What Would Socrates Think About MOOCs?

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May 2 2014 3:46 PM

What Would Socrates Think About MOOCs?

A brief history of technology revolutionizing education.

Girls and boys seated at desks in Washington, D.C. classroom, circa 1899.
Students seated at desks in a Washington, D.C., classroom at the turn of the 20th century.

Photo courtesy Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection/Library of Congress

We all have, consciously or otherwise, a vision of perfect education: two people, a master and student, sitting together, talking. The classic Aristotelian tutorial model. When the king of Macedon wanted to educate his son Alexander, he simply hired the smartest person in the world.

The first information technology to alter that model was the written word. Like all ed-tech innovations, it was highly controversial at the time. Socrates was deeply skeptical of writing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates said that written words “will create forgetfulness in learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” Words, he believed, are “an aid not to memory, but reminiscence,” that give people “not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”


As was usually the case, Socrates had a point. “Tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”—that sounds like most of the book-read, college-educated pedants I’ve had the displeasure of meeting. Compared with real, live people, written words are static, standardized, and unresponsive. Or, to use a modern education policy insult, a “one-size-fits-all solution.”

But in focusing on what was lost in translation with technology, Socrates failed to fully appreciate what might be gained. This is a common mistake. Writing extended the distance words could travel, from within earshot of a speaker to anywhere pieces of paper could be carried. Writing became a storage medium, making words potentially immortal.

Writing brought the educational value of words to more people and thus reduced the cost of words for each. Only the king of Macedon could hire the smartest man in the world as a tutor, because he was expensive, and there was only one of him. The distance, scale, and cost of education were changed for the better by technology.

Writing did one more thing. It improved the quality of education. We tend to think of those two people, master and student, talking, as the ideal educational environment. But it isn’t always. Through revision, collaboration, and extended work over time, writing allowed people to create and communicate structures of thought that weren’t possible in oral conversation. Writing made education much better. It was arguably the last technology to do so—until now.

As time passed, every new information technology was adapted to education, never without controversy. The printing press greatly accelerated the benefits of distance, scale, and cost—more people in more places for less money. According to scholar George P. Landow, this greatly alarmed the faculty of the University of Paris, the second major university to emerge in the pre-Renaissance era, after the University of Bologna. It was expensive to make copies of words before the printing press. To save the cost of paper, scribes bunched all the words together, without spaces in between. Learning to read such text was skill unto itself, which students practiced by reading out loud, under the supervision of a teacher. Printed books with these newfangled “spaces between words” allowed students to read silently, which closed a window onto the student’s thought process.

Like Socrates before them, the University of Paris professors had a point. The central challenge of teaching is making learning visible and responding accordingly. Printing technology made that harder. But they, too, failed to appreciate the compensatory advantages of more abundant books.

Next, the postal service created an open, egalitarian, publicly financed communications network—the Internet of its time. This more or less solved, forever, the problem of moving words over long distance. In 1639, the very same year that America’s first college was named after its benefactor, John Harvard, a nearby tavern in Boston was designated as the official repository for mail coming in and out of the British colonies. And so colonial readers of the Boston Gazette would read advertisements claiming that “Persons in the Country desirous to Learn the Art [of shorthand] may by having the several Lessons sent Weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”

The claim of “as perfectly instructed” might seem suspect, on its face. Then again, different subjects require very different methods of educational interaction, and shorthand is unusually text-dependent. And in fact there is an extensive research literature demonstrating how students learn just as well at a distance as in person.

Over time, the advances of information technology would increase the kinds of educational interactions that could be offered to more people in more places for less money. Radio brought spoken words, television and film brought moving pictures. And now the Internet has collapsed the remaining barriers of space, time, and cost to the point of nothingness. Any words, any sounds, any pictures, to anyone, anywhere, instantaneously, at a marginal cost that is indistinguishable from zero. It’s breathtaking.


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