Questioning the Retail Model

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

There’s been a move across college campuses to standardize online instruction, the reason being that students are complaining that each professor does things differently.  Apparently, students are unable to find assignments or readings or whatever because this professor doesn’t use the same tool or folder or resource as that professor (even though, often, the same course management platform is used). You get the picture.

Now, I don’t think frustration and anxiety make for a particularly good learning experience. However, confusion—at least in moderate doses—does. Maryellen Weimer’s recent post in the Teaching Professor highlights how encouraging students to figure things out for themselves is how the “messy work of learning” actually happens. Of course, as she points out, students prefer things be easy, that the teacher tell them what to do. Flailing around, even for a short while, uncertain as to whether a thing is so or how to accomplish a task, can be unsettling. But who said learning–real, deep learning–was otherwise?

So what does this have to do with the move to standardize online teaching? The connection lies in the fundamentally different spheres of business and education, which are overlapping more and more as universities adopt capitalistic growth models. Simply, it’s good business to make things easy for the customer. Education doesn’t work that way. In his 1995 report “What We Learn When We Learn By Doing,” Roger Schank made this observation:

When new data are simply told to us, we don’t know where in memory to put them because we don’t really understand the use of that data. When we experience the data ourselves, we also experience, at the same time, other sights, sensations, feelings, remembrances of goals achieved, goals hoped for, and so on.

But experiencing the data for ourselves, as he puts it, is necessarily messy, confusing and takes time—not the ideal retail process. If standardization has the goal of improving learning, then it’s worth consideration. But I have a feeling that’s not the case. Rather, my suspicion is that the goal is as old as retail: Keep the customer happy.


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