Sunday, December 12, 2010

What Exactly Determines a Quality Education?

Father Elwood P. Hecker, from the Loyola Wolf - 1965 Yearbook.

Part of the first year Philosophy class at Loyola University, 1965 (from the 1965 edition of the Loyola WOLF Yearbook). Learning in a class situation is often what makes the difference, because the answers students give to questions asked are often the ones you need to have addressed yourself!

Having been an educator for more than twenty -two years and taught at secondary schools as well as universities, I have some idea of what constitutes a quality education. (This is, of course, in addition to my own educational experiences at the undergraduate as well as graduate level).

Today, the big buzz is on online and distance learning, for a good reason: many people have to work to make a living, they weren't able to obtain degrees when younger and distance learning affords them the opportunity.

A recent perceptive take ('The Myth of Higher Education') offered by Dr. S. Mason in an issue of Integra (No. 9, Oct. ) the journal of Intertel, is that a huge error of American education is orientating it explicitly for the utilitarian purpose of making money or getting a job. As he points out, this is terribly short-sighted, and what if after enormous expense no remunerative job is forthcoming? (A serious possibility in today's world where even high tech computer and engineering jobs are being dispatched to India thanks to GE and Cisco).

It therefore is extremely parlous and presumptive for a person to expend an enormous amount on either a standard 'brick and mortar' university education or an online -distant learning one, if the sole objective is to earn a living based on one's degree. In Mason's take(op. cit.): "the bottom line regarding a well -rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line. Its value (non-monetary) is to be found in the quality it adds to one's life. It allows one to better appreciate music, art, history and literature. It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy. It expands rather than limits horizons and replaces faith and belief with reason and logic." Mason adds that it "teaches a person to live - not to earn a living" and that living encompasses an impetus for further learning just for its own sake. If a fantastic, well-paying job also comes with it, that's icing on the cake.

Fortunately, when I attended Loyola University (1964-67), the whole thrust was about two things: 1) critical thinking (now tested regularly on the Graduate Record Exam which must normally be taken before one undertakes post-graduate education) and 2) open inquiry that motivates further learning.

Though Loyola was a committed Jesuit institution, its staff believed that a full education must mean exposure to a diverse array of ideas, arguments and philosophies. As Father Elwood Hecker, S.J. - one of my Philosophy profs (see image from 1965 Loyola Wolf Yearbook) told us: "When you leave the university there is no guarantee you will find work, nor is that any promise we make to you. We believe you enter university with the purpose of expanding your universe of ideas and concepts and that you continue to learn yhour whole lives."

His words then (1965) dovetailed with Dr. Mason's in the recent Integra issue. In other words, the worth of a university degree can't be measured in dollars and cents, but in preparing the mind of the person for a lifelong adventure or quest of learning - whatever that form assumes.

For me, it is constantly reading the latest research across a broad spectrum of topics, from astrophysics, to quantum theory, to the philosophy of science and theology-religious material and neuroscience. I also find my yen for learning takes me online for many lectures and courses offered - as at MIT:

and Yale University:

In addition, I avail myself of courses (usually when discounted) from The Teaching Company. A current one I am going through is 'Consciousness and Its Implications' - a 12-lecture course by Prof. Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford University.

The point is, lifelong learning and open inquiry means perpetual mental expansion by continuous exposure to new thoughts, new research and new ideas. It emphatically doesn't mean grabbing or "qualifying" for some piece of paper, then closing down your inquiry for the rest of your days - and feeling smug that you've learned everything there is to know or find out about your field.

As Prof. Hecker often told our class:

"Perhaps the most important thing you may take away from this university is not only having an appreciation for what you know, but what you don't know."

Now, what about the $64 educational question: Is the bricks and mortar learning superior to distance learning, or not?

I can't speak to this for everyone and wouldn't be so pretentious to even try. But there are certain markers for quality education that everyone ought to know, if he's serious. Such markers include:

1) Accreditation:

What official body has accredited the institution of higher learning? There are six major accrediting bodies in the United States. In the case of the Southern U.S. (and for Loyola) the accrediting body is the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

2) Learning one-to-one (tutorials):

This is critical and maybe one of the most crucial components but may not be present (for obvious reasons) in distant learning. For example, this means when a student encounters a difficult impasse, as he or she surely will, he can meet one-to-one with a professor and hash out the difficulty. At Loyola, for example, professors were always available and also conducted tutorials (weekly meetings with only a few students for problem solving or question resolution purposes. )

When I taught Physics, Space Physics and Labs in those subjects (at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks) I always set aside office hours to meet one on one with students having difficulties. I did the same when I taught at Harrison College (physics, math) in Barbados, and at Howard Community College in Columbia, MD.

Those office hours often meant the difference between a student doing well on a class project, or not. Or more critically, passing the course, or failing it. A student- I don't care how diligent he is, simply can't obtain the same measure of mastery without that intense contact which is directed to the sole purpose of resolving the difficulty. It simply isn't the same as staring at a passive computer monitor - or even an online tutorial - when you can't stop and ask questions or get immediate feedback at that instant.

3) Socialization aspect and learning interactively as a group:

In Fr. Hecker's philosophy class (see image shown) we actually learned from each other. Using the "Socratic Method" (made famous by the character known as "Professor Kingsfield" in the series Paper Chase) Prof. Hecker would press and probe his students one by one to elicit the optimum answers and insights in exploring whatever aspect came up. Thus, as one student answered the question (and thereby introduced a new question for another) we referenced our own resolution by way of his or her answer. As the process continued, each new question of Fr. Hecker's addressed, we ourselves processed it for assimilation and further study, reference. This dynamic interplay is not possible when a single student tries to master a difficult subject via long distance access only. One way I could describe it is the class experience is three dimensional but the distance learner's is at most two dimensional.

Sure there are many advantages to distance learning, such as saving gas and time, as well as not having to expose oneself to thousands of people with different ideas (that you may not like) but the total college experience is to me, what makes it unique - and which one can't just obtain from online learning.

Is onling learning okay? Sure, as a last resort and when no other practical options are available. But my advice is to first try to get the actual college experience, and not a facsimile of it.

My experiences at Loyola prepared me not only for the further experiences and courses at other universities (e.g. completing my astronomy Bachelors at University of South Florida and Masters in Physics at the University of the West Indies) but for learning mastery and open inquiry - not just in subjects I already knew - but new ones (e.g. economics, political science, finance). If a student isn't open to new ideas, or new insights and especially challenging his existing beliefs, his education is essentially for naught - whether he obtained it online, or via the brick and mortar venue.

No comments: