Scaling Creativity with Chatty Cathy

I thought there might be some promise in the limited use of didactic instruction online, so long as Real People conducted real coaching and Socratic instruction at its side, but a failed experiment at San Jose State University suggests that this hope may have been misplaced. It appears that the proportion of online material to live teachers was much too great.

That is where the push for e-learning will tend to end up when the prime movers for its adoption are schools strapped for cash and serial optimists from Ed Biz profit centers touting costly quick cheap untested remedies. This is a dangerous combination. Add to it a dash or two of bad thinking and the bad results will be almost guaranteed.

Two examples of bad thinking appear in the Times article linked above. The first is the patronizing rationalization of the experiment’s failure by a teacher at San Jose State. He said, “You have to understand how innovation works…” Those of us who do not know how innovation works will undoubtedly be grateful for this reminder, but some of us may actually think that experimental “iteration” on the backs of students who pay good money for bad instruction is at best a bad bargain, no matter how “innovative.”

The second example is that “some[1]” propose an analogy with mobile phones, which have moved from “clunky and unreliable” to “indispensable.” A moment’s thought will show how unsatisfactory this analogy is: the transmission of vocal communication, a relatively simple process, is not analogous to education, one of the most complex activities known to us. It also overlooks the difference between subscription to a phone service as a bit of voluntary consumerism and the imposition of an untried system of education on young people who have not asked for it.

And some system! Teachers of a certain age remember the Chatty Cathy doll, which produced “conversation” when a ring and string were pulled. It’s hard not to see instructional software as essentially a big Chatty Cathy. Will the users who get the software on Christmas tire of it by December 26? Attrition in MOOCs has been high.

And one proponent of Chatty Cathy says that the next challenge is “scaling creativity.” If the success of educational software depends on people who, as if from the Grand Academy of Lagado, can say or even “think” such things, we may anticipate many more failures before we turn back to good live teaching and give it the funding it deserves.

The MOOCs’ first green was cash,

And promises were rash:

With programs such as these,

Who needs old Socrates?

But savings must be made,

And profits must be paid,

So MOOCs brought no relief;

Thus teaching sank to grief.

Thus dawn sinks down to day:

No MOOCs at San Jose.

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

[1] A mysterious source, always on background, known only to reporters

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