Which Educators are Changing Higher Education?

I came across a piece from Smithsonian Magazine profiling Sebastian Thrun, the man behind the xMOOC prototype via Stanford’s Intro to AI course (the research community needs a shorthand for this) as well as Udacity.  Thrun won the Smithsonian’s American Ingenuity Award for Education based off his work in the MOOC world, and the magazine’s piece about him starts off as most smartly written puff pieces do:  a description of the location, the unique idiosynchracies of Thrun as he and the writer meet, a tangential topic that will show its relevance later…boilerplate journalism.  The article was passed along via Cathy Davidson of HASTAC, whose work I admire and appreciate, so I didn’t want to cast the article out as more meaningless hype about how the world of education is undergoing immense change and these MOOC things are going to save everyone and everything.  So I kept reading.

If you are a follower of this blog, you know my interest is on finding the theoretical underpinnings of the xMOOC movement.  If you were to look at the media narrative, the xMOOC just showed up one day and was the way to save education…that is disingenuous to learning theory, teaching pedagogy and the history of education, online/distance or otherwise.  I have had a great deal of difficulty finding theoretical ground on which the xMOOC developers stand…the discussion usually focuses on economics, global access, disruptive technology, parallels to the dot.com era, or heartwarming student anecdotes.  This article goes in a different direction, as Thrun opens up a bit on his education views.A few noteworthy quotes:

  • Thrun pays hommage to Sal Khan as a prime inspiration for Udacity.  Reading his book and finding his theory is something I can’t put off any longer.
  • “I firmly believe that learning occurs when people think and work,” Thrun says.  That is a strike against behaviorism there, which is the place most people put xMOOCs.  Perhaps there is more to Cognitive Style and the thinking of Howard Gardner here.
  • Andrew Ng, a founder of Coursera, is quoted as linking the MOOC movement to the flipped classroom.  Gary Stager published a Twitter conversation he had with others regarding the lack of academic rigor behind the model, noting the initial work on the model included no citations or theory.  Whether flipping in a K-12 place or incorporating quizzes and sandbox-type programming spaces into the video platform, the notion of lecture remains steadfastly a part of the movement.
  • Telling quote:  While some have complained that his courses are too easy because they give students an endless number of chances, he says he’s inspired by Khan’s notion that different students learn at different speeds. “In the beginning, I was the typical professor, saying you get exactly one chance,” he says. “A lot of students complained: ‘Why do you do this? Why do you deprive at the moment where I’m actually succeeding?”
    I quoted Thrun in an earlier blog where he noted he had no training in becoming a teacher, he just did it.  Here, however, he shows an important lesson of education — students are unique, and approaches as well as opportunities need to reflect that.  I imagine every important thinker in the history of education is turning in their grave at the notion that Sal Khan gets credit for considering students as agents of learning and unique from the structure, so the quote is indicative of a lack of perspective (the article does also write off a lot of the past of online and distance education in a manner that doesn’t address a knowledge of their work), but does show some growth in considering this whole theory and pedagogy thing.

Anyway, I haven’t visited Udacity’s site since they opened more than two courses, so I gave it a gander today, looking over the teaser for the Intro to Statistics course.  The site runs well, the lecture is interesting…but I still see it as a textbook come to life.  And for a lot of educators, that is a great thing…textbooks you can put the answers into, that might even change the page based on how you are answering, and that respond and go from there…textbooks that make jokes, read to you, and give you time to pause and go back.  But there is a serious movement in education that looks at the textbook as a hinderance to honest, interactive education, limiting information and interaction with it, moving only a notch or two along Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Much like Khan looks at education as a system that needs updating from a Prussian model of age-based cohorts, perhaps we should look at textbooks as something that need updating rather than modernizing.  

That being said, the resource opportunity of the course was impressive.  I have taken two doctoral-level statistics courses over the last two years, remembering much less than I should have, and these videos worked as good primers to help me get back into that mindset.  So as a resource to buffer existing ed, or to work with educators and individuals to help a student chart a learning path, I see great promise.  The research needs to play out on whether or not this can truly assist learning on its own.

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