Months ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who works for an organization with strong ties to the charter school movement. I respect him and a mutual friend of ours, and because I have a visceral problem with the charter school movement, I wonder how he and this other friend could have dedicated their lives to education yet be advocating for school choice and ravaging Diane Ravitch through social media. I told this friend I wanted to understand his POV on the charter school movement, letting him know I was at best a skeptical audience. We talked civilly the entire time and I felt like it was an eye-opening experience for the both of us, but I walked away from the conversation focused on one exchange: I expressed dismay at the continual turnover of teachers in charter organizations was not only harmful for students at the school (as The Onion illustrates here), but was aiding in the erosion of teaching as a profession. My friend’s response was simple: I do not believe teaching is a profession.
Along with the hype, there is a lot of fear in the pundrity and commentary in relation to the MOOC movement: if massified ed takes place on this global, global scale, what happens to teachers?Bonnie Stewart recently wrote about the impact an xMOOC “manifest destiny” could have on those working in places of higher education. My favorite quote: Antioch students pay less money for their undergraduate degrees thanks to Antioch licensing courses through Coursera. Coursera makes money from the deal. Happy stories, both of them. But where does the money come from? Less money does not magically convert into more money unless somewhere along the line, some part of the equation has been cut. What logically is cut is teacher salary or teaching positions, and Stewart links in the reliance of universities on adjunct professors into her argument. The university as an operating organization needs educators in front of the students, but budgets limit the number of tenure positions, meaning more non-tenure individuals bear the brunt of student assignments. In an xMOOC world, that instructor can be a Dr. Famous from Leading Institution.
While the xMOOC world has written little about their pedagogical foundation (save some buzzwords and Class2Go’s discussion of formative and summative exercises a la Sal Khan), existing evidence shows xMOOC pedagogical practices as lecture-based learning with behaviroist exercises. This might help people put content into their short-term memory, but learning theory of the past 60 years states the rote memorization of content provides the least actual learning outcome for students. This is where the message boards pop up. In a class of 500, a professor is not expected to interact with students; a handful of graduate students bear that responsibility. In a MOOC of 50K, perhaps it’s Dr. Less Famous from Not As Leading an Institution. And in that world, where tenured professors become message board glue, where do the adjuncts go (#cfhe12)?
Politically, the teacher is no longer the most important variable in a student’s journey to learning. When potential first lady Ann Romney targets teacher unions in Good Housekeeping magazine, the policy landscape is pretty evident: teachers are personae non grata in public discourse. Despite plenty of research not only about the importance of teachers, what makes a great teacher, and the relationship between student outcomes and class size, policy efforts are geared toward privatizing public education and massifying higher education. The theory behind such efforts is buried underneath economic discussion and media hyperbole. Again, Big Data cannot be the answer if we lack the theoretical foundation to ask the question.
There is a fascinating article in Technology Review about efforts by Nicholas Negraponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) efforts to get laptops to children who lack access to education resources. Without any teachers, these kids were given tablets and software, and initial results showed gains in literacy, despite the absence of any teacher. The article gets into the creative things students did with these computers (and if you read between the lines, you can see that such creativity happened despite the software), creativity heralded as the best sort of learning inquiry by OLPC. Negraponte warns not to read too much into this early inquiry, as research would need to be structured and tested in a manner to provide verifiable results, but his group is excited: Can we give (these kids) tool to read and learn—without having to provide schools and teachers and textbooks and all that?”
While I see that article and immediately think about the role of teachers, it is easy to get caught up in the talk without any analysis. And the analysis that needs to happen, not just here but in all of these discussions of education and technology and futures, is this: what is learning? What are we after? And if we can’t distinguish learning from the measures we put in place, how do we create more accurate measures for that nebulous thing we are looking for? If learning remains about economics, efforts to create a better price-to-content ratio will continue to grow, the MOOC will stay squarely with capital measures, and my friend’s belief about teachers not being professionals will be true in the future. If we have a conversation where we bring access, outcomes and economics to the mix, keeping in mind learning theory and pedagogical implementation, our conversation will be very different and likely more representative.