Information vs. knowledge and degrees without substance.


Recently I got into an online pissing match with a PhD candidate from one of those pay-for-a-degree for profit online schools.

One thing I noticed was that while he did have the general idea of how to get involved in a scientific argument, his actual understanding of the process was only superficial. More so, the entire crux of his argument revolved around the minutiae of style without any level of substance.

In part of the argument, I attempted to school him on things that were taught to me by my own PhD promoter.

I later came to find out more about this “for profit” institution, which is fully accredited, to discover they don’t assign somebody to teach or mentor their students directly, they give a list of projects to do, and upon doing them, hold that as equal to all of the education that is received in a traditional institution. I even heard that they can do their dissertation defense via Skype. Which makes me wonder how that can be considered a “public defense”?

These schools also seem to provide an email advisor that students can ask questions of. But I challenge the logic of this. My advisor was a subject matter expert in the field that was directly related to what I was studying. She was not just “some expert” with a PhD and Habilitation. I also had a second, unofficial mentor for my process, who taught and guided me easily as much as my official advisor, who was always a major influence and readily at hand.

Now, according to multiple psychological tests, including formal ones assessing my Myers-Briggs personality traits, I am reliable classified as an ENFJ. I am not a big fan of psychology, but I have to say, the accuracy of the Myers-Briggs classification pretty much describes me to a T. I do hold it as valid in my case, because I was given the test before I even heard of what it was or aware of what the different results meant.

It is still uncannily accurate.

So in my view, and I profess, the benefits, especially the informal benefits of a traditional teacher/student relationship is superior to any online, distance learning, or other described “modern” teaching style.

In fact, about the only real benefit I see to the distance education is convenience for students, who do not have to commit time or valuable time needed for other endeavors, to actually gain knowledge. There is tremendous benefit for those offer to “teach these courses”. It requires none of the effort of traditional teaching, goes through the motions, and it’s easy money. In most educational facilities, student/teacher ratios from kindergarten through postgraduate education have long been measured and associated with quality. But an online teacher (at any level) could have hundreds even thousands of students. At least a disproportionate number to the level they are teaching. For example, I have only ever heard of a professor having as many as 4 PhD students at a time, and even that is rare it seems. It is usually 1 or 2.

Distance education also shifts the onus of achievement from the teacher to the student. Said another way, it is not my duty as a teacher to help the student succeed; it is the duty of the student to complete my demands.

Anyone should be able to see where this idea is critically flawed. It means the student is judged based on the outcome of their efforts, which seems reasonable, until one realizes that they may have come to that endgame in a completely flawed fashion or even worse…By accident.

That means that they are in fact not expert, even though they went through the same superficial motions of other experts. That makes the system more important than the underlying purpose for having the system. That is a dangerous precedent to set. Illusionary expertise.

The other major issue that plagues distance learning and seemingly Western Education in general, is the misunderstanding of the difference between information and education. While I could give a host of examples in Medicine, including Dr. Google, (Don’t get me wrong the internet can be a powerful tool for doctors, but that assumes they can already have the knowledge to filter good material from bad material), I would like to use a more common analogy.


I learned to cook during my time on the fire department. I would describe it as an apprenticeship in cooking. I started being able to wash the dishes and watch. Then I was permitted to help shop for ingredients. Eventually I was actually allowed to help prepare the food, and finally, I was permitted to do all the steps on my own, including prepare the total meal. It was actually a very valuable skill, because it helped me impress the lady who agreed to marry me.

Now compare this process to me finding a receipt on the internet. Making a list of all the ingredients, going out and buying ones that I thought were quality, but never having learned what makes a quality ingredient, and purchasing them based solely on the price. I could make the mistake of believing the higher the price, the better the quality. While that seems logical, market pricing is much more complicated than that. I won’t bore you with the details here, but suffice to say the highest price is not always the highest quality.

I could also make the opposite mistake, and believe there is no difference in quality, at which point I may buy the cheapest ingredients, which may end up being the absolutely worst quality.

If you start with low quality parts, whether you are cooking dinner, building a car, or getting a degree, you can never come out in the end with a high quality product. Your not yet ripe fruit is not going to suddenly have more flavor just because you stirred it longer. Your low quality cut of meat is not going to suddenly become more tender. No matter how hard one tries it would be crazy to think they could take a piece of flank steak and turn it into filet mignon.

In the end, my ability to follow instructions and prepare a meal with no knowledge from information I got off the internet is not likely to be very impressive. Particularly to people who I never met, who would tell me I made a valiant effort, and while responses may be polite, they are ultimately superficial and the ladies I tried to impress with my culinary skill may ultimately decide among themselves the value of my partnership is not in my cooking. In other words, I have been judged as definitively non-expert.

Now I might get away with this if said ladies also don’t know how to cook themselves, but that is a big gamble in a society that not only still teaches stereotypical gender roles to children, but also puts high value on female capability and independence.

In other words, information alone does not convey on me skill or knowledge.

That is a big problem, and I would say in fact danger of the information age. For the first time in history, all of the knowledge of mankind is at our finger tips. The library of Alexandria, while impressive in its day, and still, does not compare to the power of the internet.

At the touch of a button I can get a recipe for anything; from cooking food to the requirements to become a doctor. I can look up any aspect of any of that…That I know about or can figure out on my own…

But I can also make mistakes in my logic or process which is why I need a guide. After all, the purpose of education is to learn from the success and mistakes of others, not for each individual to try and reproduce from nothing all of the knowledge in a given area.

That is what distance education is about: Making money by utilizing information, to emulate the process of actual education. Each student is starting from scratch and trying to find their own way.

Opponents of my views may attempt to argue that I am simply arguing academic elitism. But is that bad? Many hospitals will not hire nurses who went through online nursing programs, probably for a good reason. Many universities will not even consider the application of a teacher with an online degree. Perhaps for the exact reasons I outlined here… The illusion of expertise than may have been arrived by simple imitation or accident.

The reason we have formal degrees, is to establish the expertise of an individual relative to other experts, not relative to non-experts. A doctor is a medical expert because they have gone through the process of learning the minimum other doctors learn, not because they know more about medicine than a non-healthcare provider. That process is devised to impart knowledge, not just steps to be completed. The same with Lawyers, and even chefs.

Let’s face it, because of the modern testing and test prep industry, just about anyone could pass a licensing exam in anything. So why don’t we let anyone who can pass the bar exam be considered a lawyer? Why don’t we let anyone who can pass the US Medical licensing exam be a doctor? Why do we have to prove where we went to school and that we passed each individual component of basic knowledge with a transcript when we passed the test at the end?

Because we know that knowledge is not measured by simply being able to complete a step in the process. We know that teaching to the test is a completely meritless philosophy.

Earning a PhD is not just a matter of writing a dissertation and asking if anyone has any questions. There is more to it than learning how to write a paper and properly cite sources. I learned easily a greater volume of medicine during my PhD studies than I did in medical school. There were no test prep materials to guide me. There were no topic reviews so I didn’t have to read tomes of information. Before any “defense” my credentials and dissertation was sent to experts who had weeks to dissect my paper as well as the process I took. There were subject matter tests. I had to publish multiple papers even before my dissertation, which were reviewed by experts. My mentors taught me not only what to do, but what specifically not to do. They taught me how to avoid and spot common mistakes, not only in form, but in substance. They taught me not only benefits, but also limitations. But perhaps the most important lesson they taught me was to temper passion with objectivity. Even on topics I was passionate about.

That mentoring relationship and the lessons learned, cannot be replicated online. Information is easily accessible and on-hand. But Knowledge is not. No matter how technologically advanced we become, it is still human interaction that gives us knowledge. That validates our credentials. That advances mankind.

I am still going to be first in line for that plug into the brain in the move The Matrix if it is ever invented…But as we see even there…It is still human interaction that makes a difference and teaches us life’s most valuable knowledge. Going through the motions on the internet is simply never going to replicate that. We will never be able to replace knowledge with information. We will never be able to replicate substance with form.

It is the lack of knowledge that makes people believe the process can be shortcut. It is a sinister con to take money from people and convincing them by going through the motions they can attain substance. It is also a growing industry.

I am having trouble coming up with a theme-song for this post…I am torn…