Shaping ends to fit the means

Another MOOC-related thought (once you start saying “mooc,” it’s difficult to stop):

One of the people I interviewed for the MOOC article was Swarthmore history professor Timothy Burke, who wrote a perceptive post on MOOCs a few months ago on his blog. In our conversation, Burke pointed out that a lot of the massive online classes that have generated so much excitement over the last year are classes that would be largely taught through computers, anyway — computer science, software programming, and web design classes, notably, as well as some math classes. It’s no surprise that such “digitally native” classes would translate well to a purely digital distribution medium, but that fact tells us little about how successfully other sorts of classes would make such a transition.

A few days ago, Wheaton College English professor Alan Jacobs (whom I also interviewed) touched on this same theme in a brief post about my article. “In many ways,” he wrote, “the problem of technology is the ‘to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail’ problem”:

Once we discover that some subjects — primarily in mathematics and computer science — can be taught via the technologically-sophisticated MOOC method, then it becomes very tempting to say that the most important educational deficiency we have is in mathematics and computer science. This may or may not be true; but if we have what we believe to be a technological solution to a deficiency, then it becomes very easy for us to convince ourselves that the problem we think we can solve is the problem that really matters.

The means shapes the ends, by influencing both the way we define the problem and the way we define the solution. By coincidence, I read Jacobs’s post the same day I was re-reading a chapter from Langdon Winner’s 1977 book Autonomous Technology. Winner describes a phenomenon he calls reverse adaptation, which he defines as “the adjustment of human ends to match the character of the available means”:

We have already seen arguments to the effect that persons adapt themselves to the order, discipline, and pace of the organizations in which they work. But even more significant is the state of affairs in which people come to accept the norms and standards of technical processes as central to their lives as a whole. A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of their thinking and motivation. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate. Efficiency — the quest for maximum output per unit input — is, no one would question, of paramount importance in technical systems. But now efficiency takes on a more general value and becomes a universal maxim for all intelligent conduct. Is the most product being obtained for the resources and effort expended? The question is no longer applied solely to such things as assembly-line production. It becomes equally applicable to matters of pleasure, leisure, learning, every instance of human communication, and every kind of activity, whatever its ostensive purpose. Similarly, speed — the rate of perform­ance and swiftness of motion — makes sense as an instrumental value in certain kinds of technological operation. But now speed is taken to be an admirable characteristic in and of itself. The faster is the superior, whatever it may be.

Not only does everything look like a nail to the man with a hammer, but the solution to every problem looks like a nail gun.

The implications go well beyond MOOCs, of course.

5 thoughts on “Shaping ends to fit the means

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Hmm – “then it becomes very tempting to say that the most important educational deficiency we have is in mathematics and computer science.”

    This may be confusing cause and effect.

    I think there are independent reasons to say that the most important educational deficiency we have is in mathematics, and computer science is the key subject area now for media hucksters. It’s not like the future belongs to the English majors :-). (disclaimer – I was a math/physics person who went into programming for a living).

    So I’m a bit skeptical that there’s any strong subject effect from the technology itself. If there was suddenly a boom in Classics, say from a big market in pundits to explain what’s-wrong-with-Greece, I suspect that it would suddenly be discovered that distance-education was just the thing for it – The Global Agora, etc.

  2. Daniel Cole

    I’d say it seems like an arms race principle is in effect. Was it McLuhan who called humans “the sex organs of technology”? It perpetuates it’s own ideology, both explicitly and implicitly. For instance, the MOOCs serve hundreds of thousands people more easily, economically and efficiently than a local college with classes the lion’s share of which lie in the realms of tech, math and science .

    Meanwhile they’re adding a massive, growing technology centered new model to the market and collecting a gargantuan amount of data on their users/students, which must then be analyzed by software, probably sold and used for advertising.

    Finally, even where MOOCs are used to teach the humanities, they’re now doing it technologically, reinforcing the precedent that technology can improve the experience regardless of what it is.

    I kept thinking of that Martin Ford book, “Lights In The Tunnel”. Assuming these MOOCs become more competitive with traditional schooling, there are a lot of people who are going to lose their jobs. Haven’t heard anyone mention that yet.

  3. CS Clark

    There’s a practical level to this with regards to basic things like styles of questions. If you’re going to leave all your marking to a machine, you have to have questions that a machine can mark. The trouble lies in forgetting why you are examining a student’s understanding of Heidegger with multiple choice questions.

  4. Brutus

    I’ve heard numerous variations on the Winston Churchill quote, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” In some ways, this is as it should be. We adapt to structures and institutions of our own creation. But little of that is done with thoughtfulness, and it’s arguable that impacts of new technology are inherently unpredictable anyway, making thoughtful approaches moot. In the end, we’re caught in the undertow.

    I sometimes refer to TV as the biggest, ongoing, live experiment ever run, with the result still unclear because we don’t yet know how to pose the questions or interpret the data correctly. The same could be said for myriad other technologies, especially in communications and transportation (different aspects of diminishing the effect of separation in space). The MOOC example seems to assume that sheer efficiency leads to desirable results. In my experience, the valuable stuff almost always comes out of interactions in meatworld, and oddly, the lone thinker with his eureka moment, where space is tightly confined and the outer world is closed off.

  5. Robert Young

    While it might be thought something of a stretch, this MOOC meme reminds me of an ‘alternative’ pedagogy of the mid 1960s (junior high and high school): The TutorText (Google it), which were standard looking textbooks, with the exception. Each page was a ‘lesson’ with a question (from memory; there may have been multiple pages/questions per lesson) with a link to the ‘answer’ page at some ‘random’ spot in the text. The student thus proceeded at his/her own pace through the material, which was broken into teeny bits (if that sounds like Khan Academy, you’re right). Turned out not to work all that well.

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