and useful research, know how to abstract educational concerns from the classroom systematically, know how to help students in their researches, or know how to write a second-rate pseudo-scientific monograph on education and have the patience to read one[1](or the good sense not to).

Another of the program’s aims is to have its participants “construct a functioning learning module using interactive multimedia software, information technology, and media.” Nowhere in this description is it suggested that the participants will actually get real live students to learn something, as how could they in an on-line program without a practicum? In that context, what can “functioning” mean? Powered on?

A hint appears in the program’s summary of its offerings in “assessment and evaluation”: the participants will “develop techniques for judging the performance of instructional delivery.” Well, “instructional delivery” is either a bad metaphor for good teaching, or it is a good metaphor for bad teaching, since good teachers are not Culligan Men. What is more, every experienced teacher knows that sometimes the student does not “accept delivery.” There is also the problem that bad assessment, usually multiple-choice, can manifest the montillation effect, whereby a student scores well on a test of something he doesn’t really understand. If assessment cannot or does not tell the difference between a student and a Chinese Room, we may well ask what good it is.

And then there is the aim of getting participants to “explore and develop real-world methods of assessment through the use of psychometric techniques.” I wonder what real world they have in mind as using psychometric techniques for the assessment of learning. The last time I examined it[2], psychometry measured not learning but psyches. Maybe they want the participants to construct “instruments” for “measuring” “assessment,” but it all seems rather meta, if not futile.

Finally, we have the program’s aim of getting its participants to “conduct…tests” of “instructional and learning management systems.” After reading this, I felt a vague unease that sharpened as I examined the other descriptive material, failing to find in it anything about conducting tests of students. I also wondered what it could mean to be a testable element of an “instructional and learning management system.”

And so we come back to the disciplinary matrix in which this “knowledge” is located. It is an alien place, abstracted from reality and specificity. It seems more concerned with systems than with students and more concerned with technology than with brainpower. Whatever workplaces its graduates will be going to are no workplaces I can recognize as schools. I must therefore ask where the “demand” is coming from that this program is designed to meet. No good answer suggests itself, and bad answers crowd in. Maybe the reality is as “virtual” as the program.

[1] William James, who said that the pioneering research in psychology was done in Germany because “Germans are incapable of boredom,” would be astonished by how this Teutonic power has spread, particularly in the field of education. His Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals is anything but boring, and it is always practically, not theoretically, oriented. Of course, James himself was a classroom teacher, and by all accounts a marvelous one.

[2] None too closely, thank you. I sometimes feel towards psychometry the way Sir Thomas Beecham felt towards Stockhausen. When asked if he had ever conducted Stockhausen, he is said to have replied No, but that he once trod in some.

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