Syllabus driver on the virtual highway

March 14, 2003

Don't just copy the classroom with e-learning, use it creatively to shake up the curriculum and the students, says e-guru Roger Schanck. Stephen Phillips reports.

For an e-learning evangelist, Roger Schanck is not doing a good job of converting the masses. E-learning is for the most part oversold and uninteresting, he declares. What's more, it's so 1998. "Five to six years ago, it was more interesting than nowI people have got obsessed with the bottom line," he says.

Scanning the eviscerated ranks of university e-learning start-ups, such sentiments are understandable. Having persevered for three years and run up a £15 million investment tab, Columbia University announced recently that it was cutting its losses on ambitious internet education portal Fathom.com. New York, Cornell and Temple universities have fared little better and have also pulled out of commercial e-learning ventures.

Schanck's views may have surprised delegates at last month's eLearnInternational meeting in Edinburgh. The opinion of the chief education officer at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley outpost, Carnegie Mellon West, carries much weight, and many at next Tuesday's e-learning conference in Manchester may still be pondering its significance.

"Of course, it depends what you mean by e-learning," Schanck says. What he is so dismissive of is what he derisively calls "putting text on screen with quizzes". Into this category he lumps many of the previous failed enterprises. He further diagnoses a similar failure of vision among the current crop of players, mostly targeting the corporate training market, which has a tight-fisted obsession with keeping costs down. It's an approach he does not agree with. The analogy that springs to Schanck's mind is 1920s movies. "They were just filmed plays," he elaborates. Schanck wants e-learning to be something new - something that harnesses the new medium's intrinsic capabilities rather than merely aping classroom teaching forms he considers bankrupt.

In fact, the "e" is beside the point. E-learning is "a Trojan horse", says Schanck, for his wider prescription for education. "School is broken," he declares. "The real headline about e-learning is that it's about curriculum reform."

The interdisciplinary span of his academic roles - he was professor of computer science, education and psychology at Northwestern University before moving to Carnegie Mellon, where he is also a computer science professor - hint at the breadth of Schanck's preoccupations. He says education reduces students to "an almost catatonic state", strangling what originality they might possess in a misplaced emphasis on rote learning and overly academic curricula.

Schanck arrived at such outspoken views after taking stock of his own academic career. Ever the maverick, figuring out how to get by on the minimum of effort, he was, by his own account, only a middling undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon, where he majored in computer science. It was as a postgraduate student at the University of Texas that he blossomed, earning a PhD in two years. "The system only values ideas when you go to graduate school," he says.

As a professor at Stanford, then Yale, it dawned on him that "everything he knew about learning bore no relation to what was happening in schools".

"Education is about doing," he avers. This is where computers come in - they are "doing devices", principally in their function of simulating real life. For pilots, "flight simulators are much better than listening to a lecture and beat practising on a real plane because you might kill someone," Schanck observes.

The new online courses offered by Carnegie Mellon West also employ practical scenarios to drill students for life after college. E-business masters candidates are put through their paces troubleshooting at a virtual company, for instance.

Most traditional universities, by contrast, get bogged down in dry abstract theory, he laments. He has also been freelancing as an educational consultant for a number of years and recalls putting professors on the spot about the relevance of what they were teaching, and finding that most had never been posed that question.

In Schanck's telling, algebra is enshrined in the academic canon for no better reason than a 19th-century president of Harvard, on the advice of a Princeton buddy who was peddling the leading algebra textbook of the day, decreed that it be so. He ascribes similar historical vagaries to the nine-subject syllabus most US schools follow.

Accordingly, he recounts recently advising the architects of a proposed virtual dentistry school to strip the syllabus back to the essentials, paring away much of the biochemistry content, which he deemed redundant.

"I'm not suggesting eliminating clinical (training), I suspect you would need that," he concedes. "But you can set up practical scenarios with software."

Offline, Schanck's input has a similarly utilitarian bent. As academic dean of a private Florida secondary school, he is devising a learning project involving pupils shadowing staff at a local hospital that will cover scientific, legislative and ethical issues in a practical setting. "It's more important than maths, history and science - in fact, it is these things, but not in an abstract way."

But many are likely to oppose what they will see as trying to boil intellectual enrichment down to a vocational formula. Schanck replies that it is a question of giving students what they want and need. For example, he observed that most students enrolling on developmental psychology courses at Columbia were women because "they want to learn about how to raise a kid". This prompted the suggestion that the courses be turned into child-rearing classes - something many staff balked at.

Computer programs and the internet permit education to be configured to students' needs, instead of being at universities' administrative convenience, Schanck says. This is in line with his conception of students as "educational consumers". Flexibility is the key, rather than the number of students enrolled online. Students at Carnegie Mellon West are offered the choice of taking their courses online or at the campus. "The students don't care whether they're online or offline - it's their business - they can interact with the mentor by email, they might also meet in person," Schanck says.

Still, at 70, the number of Carnegie Mellon West students who have enrolled for the two courses available online - e-business and software engineering - is more than the number of places available to study corresponding courses at Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus, he says, showing how e-learning can improve educational access. "You've got the possibility that the university will become more democratically available to people in the world."

But staring into a computer screen will strike many as a rather pallid and ersatz educational experience, compared with the personal and intellectual growth offered by residential courses. Schanck concedes that measured against a small graduate seminar at Harvard presided over by a world expert, e-learning may be found wanting. But this isn't the comparison people should be drawing, he counters. "The rule is some Podunk university with some guy - not a world expert - standing up, droning on."

Ultimately, he sees online education paving the way for universities to dispense with in-house teaching of subjects they are a little shaky in and substitute this for, say, Yale's history department, online, while they focus on what they're good at. This would be in keeping with the outsourcing craze sweeping the corporate world, in which firms farm out peripheral functions such as data management to focus on core business.

The only problem is that most universities have so far been reluctant to put their names to e-learning ventures or directly offer online qualifications for fear of diluting their intellectual franchises and the cachet of their campuses. The result has been off-brands such as Cardean University, the degree-granting institution set up by UNext, a virtual MBA academy originally backed by Stanford, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and the London School of Economics. The appeal of such offerings remains unclear, though. UNext has certainly struggled, jettisoning staff to remain afloat.

Schanck takes such setbacks in his stride, however. Older and wiser since he first started elaborating his radical theories, and accustomed to the blank faces or hostility they elicit in some quarters, he is forging ahead with various extracurricular initiatives. His latest entrepreneurial brainchild, Socratic Arts, is a consultancy giving advice to universities and businesses on how to devise what it bills as "learning-by-doing" courses, both online and off. Then there is Engines for Education, an education reform think-tank.

Perhaps views on Schanck's provocative ideas about education are best summed up by the polarised student feedback to the "How to think" course he taught at Yale. "There was always the same breakdown," Schanck recalls.

"Half thought it was the stupidest thing; the other half thought it was the best."

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