Will this be on the test?

Tom Friedman envisions a glorious world of online classrooms in which all learning will open and available to anyone.

Of course, how we evaluate “education” will have to change completely.  He writes:

(I)ncreasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know. And therefore it will not pay for a C+ in chemistry, just because your state college considers that a passing grade and was willing to give you a diploma that says so. We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency — in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class — and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency.”

Which all sounds great – who can object to competency based evaluations? – until you ask how they’ll be administered.

Because there are really only two ways of evaluating someone’s competency:  you either give them a complicated task or series of task and watch how they solve them in the real world, monitoring their work product and process carefully … or you give them a standardized exam designed to evaluate a set of rote skills.

One is a driving test in an actual car with an instructor present, the other is a multiple choice test you take in the DMV to renew your license.

In the online learning world Friedman envisions, which do you think we’re more likely to get?

It’s distinctly possible that a world which streamlines classrooms down to a YouTube video will streamline evaluation down to a Survey Monkey.  We were headed that direction anyway with the proliferation of high stakes standardized tests.

But the real danger is not in how we measure education, but in how much we’re losing an education that can’t be measured.  The more we think of education as a product to be consumed, tested, and moved on from, the less effective it will be in ways that are hardest to test.

In the very same edition of the Times, we find David Toscana’s heartbreaking essay “The Country That Stopped Reading,” about the decline of reading in Mexico.

“Despite recent gains in industrial development and increasing numbers of engineering graduates, Mexico is floundering socially, politically and economically because so many of its citizens do not read,” he writes.

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.” In our schools, children are being taught what is easy to teach rather than what they need to learn. It is for this reason that in Mexico — and many other countries — the humanities have been pushed aside.

We have turned schools into factories that churn out employees. With no intellectual challenges, students can advance from one level to the next as long as they attend class and surrender to their teachers. In this light it is natural that in secondary school we are training chauffeurs, waiters and dishwashers.

The competency-based, YouTube dominated, world of education envisioned by techno-utopians like Friedman has no place for reading for its own sake.  You will go to YouTube for education, network websites for news videos, and Netflix for entertainment.  All the information will be there, measured and tucked away, leading to the delusion that nothing is being lost.  The system will churn out engineers and programmers as well as chauffeurs, waiters, and dishwashers perfectly well – thus fulfilling the stated mission of an education.

Congratulations, Mr. Friedman:  the world is, indeed, becoming flat.