school

Abandoned school, Chernobyl. Photo by Oliver Sved on Shutterstock

In a recent essay on the MOOC phenomenon and its alternatives, Scott Newstok makes an interesting and important point:

The corporate world recognizes the virtues of proximity in its own human resource management. Witness, for example, Yahoo’s recent decision to eliminate telecommuting and require employees to be present in the office. CEO Marissa Mayer’s memo reads as a mini-manifesto for close learning:

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Why do boards of directors still go through the effort of convening in person? Why, in spite of all the fantasies about “working from anywhere,” are “creative classes” still concentrating in proximity to one another: the entertainment industry in LA, information technology in the Bay Area, financial capital in New York City? The powerful and the wealthy are well aware that computers can accelerate the exchange of information, and facilitate low-level “training.” But not the development of knowledge, much less wisdom.

Mayer’s edict has been controversial, to say the least, but it’s worth emphasizing that other Silicon Valley giants share her belief that employees work better when they have regular face-to-face contact. The famous amenities of Google’s campus are there so employees will want to be at work as much as possible. Pixar’s building is designed to promote connection and collaboration among employees — as, indeed, is its whole corporate culture. And when things get serious at Facebook, the whole company goes into lockdown mode:

After word leaked that Google was starting work on a “Facebook killer” in summer 2010, Zuckerberg called on engineers to work nights and weekends for 60 days to revamp key social features like photos, groups, and events. Just as it did then, the cafeteria opened up on evenings and weekends this summer, and children dropped in for dinners and good-night hugs before their parents logged back on for late nights.

But most important, as Newstok points out, the very same technology mavens who insist that excellent education can be provided, via MOOC, to people dispersed all over the world — “The changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen” — do not themselves act as though physical proximity to smart, gifted, exciting people is a matter of no significance. Rather, they consistently pay premium prices in housing to live in one of the handful of places in the United States — Silicon Valley, Seattle, Brooklyn, Austin, Cambridge — where they can count on a critical mass of like-minded people being present. They clearly believe that not just their personal well-being but also their intellectual sharpness depend on regular face-to-face encounters with others like them. Yet they proclaim that for hoi polloi none of that matters.

If physical presence is as important in education as the technologists’s actions say it is, then perhaps their energies are misapplied. Instead of looking for ways to eliminate or bypass brick-and-mortar schools — and, not incidentally, making a hefty profit for themselves in doing so — maybe they should bend their considerable intellectual powers to the more challenging, less destructive, and far more meaningful challenge of making college education more affordable for everyone who can truly benefit from it.