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Through the such of standardised tests, recording the number of hours participated in voluntary work or extra-curricular activities and converting that into a grade, the education system has attempted to quantify even qualities. This overly rigid measure of merit has brought about problems such as the deteriorating quality of education, rising costs and misallocation of resources in the system. And as we live in an age where technology has become the go-to solution for most of humanity’s challenges, from combatting communicable diseases to solving world hunger, it is of no doubt that technology might be able to provide solutions for problems in the education system as well. However, education technology provide mere tools for overcoming pedagogical problems, such as cross-border transfer of knowledge and an alternate platform for discussions, and are unable to solve the aforementioned problems permanently as it does not tackle the root cause of the problems, and these problems will surface again over time. An overly rigid measure of merit has therefore resulted in problems that technology cannot solve permanently.
Such an inflexible way of measuring merit has resulted in students’ vision tunnelling on achieving higher grades, and that is achieved through performing well on standardised tests. Memorisation and understanding of knowledge are for regurgitation during examinations to produce model answers, and those pieces of knowledge are forgotten as students move on to other topics. This idea is succinctly captured in the American literary critic, novelist and essayist Walter Kirn’s article Lost In The Meritocracy published in 2005, written about his own experience in the American education as he moves from rural Minnesota to Princeton University. In it, he mentions how the content he decided to read up on his own “stuck with [him] – maybe because [he] collected them for their own sake, not as cards to be played at final-exam time and then forgotten when a new hand was dealt. ”Jerry Z. Muller, Professor of History at The Catholic University of America, makes the distinction between “training, which is oriented to production and survival”, and “education, which is oriented to making survival meaningful” in his 2018 book The Tyranny Of Metrics. When education takes place, knowledge is internalised and used to challenge and question life in order to make it meaningful. Curiosity is encouraged and there is a search for purpose. Unfortunately, again, with the proliferation of strict standards of merit, such qualities of education are lost.
As we turn to technology for solutions, one might realise that technology may not be of much help. Technology, undeniably, is an unrivalled medium for the transfer of knowledge, as it transcends both space and time. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) can be accessed anytime, anywhere, as long there is an internet connection. Yet, a transfer of knowledge is not enough to develop an interest in studies; there needs to be a change in attitude to allow greater room to pursue passion outside traditionally recognised fields of study. With reference to lectures, Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posits that lectures are “a place where students come together. … An audience is present; the room is engaged. It nourishes a kind of inspiration. ”The difference between a lecture and a lecture webcast is its environment; contents are the same, but the fact that in a lecture you are surrounded by people that you can interact with in real-time, perhaps to share personal stories which relate to what is being taught or to clarify doubts, that is what makes a lecture different from one online that you review in solitude. This “kind of inspiration” is also what develops interests, to keep students engaged and passionate about a subject. Therefore, technology may not be able to offer a solution for discouraging studying for grades and encouraging learning.
While meritocracy is a relatively fair way of distributing limited resources based on merit, the rigid measure of merit has led to unhealthy competition that has detrimental consequences. A case in point: oversaturation of degree-holders in the job market has led to lower salaries and misallocation of resources. In his book, Muller points out an arms race arises out of college degree being a positional good which signals “intellectual competence as well as personality traits such as persistence. ”
Given that employers consider academic achievements as a signal of employability, students would therefore want to enrol themselves into college in hopes of signalling to employers that they too are sufficiently qualified, and to place themselves on the same playing field as other applicants. This would include even those who are underqualified or underprepared for college, leading to a misallocation of resources as the colleges attempt to provide assistance for them, incurring an opportunity cost of not allocating these resources to investments with higher returns. From the perspective of these students, they would have also misallocated their time to pursuing a college education that they might not necessarily be suited for, instead of pursuing apprenticeship for skilled trades which might offer higher salaries. Some may claim that technology is able to alleviate this problem misallocation of resources by reducing the amount of resources diverted to help those students, while not compromising on the assistance provided.
One such example will be MOOCs. A review of MOOCs in Turkle’s book raised a benefit of them as being able to “walk away at any time” and for however long, giving time to digest and reflect on the information one has just taken in. MOOCs’ accessibility and flexibility aids in developing a deeper understanding of the topic. It takes away the need to teach content during classes, allowing for more time to “discuss ideas, work on projects and go over homework… to make the classroom a space for project-based learning and a new kind of conversation, more dynamic than what students had before. ”With MOOCs, weaker students can now receive help without a substantial rise in costs, and colleges no longer have to allocate large amount of additional resources to helping them at the costs of other opportunities. To look beyond college, these courses can be introduced pre-college, ensuring that all prospective students are well-prepared. This, however, is only a short-term solution to the problem of misallocation of resources, which finds its roots in the overarching problem of an overly rigid measure of merit. Paper qualifications being the only definition of merit is inherently wrong, and the fact that MOOCs are making it easier for people to mindlessly involve themselves in this unhealthy ‘paper chase’ and thus exacerbating the ‘paper chase’ is unhelpful. Not that seeking self-betterment and aspiring to go to college is discouraged, but rather it is worrying that people are compared against each other by their educational achievements and are therefore going to college just because it has turned into normality. One may then start to question if eventually pursuing postgraduate education would be normality in the future, and whether there is an end to this unhealthy competition, rooted in the problematic way of defining merit: ranking one’s academic performances relatively to others.
Perhaps, if we were able to find new ways to measure merit, for instance rewarding effort in terms of improvement over time instead of effort in terms of results, we might just be able to encourage students to learn; for when they are genuinely passionate about a subject matter, they would have the initiative to find out more and hence acquire more knowledge, which is a form of merit. The misallocation of resources would also be resolved, as underqualified or underprepared students are no longer shepherded into colleges and colleges would not need to incur opportunity costs in allocating limited resources to them. Determining other ways to define and measure merit would require tremendous effort from policy makers, to make education less one-dimensional, but instead multi-dimensional, perhaps through observing the change in the depth of thoughts or the level appreciation of different perspectives. This would signal to students that any skills, interest in any subject matter is appreciated. Since this is a problem involving the mindset and attitude that society has towards education, the solution ought to be a long-running policy that adjusts the metrics for measuring merit, and technology might be the means for enacting these policies. Conceivably, we may be able to use technology to come up with new ways to measure metrics, in multiple dimensions.
Graeme Wood, a Canadian-American journalist and lecturer in political science at Yale University, mentions in his 2014 article The Future Of College? how technology can help to measure and track performance efficiently, for example “quizzes… are over and done in a matter of seconds, with student’s answers immediately logged and analysed. ”With this, we can expand it beyond the quantitative subjects such as math and science, but also onto the arts, where the tutors can access the students’ answers anytime, anywhere, allowing them to assess the students’ progress in the course, and through backlogging, compare the students’ performance in the past and now with the aim of identifying effort rather than results. In conclusion, we should realise that the problems in education stem from the way we define merit, which is by comparing quantitative results relatively and sorting our students into one-dimensional spectrum, when in fact, us humans are multi-dimensional and are talented in other aspects that the education system does not reward. We should continue to look towards finding new ways to measure merit and harness the power of technology to achieve this, not comparing between students but ‘within’ students, noting how they have improved over time. We ought to remember that when we attempt to solve a problem, we should treat the cause, not the symptoms.
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