What Does Learning Look Like: Reflections on MOOCs and Classrooms

Friday, October 19th, 2012

This article by Amanda Ripley titled College is Dead. Long Live College is somewhat unnerving. I have all my current assignments ready for students in a software package called Digication, for reasons too long to mention in this post. Students will upload papers to each assignment and I’ll use the software to wade through them all and assess them. I manage the day to day of calendars, directions, and certain instructional aspects of my courses using a WordPress MU install run by Sixnut (that’s the name of the college strung in the opposite of the normal spelling).

Some students get confused and look for assignments in our version of Blackboard and say, “I couldn’t find the assignment.” But that’s another story. I have students who run up against technological problems. They run their home laptops off of current because their batteries are killed and so if the cat knocks the cord out the device goes blank. Or their printers color cartridges are down to dust so their drafts won’t print (who was the genius who decided that a black cartridge wasn’t ink enough to print a black and white essay?). And the price tonnage of ink prohibits just running to the store for more. I have a student who couldn’t participate in peer review sessions because he fell, broke his arm, and smashed his computer as his backpack took a good portion of the impact. Or so he says, though the sling he wears is some sort of proof. Many of my students don’t know how to solve common issues with their latest pricey equipment, which is typically far more advanced than mine. I sat with a student the other day, showing her/him how to actually close out running software on the latest greatest Mac and to find that hitherto unfindable paper. Sometimes those desktops are a real mess.

Most of my students have everything they need to do everything but the task at hand. This technological ambience is a phenomenon of everyday experience. Therefore, the question of how to make a college course a place were mindfulness is encouraged is now an apparent issue in design. The author writes:

This fall, to glimpse the future of higher education, I visited classes in brick-and-mortar colleges and enrolled in half a dozen MOOCs. I dropped most of the latter because they were not very good. Or rather, they would have been fine in person, nestled in a 19th century hall at Princeton University, but online, they could not compete with the other distractions on my computer.

It could be argued that the digital native is always at some task. I’ve noticed in class that these tasks rarely have much to do with what I want people to focus on, though often it’s hard to tell what’s in peoples’ heads. While some students appear off in the ether during a lecture or discussion, they are indeed listening or at least prove so later in response to a question or submitted work.

Ripley spends a lot of time developing her experience with a Udacity physics course. There’s a video intro, the instructor introduces himself, and then he and the students get down to business

“This course is really designed for anyone … In Unit 1, we’re going to begin with a question that fascinated the Greeks: How big is our planet?” To answer this question, Brown had gone to the birthplace of Archimedes, a mathematician who had tried to answer the same question over 2,000 years ago.

Minute 4: Professor Brown asked me a question. “What did the Greeks know?” The video stopped, patiently waiting for me to choose one of the answers, a task that actually required some thought. This happened every three minutes or so, making it difficult for me to check my e-mail or otherwise disengage — even for a minute.

“You got it right!” The satisfaction of correctly answering these questions was surprising. (One MOOC student I met called it “gold-star methadone.”) The questions weren’t easy, either. I got many of them wrong, but I was allowed to keep trying until I got the gold-star fix.

My colleague John Timmons figured the repetition question out years ago in his online courses and approaches the question of testing in a sensible way, allowing student to relearn as they’re assessed. I’ve tried to mimic this approach in my own brick and mortar courses in a variety of ways. We’ve understood the importance of feedback and examine, in new media, how the digital can be advantageous in this regard. Trial and error, learning from mistakes, and the significance of testing guesses against experience is important for growth; games teach these lessons, as does getting lost in the mall as a child. If it was good enough for Sir Gawain, I claim, it’s good enough for me.

Studies of physics classes in particular have shown that after completing a traditional class, students can recite Newton’s laws and maybe even do some calculations, but they cannot apply the laws to problems they haven’t seen before. They’ve memorized the information, but they haven’t learned it — much to their teachers’ surprise.

The “teacher surprise” here is interesting to consider. One of the reasons for surprise may have to do with what teachers have learned to consider as the definition of success in a course, which is often times geared to the narrow focus of a particular task, such as covering Chapter 5 through 7 so what’s in Chapters 5 through 7 can be “learned.” I remember having to memorize the nerves of the hand in Anatomy class because in Anatomy class it is important to learn all the hand’s nerves. But the meaning of the hands nerves to a non-major is difficult to fathom.

The intent of a course may simply be to memorize facts and to take a few multiple choice tests. The facts that form the subject of the course may be important to recall. The question is: should this be the intention of “any” course of study, which determines the flavor of feedback a student may be intended to receive? Question 2: should people be surprised to learn that rote learning or even the application of heuristics may not constitute problem solving or the ability to diagnose. If memory serves, my history courses in undergraduate school had a lot to do with reading about historical events and having to recall them on essays. But my memory fails in the details. What I do know is that I understand history now much differently than I used to; now it’s something I depend on. I’ve forgotten the nerves of the hand, though.

I’m not generally surprised at Richard Arum’s conclusions in Academically Adrift. In my work with academic curriculum over the last several years, I’ve come to the conclusion that expected application or knowledge testing isn’t always a part of courses in huge doses. In this context, I reflect back on my high school and undergraduate experience and remember that it was in the high school band where I had the best memory of learning, seconded by graduate school. One reason is Aristotelian in process, meaning that students are expected to go from general basics to specificity over the course of an arbitrary period of time, although the “arbitrary time aspect” isn’t Aristotle’s fault.

In the band, we worked as a team; in the band, we had all sort of ways of applying what we learned; we often failed and walked away with lowered heads only to rear back upright when the competition was won; and when we sucked, the leader was never at a loss to cuss the hell out of us. I earned experience by watching that same teacher “outside” of the classroom in his devotion to discipline, art, and the machines of his trade, and to the amount of work he did to manage hundreds of students, and when he tackled the mysterious glue sniffer on the lawn prior to an afternoon marching practice, then waited for security to arrive, I saw him in a new light. I still remember him as a courageous person, personally flawed, sure, but he understood humanness and would do anything for his charges. If you didn’t practice, he always figured it out. He would apply the appropriate level of derision to your shitty of character. With the guitar, you can either play a scale or you can’t. And when you can, there’s always the opportunity to improve, and if you don’t improve, YOU need to work harder at it. In band performances, either you got clapped at or you were nailed by tomatoes. But we needed the master teacher. We knew that if trouble encroached on the field, he’d tackle it, even if it meant personal damage.

The power of the digital is its ability to be trained or designed for individual people. It’s entirely possible to construct a learning environment where aid is available from a variety of sources and time streams and where asynchrony can work to the advantage of individuals. Maybe one person will take six months to learn what another person can learn in a month. Traditional teaching environments won’t allow for this obvious problem. Thus, a student who can’t demonstrate the requisite amount of learning in fifteen weeks “fails.” (This is indeed a certain kind of failure, but I can’t think of any successful game that operates this way. Failure in life should best be seen as a stage in learning.) A student can pay up and take the failed course again. The business plan, however, won’t allow for a student to pay once and take more time to demonstrate the required learning. There are also rules of fairness and the question of the value for the amount paid. The digital provides for disruption of all this.

But institutions don’t currently work this way, though they could. And so the digital disrupts the “structure” of a modern college degree regardless of the nature of the degree. I would posit that modern, mass education will always fail people if arbitrary, exacting structures provide the definitional framework, unless it is, indeed, judged as an “exclusive” system, like military training.

What prevents change? Definitions of value and organizational imagination.

Ripley’s essay is devoted heavily toward anecdotal evidence. While I appreciate Niazi and colleagues’ experience with MOOCs, their experience is a small slice of the story continuum. However, stores about peoples’ experience with online learning is significant circumstantially and to provide context and for asking good questions about priorities, such as the theme of good teaching and the arbitrary notion of periods of learning.

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