Don’t take that class. It’s useless.




classroom_smRecently, my brother sent me a link to this Twitter conversation started by Andrew Ruiz in which the author made the following claims: “Knowledge is a Tool [sic]. People are interested in a tool only if it solves their problem. Few people buy screwdrivers for their aesthetic beauty. They buy them for function. Likewise, most MOOCs like Coursera fail because most of their courses don’t solve problems people have.” The claims interested me because they touch on a broad subject that I’ve been thinking about lately (N.B. I’m more interested in the general claim about the effectiveness of online learning in general than about the specific claim about the company he calls out which, I think, probably is false).

There are several questions to pursue in Ruiz’s claims but two that stand out are whether education in the abstract solves problems people have and whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in particular are poor at solving those problems. These questions deal both with epistemology and with educational philosophy and the modes by which people are educated. People who responded to Ruiz took the opportunity to criticize college education in general (Ruiz, responding to his tweet, further claims that MOOCs fail because they’re copies of college courses and most college courses “are shitty” and unnecessary).

I’ve taught college courses in philosophy for over 15 years both in the classroom and online and have been teaching MOOC courses through Microsoft for over three years, so I have a personal interest in the questions Ruiz’s tweet raises (disclaimer: all opinions expressed in this article are mine and don’t necessarily represent those of Microsoft). While grabbing an after-work drink, a few colleagues and I got to talking about this very issue. Playing the provocateur, I made the following claims to get the discussion on to philosophy: education mainly is the process by which those who know things deliver that knowledge to those who don’t know those things. That’s the essence of education. It can be delivered in myriad ways but, at root, it always comes down to that basic practice. Even those who are “self-taught” and explore a topic through books or the internet still are learning from others who ostensibly have written down or recorded the things they know and are communicating that knowledge to those who want to learn from them.

Types of Knowing

My claims, though general and course-grained, were based in my view of epistemology (the study of knowledge). In my introductory philosophy class that I’ve taught for many years, I teach my students that there are three different types of knowledge. Two of them are relevant here. The first is what epistemologists call “know how.” It is the knowledge of how to do some task. For example, many people know how to play the piano (I don’t). They can walk up to a piano and start playing a wide variety of music “without thinking about it.” That is, the knowledge has become innate such that their mind orchestrates their hands and feet in such a way that everything is coordinated without the person being aware of how it all works. They may not even think about the music itself (I suspect that some musicians who play the same songs for fans night after night get to a point where they don’t really think about the music they’re playing but are thinking about other things like the size of the crowd, how much money they’re making that night, where they might be going after the show, family problems etc.). People have know how on a vast number of subject areas. If you’re able to read this article, it’s likely that you have know how of the English language. (Incidentally, this is the focus of the popular book by Malcolm Gladwell titled, Outliers in which he argues that it takes the average person about 10,000 hours to become proficient at something—to gain an expert-level know how.)

Another type of knowledge, the type philosophers spend much of their time studying, is what is called “propositional knowledge.” This is knowledge that something is true. It’s the knowledge that a particular claim represents the state of the world at a particular moment. These typically are represented in declarative sentences like, “The sun will rise tomorrow,” or “the holocaust was a crime against humanity,” or “MOOCs fail because they don’t solve problems people have.” If we were to analyze each of these statements using the tools of analytic logic, we’d say each of these is true or false. Knowing which “truth value” each of these has can be a difficult thing and that’s the task of epistemological contemplation and evidential exploration (epistemologists work to figure out the criteria for what it means to know something is true and what’s involved in meeting those criteria).

The Move from Propositional Knowledge to Know How

The early Greeks philosophers viewed the practical application of knowledge (wisdom) as the goal. In fact, philosophy comes from the Greek for the love of wisdom (philen – to love, sophia – wisdom). One significant challenge creators of digital learning face is how to help students make the shift from knowing that some set of facts are true to knowing how to apply the content of their subject area to real-world problems. In other words, helping students become proficient in the application of propositional knowledge so it becomes know how. Of course, this is the challenge education faces in general but the challenge is exacerbated in digital learning mainly due to the attenuated teacher and peer interaction.

While teaching “facts” is an important part of education, if a student can’t understand the reasons for what he or she is learning and can’t see a way to apply propositional knowledge to real-world problems, education can fall flat and, many times, go unused. I recall when I was in high school and had to learn geometry. My twin brother struggled with the subject mainly because he wasn’t clearly taught the point of it—it was too abstract and seemed impractical. When he asked his teacher why he had to learn all those rules and theorems, the teacher’s reply was only that, while he didn’t see the value then and there, “it would pay off later.” The teacher was unable to provide examples where and when it would pay off but assured my brother that it would. The answer, as you would imagine, failed to generate any interest in the subject.

It is, perhaps, this situation that Andrew Ruiz is concerned with. Propositional knowledge doesn’t seem to “solve problems” and because of this isn’t worth pursuing. He seems to make the assumption that MOOCs—and the college courses they’re based on—deal mainly in propositional knowledge and so can seem impractical. What do we make of this? Is the criticism valid?

As with most criticisms of this type, the answers to these questions depends on several things. For example, a teacher’s skill and passion (or lack thereof) can make a big difference in how students learn and whether they understand the practicality of what they’re learning. I once had an excellent English teacher who was tasked with teaching propositional knowledge about the English language. She did just that. But she did it by assigning a series of short stories considered by many to be essential reading and then using the prose in those stories to demonstrate how English should be written and spoken. Not only did we learn English propositionally, but we learned about life, love, manipulation, greed, charity, thankfulness, and even, in a way, how to self-reflect but also how a well-written English phrase can deeply impact how to think about the world. Some of those stories have stuck with me to this day, decades later. I learned English but I learned why the language matters and how it can be used effectively.

Subject matter also seems to be an important factor when considering the level of propositional knowledge that is needed before a learner can reach know how. Learning a programming language or how to construct a modus ponens argument or how to wire a house has to be taught propositionally to lay the foundation for doing the work of a programmer, logician, or electrician. But it can’t stop there if one wants to actually become proficient. Gaining propositional knowledge is an essential foundation but eventually one must transition (at least in cases like these) to know how—the ability to use the propositional knowledge one has gained. That process involves many things the least of which is practice and practice requires a working knowledge of the propositions that the practitioner will use in their craft.

Finally, the disposition and personality of the student is an important factor in all learning. While it might be easy to make judgements and label students “self-starters” or “slackers” I think those labels are generally unhelpful. In my experience, students are as diverse in their learning styles as they are in every other area of life. What works for one student may not be as effective with the next. In a classroom, teachers can attempt to adjust for these differences. If they can’t accommodate every learning style, they can attempt to address broad categories of learning styles and provide the means to address each of these categories uniquely. In the digital environment of MOOCs, instructors tend to have less involvement with students, many more students to work with, and an inability to tell when and how students may be blocked from learning. This dynamic may be another reason Mr. Ruiz does not like MOOCs and finds them impractical.

On Method

These were ideas that the philosopher Socrates saw clearly. His method focused on dialogue which enabled him to determine how and what a student thought about a subject as well as put the burden of learning back on the shoulders of the learner. While Socrates certainly guided the discussion, he attempted to lead the students on a journey by helping them discover truth rather than learn it “didactically.” The student learned propositional truths but learned also how to discover and apply those truths.

I think often about which models of education are most effective and regularly come back to apprenticeship models where students learn alongside skilled practitioners and gain not only propositional knowledge but learn how the master teacher applies what he or she knows. In many ways, Socrates was attempting to be a master teacher training his students in the art of sound reasoning. Apprenticeship programs are used throughout the world and, while they often are used to train tradespeople, the model can be highly effective for just about any practical work (or hobby). Most apprenticeship systems co-mingle propositional knowledge with hands-on or “on-the-job” education with the goal of enabling students to develop know how over time.

Digital education can be seen as the antithesis of apprenticeship in that it tries to teach large numbers of students using a self-paced, self-directed model. This model can and does work for a small subset of learners but ends up not working for a large portion of learners who may need the individual instruction from a seasoned practitioner–or some close analogue. Master practitioners become excellent at a craft by gaining skills that are hard to transfer propositionally. They learn by making a lot of mistakes and they develop shortcuts and workarounds that come only with doing. Over the years, I’ve tackled a lot of home improvement projects and, through lots of trial and error, learned a few things. I’ll watch videos on how to do something and read articles on things to watch for. But nothing is a substitute for getting my hands dirty. I know now that I typically have to do something a few times to learn how to do it correctly and now budget for mistakes when purchase extra or duplicate materials and set aside time for doing things two or three times until it’s right. Occasionally I have the good fortune to work with a master craftsman on a project and it saves me not only time and money, but a lot of frustration. All of this can be missing from a digital environment and lead to a frustrated learning environment and unmet learning outcomes. This can lead to a charge of impractically and frustration with online learning. So, what, if anything, can be done?

In my view, online learning is in its infancy and there is a lot of growth opportunities and improvements that will have to happen in order to bridge the gaps as it were. Some of these improvements will be technological in nature—better digital learning environments that enable more student-instructor interaction, better and more advanced use of AI, better peer-to-peer learning. But all the solutions need not be technical; some immediate changes can help. One example: we as educators can focus on developing better assessments. Many online assessments still take the form of objective testing. Students answer multiple choice, short answer, or true/false questions and their “proficiency” is evaluated on how well they do on these types tests. By now, you should have already determined this approach largely is an evaluation of propositional knowledge. While not necessarily a negative thing, this type of assessment doesn’t really tell the instructor (or a potential employer—or the student himself or herself) whether the student actually has acquired the practical skills he or she is supposed to have learned.

One way to address this latter challenge is to favor practical assessments that involve actually demonstrating skills in a real-world environment over objective tests alone. There are many challenges with delivering this type of assessment to large numbers of students in a meaningful way. But the approach can significantly increase not only the ability of educators to evaluate students, but also the enjoyment and level of engagement of the students themselves. Being asked to complete interact with an argument and write a response is better at generating know how than answering questions about that same argument. Dialoguing with someone (or, perhaps, an AI analogue) is better yet.

So while I can agree with Mr. Ruiz’s frustration and tacitly agree with portions of his assessment, I prefer to look at the situation we’re in as a challenge than an obituary. More importantly, knowledge is a diversified concept and while practical knowledge—know how–is important, sometimes learning a set of facts for their own sake is exactly the problem a student needs to solve.

For Further Reading

What is Knowledge? Philosophy News article on the nature, scope, and possibility of knowledge.

Who is Socrates? Dr. Paul Herrick describes Socrates both as a thinker and as a model. One of the three major early Greek thinkers, Socrates not only lived what he believed, he died for the principle that by thinking critically we can create a life worth living.