College Students Are Robots?

You hear it everywhere today: higher education needs massive disruption; the traditional model of education is dead; a third or more of higher education institutions will be closed a decade from now. And some of the disruption is coming in the form of MOOCs and other screen-based technologies: they will explosively expand access; they will dramatically lower price; they will improve education.

While there are many problems in higher education and each of these issues deserves careful analysis, I focus here on the individual student and her/his educational experience in the electronic age. I focus on the human being who is maturing through the educational process, developing creative thinking, critical analysis, problem-solving, the ability to write and speak effectively and to productively collaborate with persons of different backgrounds and experiences than their own. National polling of employers has repeatedly placed these college-derived outcomes at the head of the list of desired employee attributes.

How best to develop these maturities? We are told that since college education has become very expensive, or at least some approaches to it have become very expensive, we must exploit technology. Would-be students are to be put in front of a screen to download knowledge to their brains from a "cloud". Transmitting knowledge in bytes from server to student in a sterile (little or no human teacher intervention), electronic environment is deemed to be a much cheaper means to impart information. The student progresses at their own pace and on their own time, and at least in a physical sense, alone. Given enough screen time, the student is supposed to emerge from the virtual university with certification equivalent to a college degree and become effective in the world of jobs and life.

The student is apparently conceived as the equivalent of the Artificial Intelligence machine that digitally acquires both basic knowledge and decision-making abilities based on downloading data into memory and persistent trial and error; in other words, a Robot.

Well-meaning disruptors of higher education have lost track of our humanness. They forget that we are complex beings whose thought patterns cannot be mimicked by a machine (at least not now nor in the near future). They ignore fundamentals of human interaction, such as that our communication is multifaceted, not two-dimensional on a flat screen. Tone, tempo, body language, eye contact, talking with the hands, immediate response to signals from the other, all contribute to communication and can profoundly change the message (have you ever had one of your emails misinterpreted by the reader?). These disruptors have pushed aside some of our human needs in communication as well as other human characteristics like uncertainty, deficiencies in persistence, and lack of self-confidence.

Students hunger for human interactions to mature through their educational career. They have deep needs to talk with faculty members about their future directions in life and their path to their degree, as much as about problems in their course. Through these discussions they learn much about themselves and can safely question premises that open new windows on the world for them. Students need faculty members to respond synchronously to what they voice to uncover both new understandings and misunderstandings lurking in the student's head. They need faculty members to diagnose learning hurdles that the students cannot articulate or do not understand. And they occasionally need faculty members to push them, nuanced by the nature of their one-on-one communication. All the many facets of person-to-person communication that we humans use are required to successfully meet the students' needs. Machines, even with humans programming them, are not able to substitute for person-to-person interactions in the learning environment.

The most desired outcomes of higher education, including creative thinking, critical analysis, problem-solving, the ability to write and speak effectively, and to productively collaborate with persons of different backgrounds and experiences than their own, are complex human skills. They require complex human interactions to fully develop.

If you, as an individual, have the immediate need to acquire, for example, a body of facts for a certification for your professional development, and you have the persistence to finish everything that you begin, and you prefer working largely alone, and if you can read quickly and effectively in whatever format, you may find an on-line approach to that body of facts effective for you. But then could you not have found a similar path through the 20th century public university on TV or the 19th century library in their day?

As we solve problems in higher education in the 21st century, remember that our subjects are human beings, not blank memory chips waiting to be filled.