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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Bill Gates Has a Solution for Higher Education: Yoda
March 11, 2013 - 11:07am

Bill Gates has diagnosed what ails higher education, and the cure is all about technology, and also Yoda.

Speaking at the SXSW technology conference, as reported by CNN Money, “Gates’ main theme was personalized learning, which can be enhanced by new technology.”

And Yoda.

Again according to CNN Money, Gates maintains that, “Yoda was a great teacher because the Jedi master understood when Skywalker is losing interest.”

In Gates’ own words, “With this wave of software that's being created that personalizes to the student ... there's real promise here that the kids can go back and engage in a way they couldn't before."

So Bill Gates and I, and just about everyone else I’m aware of, agree on two big things: 1. That large lecture classes are non-ideal atmospheres to engender learning. 2. The better alternative is personalized learning supervised by a mentor capable of nurturing student interest.

Gates’ answer to this problem is “personalized software.”

As I read this, I realized this software already exists, and in some cases (mine) it’s a little too soft, around the middle especially.

I’m talking about human beings, or in Yoda’s case, an indeterminate species of three-foot tall green things with oversized ears and gravelly Miss Piggy voices.

I like Gates’ Yoda analogy. Yoda is indeed a fine teacher. When Luke is coaxed by Obi-Wan’s ghost to the swamp planet Dagobah to learn under Yoda’s tutelage, rather than lecturing Luke Skywalker on how to harness the Force, Yoda encourages young Luke to search inside himself.

I have to say, I sometimes feel like Yoda in my job, every student a different young Jedi in need of the right words of encouragement.

Most of the time I’m communicating two things, that what I am asking them to do matters, and that they are indeed capable of doing it.

Or, as Yoda puts it, “Do or do not…there is no try.”

Apparently, Gates’ idea is to put Yoda on computer screens as part of the college of tomorrow, “in which students watch lessons online, delivered by the brightest minds in the field.”

As Gates says, "If you want the very best lectures, if you want the cost efficiency, you have to break down and say, you know, let's take someone else's material." 

I think about this, and I wonder, given a Jedi-master’s ability to project his thoughts across galaxies and star systems in an instant, why did Obi-Wan encourage Luke to seek out Yoda in person?

Maybe because software and humans are the same thing, not.  Yes, hmmm.

The assumptions that Gates and others like him bring to these discussions is that education, as is, is too expensive. After all, tuition is rising faster than inflation and college is threatening to become a bad investment. Technology, Gates argues, has the potential to make college cheaper, for example by not needing as many professors since, what the heck, we’ve got Yoda on tape!

Like Gates, I’m distressed by rising tuition and the strain it puts on my students. Many more of them are taking on shocking amounts of debt, or trying to work full-time jobs while also being full-time students.

But I get distressed when the discussion turns immediately towards the corporate buzzwords of “efficiency” and “productivity.” In the 90’s, when unemployment was 4% and we were all getting rich on our shares of Pets.com, I don’t remember people falling over themselves criticizing our system of higher education.

Not that we can’t get better, but the truth is, we’re actually pretty good at it. The teaching/learning model is not particularly mysterious. Students benefit from being in the presence of their Jedi-masters. Sometimes a hologram is okay, but it isn’t a substitute for the real, little green thing.

Certainly, universities share some of the blame for rising tuition as they’ve chased amenities, increased the amount of administration, and yes, pursued the latest technology, but the deep recession and state government reductions in funding have done more to increase tuition prices than any other factor.

When the Bantha dung hit the fan in the 2008 financial crisis, the government responded by recapitalizing the banks, bailing out the auto industry, and purchasing toxic assets, probably saving us from a devastating economic meltdown. As of March 4th, the government has been paid back $461 billion of the $605 billion it handed out, with a good chance over time to at least break even or turn a profit.

Why can’t we do something similar with schools? Do we doubt that there will be economic (and other benefits) to improving education, as opposed to making it more “efficient?”

And it doesn’t even have to be the government alone that does it.

Since 2008, funding to higher education in Louisiana has been cut by $425 million dollars.

In 2011 alone, the Gates Foundation spent $426 million giving grants to education-related organizations.

Almost all of that money went to groups working on integrating technology into the classroom. They argue the technology helps teachers better do their jobs by freeing them to engage more personally with the students. That feels like the Dark Side to me, as we keep throwing money at technology trying to create a substitute for something we already have in abundance, willing and dedicated teachers.

Why can’t we just have more teachers teaching? Smaller classes, more personalized instruction, better learning.

Not one Yoda on screen, an army of them in the flesh.

To me this makes sense. Hmmmmmm.

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Good for spreading the word, twitter is.  Herh herh herh.

 

 

 

 

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