I missed this New York Times op-ed a few months back from John Markoff, who writes about computers and technology. It’s your standard MOOC media narrative — great change afoot, the potential to fix the education crisis, and so forth. One part stuck out, though:
Udacity, along with other MOOC designers, is moving rapidly away from the video lecture model of teaching toward an approach that is highly interactive and based on frequent quizzes and human “mentors” to provide active online support for students.
As I mentioned yesterday, Udacity heralds the death of the lecture on their website, and in the same sentence promotes mini-lectures, which are the same as lectures except sliced up. A sandwich doesn’t become filet mignon when you cut it into triangles, yet a lecture turns into best practices when captured to video and divided into segments.
Markoff, who again is a technology writer (the education writers haven’t made the run to MOOCs yet), mistakes interactivity for clicking buttons in a web browser, which is akin to bubbling answers on a scantron. Also, I have heard of this “human mentor” Markoff visualizes. I believe they were once called teachers, and they were trained in theory and pedagogy and in how to provide meaningful educative practice for a student. They were also paid for it consummate to a professional.
Snark aside, I think I ought to state something at this point: I am not anti-MOOC. I am anti-lecture and anti-didactic learning, and to this point the MOOC is an exercise in lecturing, rote memorization, and glossy regurgitation via embedded quiz that is somehow more interactive than a paper and pencil. I admire a lot about MOOC developers like Thrun, Ng and Koeller. I also see a great deal to worry about if the system continues unabated.
I got into educational technology because I saw tech as an opportunity to do more than the classroom allowed. Markoff alludes to this as well, but he offers no basis for his allusion, no grounding in a traditional classroom, and his evidence is anecdotal.
***And a quick aside, this is the problem with the speed at which the MOOC has seen societal acceptance and political/organizational adoption — there is no rigorous body of research on which the MOOC stands. It’s hyperbole and spin and potential and possibility, casting traditional education as an ominous spectre and the MOOC as Caesar’s Wife, all things to all men.***
Markoff though, as mentioned, is a computer writer. And perhaps this should get more attention — the people designing the MOOC come from a background of artificial intelligence and machine learning, where distributed learning is about networking computers for a rote memorization and not about connecting individuals with unique experiences to create knowledge and synthesize content in a useful artifact. Their MOOC machine runs like a learning machine should…for a machine. The problem is, 100+ years of educational research says human learning happens best just about any other way. Initial research in educational technology sought to explore how technology could offer opportunity unique to the emerging field, where the technology was not just a tool of access but a programmable manipulative. The argument that progress is doing the same thing as the classroom did before but putting it online and reading data to measure learning not only nullifies the field of educational research and theory, but it marginalizes any aspect of education that is not a data-driven input or output (that secures a profit for the start-up). And as Dewey notes, that’s a whole lot.