Online Education and Jazz

There is a lovely essay on Marginal Revolution by Alex Tabarrok, who rebuts Mark Edmundson’s criticism of online education. I’m very confident that time will prove Tabarrok right and Edmundson embarrasingly uninformed.

A common responses to my article, Why Online Education Works, is that there is something special, magical, and ‘almost sacred’ about the live teaching experience. I agree that this is true for teaching at its best but it’s also irrelevant. It’s even more true that there is something special, magical and almost sacred about the live musical experience. The time I saw Otis Clay in a small Toronto bar, my first Springsteen concert, the Teenage Head riot at Ontario Place these are some of my favorite and most memorable cultural experiences and yet by orders of magnitude most of the music that I listen to is recorded music.

In The Trouble With Online Education Mark Edmundson makes the analogy between teaching and music explicit:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition.

Quite right but every non-memorable class is also a bit like a jazz composition, namely one that was expensive, took an hour to drive to (15 minutes just to find parking) and at the end of the day wasn’t very memorable. The correct conclusion to draw from the analogy between live teaching and live music is that at their best both are great but both are also costly and inefficient ways of delivering most teaching and most musical experiences.

Edmundson also says this about online courses:

You can get knowledge from an Internet course if you’re highly motivated to learn. But in real courses the students and teachers come together and create an immediate and vital community of learning. A real course creates intellectual joy, at least in some. I don’t think an Internet course ever will.

Edmundson reminds me of composer John Philip Sousa who in 1906 wrote The Menace of Mechanical Music, an attack on the phonograph that sounds very similar to the attack on online education today.

It is the living, breathing example alone that is valuable to the student and can set into motion his creative and performing abilities. The ingenuity of a phonograph’s mechanism may incite the inventive genius to its improvement, but I could not imagine that a performance by it would ever inspire embryotic Mendelssohns, Beethovens, Mozarts, and Wagners to the acquirement of technical skill, or to the grasp of human possibilities in the art.

Sousa could not imagine it, but needless to say recorded music has inspired many inventive geniuses. Edmundson’s failure of imagination is even worse than Sousa’s, online courses are already creating intellectual joy (scroll down).

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(Via Marginal Revolution.)