I just read an opinion piece by David Brooks in the New York Times discussing online education.

His definitions of what a university is or should be are rather simplistic, though they were probably mostly written to generate thinking and discussion rather than to formally define the environment. Much of the focus of the piece was ostensibly about online learning, but focused on MOOCs.

I read the first few dozen reader comments in the NYT picks category. There were a variety of viewpoints that countered and criticized Mr. Brooks’ position. (One person, commenting as an endowed professor of statistics from Rice University, bemoaned the demise of the Socratic method in higher education, the rise of postmodern humanists, suggested that post-modernism is a secular communist plot, and that overhead from scientific research grants is overwhelmingly dedicated to the humanities.)

While the essay did not discuss the ways in which new media can or should facilitate learning, it did suggest that online learning is more appropriate for teaching technical knowledge and that traditional brick-and-mortar universities are better suited for teaching “practical knowledge,” defined as –

“the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

“These skills are practical knowledge. Anybody who works in a modern office knows that they are surprisingly rare.”

One solution proposed in the essay focused on using more technology to improve seminars for teaching those kinds of soft skills.
“The problem with the current seminars is that it’s really hard to know what anybody gets out of them. The conversations might be lively, but they flow by so fast you feel as if you’re missing important points and exchanges. ”

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  1. This is very interesting, and I have a strong reaction to the quotes you’ve pulled. As I’ve spend much of my career training and coaching individuals on these very types of “practical skills” – while it’s true that it’s really hard to know the true impact of learning these interpersonal skills in workshop settings (and in my opinion, coaching is more impactful), how do people really expect to built ability in the execution of these interpersonal skills if learning them through technology? Granted, the knowledge about skills, strategies, models, approaches can be gained electronically… but success is about artful execution – with another individual, where there are reactions, where we learn to read other people, reactions, outcomes, and then make adjustments. I’m not sold on online forums as the best venue for this type of learning. In fact, I think I’d segment online as most beneficial for knowledge transfer, and in-person as most beneficial for skill-building…

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