Education, 1972

Missed this a few weeks back, but at Inside Higher Ed author Ry Rivand covered a summit hosted by Harvard and MIT entitled Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.  While the proceedings were not quotable to the press, Rivand and other journalists had full access to presenters, professors and other dignitaries invited to discuss this future.

My focus as a researcher is on how massive learning technologies affect instruction and the instructor; contemporary learning theory puts a great deal of importance on creating a learning environment (that could turn into a community), experiencing learning through authentic hands-on projects, and contextualizing information.  xMOOCs, as they have been sold, herald pedagogy but present a learning system of short videos and interactive quizzes, which original MOOC visionary George Siemens labels a return to 1960s educational theory and pedagogy*.

*If you didn’t click that link, do it.  Siemens has a fantastic idea on how MOOCs could utilize gaming theory from World of Warcraft or Call of Duty in establishing grouping for projects, the sort of thing that education professor and community learning researcher Linda Polin sees as an authentic use of gamification in learning.

Anyone thinking Siemens’ quote is overly critical or cynical should view Rivand’s direct quote of Anant Agarwal, the director of MOOC provider EdX:

EdX President Anant Agarwal said there is certain learning sciences research that many faculty, including himself, had long ignored as they focused on their own disciplinary fields.  “To me, these papers should be must-reads,” he said, citing specifically a 1972 study of memory

The paper Agarwal specifically cites is a bridge paper between the psychological/educational theories of behaviorism and cognitive thinking, where researchers began moving away from an idea that we could not understand how learning or the brain worked (and therefore should only study how stimuli manifest externally, which means learning is a conditioning/training exercise) into seeing learning as observational and understanding that the brain processes and treats information in different ways based on different methods and styles (which leads to Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking works of 30 years ago).  While this specific article is not considered canonical in the field, it hits a lot of the same notes as work that pushed psychologists (whose theories led to the birth of educational theory) away from stimulus-based learning into observational and intuitive learning.

There is one big problem here, though.  Agarwal is an AI guy.  Were I to suddenly have prestige in a field many others study, and I heralded a paper from 40+ years ago as must-read, I likely would be missing some of the important things that have happened in AI over the past 40 years.  I know cinema is not the most reliable indicator of progress, but if you view HAL in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, it’s kind of a big computer.


Kubrick saw the movement of computing in the 1960s, with big mainframes and the insertion/removal of cards/components and, understanding that things often get bigger, assumed computers would be huge by 2001.  The same thing goes for Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, where characters have to enter into Mother in order to fully utilize her information.

Obviously, things are different today.  And if that’s the case in computer science and AI, wouldn’t it stand to reason that important changes have happened in educational theory, pedagogy and learning over the past 41 years?  Changes that might make a behaviorist/cognitivist approach to learning look a lot like huge mainframe computers, unwieldy and behind the times?

Agarwal is not a trained pedagogue, and the interest that professors have in improving their skills is noteworthy.  But MOOC learning is not new, regardless of scale or prestige associated with companies like EdX.  There is a great deal of literature written in the past five, 10, 20, 30 years that explores new theories on learning and science shows a learning benefit greater than behaviorist or cognitive models.  MOOC developers would be well-served to invite some of these researchers to their summits to explore how contemporary learning theory can apply to a scaled platform.  Otherwise, the learning system of the future is going to look a lot like Disneyland’s Land of Tomorrow from the 1950s.

4 thoughts on “Education, 1972

  1. Pingback: MOOCs: Where’s the Lit Review? | All MOOCs, All The Time

  2. Pingback: MOOCs: Where’s the Lit Review?moocdesign | moocdesign

  3. Adriana Vereau

    MOOCs take education a step further by facilitating learning to a wide variety of individuals. I find MOOCs as the perfect way to enrich your self in any topic of interest and will be interested in joining one in the future. Instructors and participants must have a mixture of humility and enthusiasm in order to enhance their learning experience. I feel that if a MOOC is conducted properly, it can lead to higher education learning.


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