The Problem with Piece-Wise Learning

By Bob Bruner-

I got it one piece at a time
And it didn’t cost me a dime
You’ll know it’s me when I come through your town
I’m gonna ride around in style
I’m gonna drive everybody wild
‘Cause I’ll have the only one there is around.

Johnny Cash, “One Piece At A Time”

I’ve heard some talk lately about how technology will disaggregate higher education. The vision is that the likes of Khan Academy and Coursera will allow students to pick and choose courses and learning experiences to construct their own higher education—thus, it is asked, “why do we need colleges, universities, and dedicated faculties?” The Valhalla of limitless choice and student-driven learning presages an education built “piece-wise:” a little of this and a little of that pulled from a vast smorgasbord of providers at little or no cost to the student. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Johnny Cash’s classic song gives us the answer; but more about that in a moment. At issue here is the value of structure and system in higher education, such as distributional requirements, a major, special fields, a final essay, and the value of advising and student support. All these elements promote breadth and depth. A great education has a comprehensive vision about what an educated person should be or be able to do. At the heart of this comprehensive vision should be a commitment to systematic learning: one should know a little about a lot (breadth) and in one or more areas, should know a lot about a little (depth).

A piece-wise education doesn’t prepare you for life, and especially for professional life. You don’t stay long enough in one field to gain some deep insights. And you don’t gain the systematic breadth to help you connect dots across different disciplines. The partner in charge of recruiting for a leading management consulting firm once told me that he finds liberally-trained graduates “so much more interesting:” able to express themselves well, able to talk on many subjects, more creative, more self-confident in uncertain contexts, and so on. But there is more…

· A piece-wise education can be less than the sum of its parts. There is a very strong synergy among fields and subjects. An understanding of economics benefits from knowledge of math; an understanding of politics benefits from knowledge of economics; finance benefits from accounting; marketing benefits from psychology and anthropology; and so on. But this can work in reverse too: piece-wise learning might generate misunderstanding of related fields and a tendency to generalize from a very narrow knowledge base. As the saying goes, to a small child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Do we want medical doctors who know everything about pharmacology and nothing of surgery? Do we want pilots who know avionics but not aerodynamics? Do we want bankers who know all about financial engineering but not about ethics? Solutions to problems come from what you know. To the piece-wise educated, solutions to problems can seem deceptively simple. The danger is that those same people will make decisions on which our lives depend.

· You don’t know what you don’t know. A great education should cast daylight sufficiently far to instill respect for the sheer immensity of knowledge and of the pell-mell pace with which it is expanding. With piece-wise learning, you will see as far as your personal horizon, with no ken of what lies beyond. What the world needs is leaders who have a vision that spans great distances, who have the wisdom to call for help because they have an inkling that they don’t know it all, and who have the capability to talk with experts in a probing and critical way. (See my earlier post, “Why do we need academic degrees?)

· You must own it; they won’t. The bland assurances of any provider—be it a college, non-profit university, a for-profit, or free online service—won’t protect you against getting a piece-wise education. You must want the systematic breadth and depth in order to get it. The failure of some schools to provide a more systematic education is saddening and inconsistent with their mission to society. Some schools under-invest in advising, tutoring, mentoring, and career counseling. In those settings, you’re faced with a choice: chart your own systematic breadth and depth, or risk piece-wise confusion, frustration, and ultimate exit. The 64% dropout rate at for-profit universities is quite high and dwarfed only by the 90% dropout rate for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

· Too much dessert and not enough broccoli. Students who simply follow their appetites will eventually find some educational candy: courses that may gratify an immediate interest but don’t really build one’s capabilities. Like a healthy diet, a great education consists of a balance of intellectual nutrition. Piece-wise learning can stoke the kind of consumerism that we see at the local food mall, producing the educational equivalent of obesity, hypertension, and bad teeth. Eat your vegetables. They are good for you. Trust me.

Or, trust Johnny Cash. His song, “One Piece At A Time,” tells the story of a worker on a Cadillac assembly line who yearns to own one of those cars. So, he swipes parts over the course of 20 years, to the point where he is able to put together his own Caddy. Because the models kept changing year-to-year, the resulting car was a mish-mash:

Now, up to now my plan went all right
‘Til we tried to put it all together one night
And that’s when we noticed that something was definitely wrong….

The back end looked kinda funny too
But we put it together and when we got thru
Well, that’s when we noticed that we only had one tail-fin

About that time my wife walked out
And I could see in her eyes that she had her doubts
But she opened the door and said "Honey, take me for a spin."
So we drove up town just to get the tags
And I headed her right on down main drag
I could hear everybody laughin’ for blocks around

Johnny Cash’s song is a cautionary tale for piece-wise learners. It reminds us why structure matters: it promotes breadth, depth, and consistency of the pieces of learning that will form a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Let me be clear that there may be a role for piece-wise learning for almost everyone. It could be that you want to fill a gap in your understanding that remains from a formal degree program. Or maybe the world has changed since you got your degree and you need a “tune up” in your knowledge to stay relevant. Or you got a promotion that takes you out of your comfort zone and you need some targeted learning to prepare you for the next level. For instance, non-degree executive education programs are enormously valuable in filling such needs. But my point is that piece-wise learning is a complement, not a substitute, for a broad and deep systematic program of study.

My advice to students anywhere is to consider the great importance of systematic learning. Think critically about the system of study offered at any particular school. Commit yourselves to as rigorous a course of studies as you can stand; ask for thoughtful and wise advice about selecting courses; aim for breadth and depth; and eat your vegetables. When in doubt, listen to Johnny Cash’s song.