THE BLOG
03/01/2013 12:37 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

Yahoo for Yahoo!

Yahoo!!!!! (I mean the celebratory exclamation, not the corporation.) Yahoo (I mean the corporation, not the celebratory exclamation.) is rescinding the practice of allowing employees to work from home whenever they wish. This decision, made by CEO Marissa Mayer and leaked to the press, has ignited a small firestorm.

Before justifying my enthusiasm, I offer an important acknowledgment: Yahoo's work-from-home policy was a great benefit for parents, especially women who have long suffered inequity in the workplace. Policies that give flexibility for parenting and help folks lead balanced, healthy lives are praiseworthy. It is unfortunate that stopping this practice may create upheaval in family life, for women in particular.

That disclaimer aside, Yahoo's highly publicized (and criticized) move strikes a blow for rationality, particularly regarding education.

Among the emerging trends in education -- from pre-school to post graduate -- is the genuflection at the altar of technology. Much of this is pure hype, manufactured and distributed by the tech companies who stand to profit immensely from efforts to digitize education. The actual benefits of technology are questionable, despite the hype. Living and learning are organic experiences, not digital ones, and we confuse the two things at significant peril. The digital representation of something is not the same as "the something," whatever that may be. This is not merely a romantic concern, although I am an unrepentant romantic. It is also a neurobiological problem. Brain development benefits from active, multi-sensory experience. Learning is the process of understanding the physical, not the digital universe. Learning is about understanding human experience, not its likeness arrayed in 0's and 1's. Both of these dimensions of learning benefit from touch, smell, sound, three-dimensional perspective... even taste.

This distinction alone should make us wary of technological hype.

But the greater risk posed by digital education, particularly online courses, is the loss of community and the power of relationships within a community. Here the Yahoo decision directly responds to concerns that many educators have about online education.

As reported by Fox Business News:

"Yahoo, touting the importance of 'physically being together,' asked that all employees who have work-from-home arrangements begin working in the office starting in June. 'To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,' the note said. 'That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.' The memo went on to note that some of the company's best decisions and insights come from hallways and cafeteria discussions, meeting new coworkers and impromptu in-person team meetings."

A hearty "BRAVA" to Ms. Mayer, particularly for the last sentence in the above report.

It is useful to consider the differences between bland production and interesting innovation and between routine procedures and problem solving. In the Fox piece, a critic of her decision cited a Stanford study, which showed increased production (up 13 percent) by folks working from home for a Chinese travel agency. Travel agency work, which is arguably bland production and/or routine procedure, is not the work of Yahoo or any other dynamic industry. This and other examples used by critics simply miss the point.

The Yahoo case is a precise analog for considering the efficacy, or lack thereof, of online education.

Consider a key distinction: that between training and education. If a school's or school system's highest aspiration is training, online courses are probably adequate. Sadly, given the excesses of rote learning and constant testing, this may be an accurate assessment of our national aspirations. It sometimes seems that all schools are trying to do is train children with a minimal threshold of skills to be cogs in the national economy (or Chinese travel agents!).

But while this is what we do, it's not what we say. All the teeth gnashing about the alleged crisis in American education uses language like "entrepreneurial, innovative, problem solving, creative, dynamic, collaborative..." to describe the outcomes we desire. Politicians and bureaucrats talk this talk and they walk the path of rote instruction, destruction of arts programs, suppression of imagination and -- by way of online instruction -- isolation instead of collaboration. It is as though we claim the desire to develop a generation of great athletes and then we buy them television sets to watch lots of sports.

In schools, as in Yahoo, communication and collaboration are critically important. Students and teachers must work side-by-side -- and not on Skype. As at Yahoo, some of the best learning will happen in hallways and cafeteria discussions, impromptu encounters and team projects.

I really don't care much about Yahoo, and I'm rather enjoying the implicit irony in using the decisions made by a technology company as an argument for using less technology in education.

I wonder what Ms. Mayer would make of that?

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