Roger Schank is a pioneer in using computers as teaching tools, and his latest venture has reached an interesting conclusion: The best way to cut costs is to reduce automation and use more human input. The main thing to improve education, said Schank, now a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, is to do away with classes, lectures and tests. The key to effective education, he said, is to learn by doing. “Online education allows you to break away from old, outmoded methods and try new things,” he said. “That’s its main benefit.” In the 1990s, Schank and his Northwestern colleagues devised several courses that enabled businesses to train people by using computer automation. When a trainee had a question, the computer would play a video clip of an expert telling an anecdotal experience that addressed the question.
The technology was effective, but it’s more costly than online learning, which has become common on the Web. Yet most online efforts are based on classes, lectures and testing, which Schank believes are outmoded. To provide effective online learning at competitive costs, Schank has started a new company, Socratic Arts, based in Evanston, that devises curricula that immerse a student in a learning experience. If someone wants to learn how to manage an e-commerce company, for example, he must write a business plan, form a company and deal with numerous day-to-day problems that the curricula throws at him. This is done in collaboration with other students, as would happen in real life. Some communications occurs online and some doesn’t.
“If you have to write a business plan, there are many books that can help you with that,” said Schank. “We point the student to them rather than reproduce the books online. The student writes a business plan, submits it online, and then a mentor reads it and critiques it. This happens again and again as the student learns about writing a business plan. “Students collaborate with each other to solve problems. They don’t work in isolation.” University faculty can provide some individual mentoring, or experts can be recruited for specific tasks, such as helping with writing a good business plan. Computer technology helps the mentors provide students with needed individual attention.
Schank’s company is working with Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science school to develop curricula that will lead to master’s degrees. He also has been in talks with some Chicago educators about starting programs aimed at students in college and high school. “In most high schools, the seniors tend to goof off,” said Schank. “We can rearrange things so that students take care of their requirements by the end of the junior year and then spend their senior year in my curriculum learning about what they want to do in the world. “They could leave high school knowing enough to get a job directly or knowing how to get the most out of their college education.”